THE roomful of miners was handpicked, but Mikhail Gorbachev was still forced more than once to answer a question that militant striking miners have turned into a demand: Will the president resign? "Whatever tramping of feet and sneering, whatever slogans, whatever jeering from the squares, it won't knock me off the rails," he angrily vowed in last week's encounter.
Tough words aside, discussion of President Gorbachev's fall from power has moved from political parlors to the halls of parliaments and public squares. It was on the lips of tens of thousands of Minsk factory workers who filled the central square last Thursday. The miners in the coal pits have disdained offers of money until Gorbachev is gone.
The possibility of Mr. Gorbachev's departure gained the most currency when his arch rival, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, scored a stunning political victory at the close of the emergency session of the highest Russian legislature Friday. After more than a week of deadlock in the battle between Mr. Yeltsin and his democratic allies and their foes in the Russian Communist Party, the silver-haired politician won a strong endorsement of his plans to create a Russian presidency. He was even granted interim expanded "extraordinary powers" as head of the Russian parliament.
If all goes as planned, an open, direct election will be held on June 12 and Yeltsin will emerge as the first leader in the history of Russia to be selected by his own people. It is a claim that Gorbachev, who chose the safe route of indirect election by a largely controlled parliament, cannot make. That contrast alone makes Gorbachev's position eminently precarious.
The president's vulnerability is reflected in increasing calls for his resignation from those within the ranks of the Communist Party - not only from its most conservative elements - who want to distance themselves from a losing cause. At the Russian Congress, moderate Communist Vladimir Isakov, head of one of the two houses of the Russian parliament, spoke on behalf of the anti-Yeltsin forces. Surprisingly, he not only attacked Yeltsin but suggested as well that "maybe Mikhail Sergeiyevich [Gorbachev] should really think about passing the wheel into other hands."
Indeed some on the democratic left who have led the anti-Gorbachev drive are backing off those calls out of concern that the Communists may simply cast Gorbachev aside in favor of another Communist figure.
"We categorically reject the attempts to oust President Gorbachev from his post without changing the current structure of power," read a joint statement issued Friday by the leftist Social Democratic and Republic parties together with a newly formed "Communists for Democracy" group. They called for immediate negotiations and consultations to form a "coalition interrepublican government."
Yeltsin also took a more conciliatory stance following his triumph at the Congress, which ended Friday. "The president and the Soviet leadership must know that no differences can be an obstacle for businesslike cooperation between the Union and the Russian leadership," he told reporters on Friday.
But Yeltsin also began to set his terms. "The basis for this cooperation must be resolute movement toward a normal market economy and the strengthening of Russian sovereignty." Those are the same conditions that Gorbachev rejected last fall, when he dumped a program for radical economic reform that had been jointly drawn up with Yeltsin.
Gorbachev may again reject such offers, particularly because they include a massive shift of power from the central government to the governments of the republics. But last week's spontaneous strike in normally placid Minsk should serve as a warning that the Soviet government may face a wave of mass strikes of unprecedented proportions.
The source of Gorbachev's difficulties is not hard to discern. Despite his manifest leadership in dismantling the totalitarian state, faltering economic reforms have only worsened conditions. He has compounded his problem by introducing a harsh economic austerity program, including large price increases on most goods. In any country, only a very popular government could hope to carry out such a program and survive.
But the virtual absence of trust in Gorbachev's government has been vividly demonstrated by the striking miners. They have rejected offers of wage and pension increases. After two years of broken promises, they say, they don't believe anything this government says. Only a new government will win their agreement to stop striking, strike leaders say.
"Everybody understands, whether they like it or not, that today Boris Yeltsin is the only man in the USSR whom the miners would trust," a commentary in the liberal daily Komsomolskaya Pravda said on Saturday.
But Yeltsin will not tell the miners to stop if he does not have the power to solve their problems. He told the press on Friday that he had agreed with the miners to set up a joint commission with all republican governments to look into their demands.
Ironically, the conservative ranks of the Communist Party may have read the labor unrest far sooner than the Kremlin, which seems so removed from down-to-earth reality these days. Some observers believe that behind Yeltsin's triumph at the end of the Congress lies a reconciliation with the Russian Communist Party, the most conservative element of the Soviet party.
The Communists had initially called the emergency meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies in hopes of ousting Yeltsin. But after days of deadlock, on April 2, Russian Communist leader Ivan Polozkov declared that "the situation in Russia is bad. And it is our duty to stop the decline in all spheres of life." That is why, he continued, now is not time time "to change the leadership."
News of Mr. Polozkov's public surrender rippled immediately through the party ranks. Shortly afterward, the Communists for Democracy, a liberal faction, declared its formation.
By Thursday, when Yeltsin surprised the hall by asking for interim powers until a presidency is created, a significant chunk of votes had slipped over to Yeltsin's column.
"The people have won," liberal Soviet parliament member Galina Starovoitova told the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "It means the possibility of peaceful transfer of power, of peaceful revolution, is looming ahead."