THE central axis of political conflict in the Soviet Union has moved from the Baltic republics to Moscow. The future of Soviet politics will rest on the outcome of the struggle for power between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. The crackling tension between the two most powerful figures in Soviet politics has risen to a high pitch. The hopes that they might unite in a pragmatic center-left alliance to advance radical reform has faded, virtually without trace.
Mr. Gorbachev, the Soviet president, has firmly placed himself in the ranks of those who assert that only strong central rule can keep the Soviet Union intact, even when it means the use of force. Mr. Yeltsin, the Russian president, has chosen to champion an alliance of nationalist governments among the Soviet republics as a means of preserving some union and as a virtual alternative power structure.
Both men are positioning themselves for the next clash, within days, when the Federation Council meets to discuss the Baltic events. It is not clear who holds the balance of power among the 14 other republican leaders who make up the Council. Nor does anyone know whether the Council, which Gorbachev promised would have enhanced powers, can emerge as a powerful institutional counterbalance to the Soviet president.
``The political confrontation has reached a critical stage,'' Anatoly Karpuchev wrote Wednesday in an anti-Yeltsin commentary in the Communist Party daily Pravda. Yeltsin's backers ``want the Federation Council to take power in the union and Boris Yeltsin will play a major role in t.''
Gorbachev made his feelings clear on Tuesday night when he appeared before the Soviet and foreign press in an attempt to persuade the world that there was no change in the direction of his policies. At first, he spoke in seemingly conciliatory terms about the need to prevent ``an escalation of antagonism'' in the Baltics and to ``secure civil accord and cooperation.''
But moments later the Soviet leader directed angry words at Yeltsin, though not by name, for his actions in support of the Baltic republics and for his call on Russian soldiers not to turn their arms against democratically elected governments. ``Such irresponsible statements are fraught with serious dangers, especially when they come from the Russian leadership,'' he said.
Yeltsin, speaking the previous day to the Russian Republic's parliament, which he heads, had warned that the Baltic events are only one manifestation of a ``reactionary changeover.'' But ``if the republics find a common and agreed political line, they will be able to thwart such attempts.''
The Yeltsin strategy, which he has been pursuing for months, rests on ignoring the central government as much as possible and creating a network of horizontal ties between republics. Economic pacts have now been signed with most republics and key political treaties with the Baltic republics of Estonia and Latvia. A final agreement with Lithuania is being negotiated. Instead of a union treaty imposed from the Kremlin, Yeltsin proposes to conclude an agreement first among the three Slavic republics (Russia, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine), along with heavily Russian-populated Kazakhstan. Later, republics such as Uzbekistan, the largest in Central Asia, could join in.
``Of course, it leads to the weakening of the center,'' political scientist Andranik Migranyan commented in a major article published on Wednesday in the liberal daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. ``But from both moral and rational points of view, it's preferable to the restoration of control through force.''
For Yeltsin, supporting the Baltics is a matter of personal political survival, argues Mr. Migranyan, because ``the next target is the Russian leadership and he himself.'' Indeed, Yeltsin is the target of a well-orchestrated and growing propaganda campaign in the conservative Communist press and on central television. A letter campaign, a classic tactic, has opened up in the pages of the party-controlled press.
``We are shocked by your political cynicism, Boris Nikolaievich,'' wrote a group of mostly Russian historians from Moldavia in Sovietskaya Rossiya on Jan 18. ``Your support of totalitarian chauvinist regimes in the Baltic republics is an act of treachery against Russians, Poles, Byelorussians, and other national minorities of this and other regions.''
Although Yeltsin can still draw on a deep well of personal popularity, he is far from immune to such assaults, particularly appeals to Russian nationalism. Within the Russian parliament, the Communist bloc has sufficient strength to make Yeltsin move cautiously on pushing through a resolution backing his Baltic policy. A group of Communist deputies is offering its own resolution, censuring Yeltsin for committing ``a number of unlawful and hasty actions and exceeding his powers,'' specifically citing the treaties with Estonia and Latvia.
Moreover, Russian efforts to introduce a more radical economic reform policy on their own, or even in collaboration with the other republics, has been largely without result. ``The move toward growing independence and sovereignty is not based on reality,'' says Rair Simonyan, an economist with the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. ``They have neither the specialists, the channels, nor the means to put any independent policy into effect.''
That has been graphically demonstrated by the reaction to the shock monetary reform announced on Tuesday night by the Soviet government, pulling all 50 and 100 ruble notes out of circulation. Although the reform is supposedly aimed at controlling inflation during a transition to a market economy, economists such as Mr. Simonyan assail it for its ``confiscatory character.'' In effect, it freezes the accounts of households and enterprises, hitting particularly hard at people on low, fixed incomes.
But despite the manifestly unpopular nature of the move, not to mention its dubious economic effectiveness, the Russian government on Wednesday backed it. Russian Premier Ivan Silayev announced only that it would prolong the three-day period for turning in old money and would increase the amount of old notes that pensioners can exchange.