MIKHAIL GORBACHEV has returned to address a seemingly forgotten constituency - the Soviet people. After more than a year filled with foreign visits and diplomacy, economic collapse and rising political tension, the Soviet leader made his first official trip within the country, to the republic of Byelorussia. The televised scenes from tractor factories in Minsk or radiation-poisoned towns near the Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine were familiar ones from the past - Mr. Gorbachev mixing it up with ordinary people, fielding their complaints, sometimes with a joke, but at times with irritation.
But Gorbachev has studiously avoided such politicking for 13 months, a period during which his popularity has dropped to near rock-bottom levels. What brought the Soviet president back to the campaign trail?
The immediate aim of Gorbachev's efforts is to gain a clear positive vote in a March 17 referendum. The referendum asks voters to say yes or no to a vaguely worded question about whether they think it is necessary to preserve the Soviet Union as a ``renovated federation.''
Gorbachev seeks mandate
Yet Gorbachev left little doubt that he sees this as a vote on his own rule, one that he hopes will give him a renewed mandate for power. ``This referendum is a decisive one,'' he told the workers.
Many Soviets are asking, however, what Gorbachev intends to do with such a mandate. Would this be a vote for change or a blank check for a shift toward more authoritarian rule, for new crackdowns on nationalist-led republican governments of the type seen in the Baltics in January?
At times during this three-day campaign swing, Gorbachev has offered solace to those who see him still as the only effective leader able to bring democratic and market reforms to the Soviet Union. But the overriding theme of this visit has been a conservative one, a rousing call to keep the Soviet Union intact, to maintain stability, and to adopt a version of economic reform that remains totally within the framework of Soviet communism.
Byelorussia was chosen as the site to deliver this conservative message because, as the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda put it, ``of all the republics it is the closest to the center.'' Seven republics have refused to hold the March 17 vote. Others, including the Ukraine and Russia, have added questions designed to weaken the endorsement of the center's view.
In his two major speeches in Byelorussia, the Soviet leader has sharply drawn a line for the first time between himself and the radical democrats, particularly Russian leader Boris Yeltsin and his backers. The democrats, once the allies of perestroika (restructuring), are now described as its opponents, even as the agents of chaos and civil war.
When it comes to Mr. Yeltsin, ``what is at issue is two political lines and associated strategic goals,'' not a personality clash, Gorbachev said at the Lenin Tractor Factory on Tuesday.
The factory speech was the most reformist, referring to the necessity to ``move faster to the market,'' to conclude a new union treaty that would redistribute powers to the republics from the center, and to have democracy ``based upon the law.'' But even this was tempered by cautionary conditions.
A renewed federation does not mean division, Gorbachev said.
``Partition will cause an escalation of confrontation which will lead to great clashes,'' he said, warning those who seek independence from the union.
Political struggle through elections is acceptable, Gorbachev said, but not ``anticonstitutional activity,'' a phrase used repeatedly by the Kremlin to describe the actions of the nationalist governments in the Baltic republics.
The move to the market must be made in accordance with Soviet conditions, not based on foreign models, Gorbachev told the workers. ``If somebody thinks that the market will solve all our problems, it is a blunder.''
Leader offers harsh vision
Later that day, speaking before what was described as Byelorussian scientists and intellectuals, the Soviet leader offered his most conservative vision to date, accompanied by a harsh assault on his democratic opponents.
Though acknowledging the deterioration of life lately, Gorbachev seeks to shift blame for these troubles onto the shoulders of the democrats and the nationalist forces in the republics.
``Over the past 12 to 18 months, our efforts have been largely blocked by the most intense struggle for power,'' Gorbachev said. The struggle by his opponents goes beyond the bounds of law. ``All this threatens to push us off the road of reforms onto the path of confrontation, right up to a civil war.''
Gorbachev accused democrats such as Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov by name of seeking to disrupt the March 17 referendum, referring indirectly to the decision by the Democratic Russia faction in the Russian parliament to urge a ``no'' vote.
``There is no need to wonder that these `democrats' enter a political alliance with separatists and nationalist groups,'' he said angrily. ``They have one aim in common: to weaken and, if possible, to dismantle the union.''
The president also had some words of warning for those in the West who have been critical of the crackdown in the Baltics and of the shift in Soviet internal policies. ``There have been attempts to act as a teacher, to look down upon us. This is unacceptable.''
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this speech was that Gorbachev spoke more in his capacity as Communist Party general secretary than as president. The democrats should not be called ``leftists,'' he said at one point. Rather they should be seen from the classical communist viewpoint as rightists, since they ``reject the socialist idea and favor the capitalization of society.'' As for himself, ``I will go to the other world as a communist,'' he vowed defiantly.
Gorbachev's loyalty cited
``Mikhail Sergeyevich confirmed his loyalty to the socialist choice,'' commented Komsomolskaya Pravda. ``Many people, especially the older generation for whom [communist] ideology replaced religion, will be satisfied. But today it is difficult to persuade the people to calm down by promising them a better life in the next century with the socialist idea.''
Even in this relatively safe area, Gorbachev was confronted with the reality that the Soviet population is more concerned about sausages than socialism.
At one point during his factory tour, Gorbachev was engaged by a group of workers. Only one thing was on their minds - the several-fold price rises that the government plans to introduce shortly. Would the government compensate them, the workers demanded to know. Gorbachev, under pressure, said they would be compensated ``100 percent,'' a promise that his own prime minister explicitly refused to make in front of the parliament recently.
Economic reality remains the essential weakness of Gorbachev's strategy. He may be able to win the March 17 vote, he may weaken or even remove Yeltsin and his other rivals, but he has not yet been able to turn the economy around. Gorbachev's increasing reliance on the Communist Party for his political base clearly rules out any attempt to solve the economic collapse through a radical shift to market relations. But the past months have so far provided evidence that the attempt to use a curtailed market t o revitalize a state-run economy is also a failure.