WHILE a thin coating of snow blankets Moscow, a hot, dry sun should shine over sand-swept Turkmenia for weeks to come.The difference in the political climate between Moscow and Turkmenia is almost as great. In Russia, the Communist Party has disintegrated and radical reforms are about to be implemented. Meanwhile, the party remains in firm control in Turkmenia, which enjoys a reputation as the most conservative of the 12 remaining Soviet republics. Turkmenia, which borders on Iran, has become the latest republic to declare independence, a move supported by 94 percent of the region's 3.6 million people polled in a weekend referendum. The decision distanced Turkmenia further from Russia, which along with Kazakhstan, is the only republic not to have taken such action. "Declaring independence is now the best way we can defend Turkmenia's economic interests," says Alexander Dodonov, the second secretary of the republic's Communist Party. To visitors it first appears Turkmenia has few interests to protect. The republic is mostly desert, and sand dunes begin to undulate just a few miles north of Ashkhabad, the capital. Herds of camels, cows, and sheep crowd roads on the city's outskirts. Turkmenia's industry is as antiquated as the old communist slogans that still adorn factory facades. A sign bearing the old Lenin maxim, "Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country," still sits atop the power plant in Bezmein, near Ashkhabad. Such sayings disappeared decades ago in most parts of the Soviet Union. Yet despite the impoverished economy, most citizens are satisfied with the way things are going. In a referendum, about 93 percent approved of the political course of President Saparmurad Niyazov, who also heads the Communist Party. "In one way we are poor, but from what I can see, we live better than people in Moscow," says Sofia Kazankova, a nurse who has lived in the republic since 1949. "At least we have products in the stores and it's calm here. There is no ethnic tension." The continued dominance of the Communist Party in republican politics has helped maintain the old supply system and social harmony. Stores in Turkmenia are far better supplied than those in other republics. The Turkmen party is the only Communist Party organization in the 12 former Soviet republics still in existence. The others have either renamed or dissolved themselves. The Party and the accompanying political conservatism have survived in Turkmenia because of the progressive outlook of President Niyazov and other Communist leaders, according to Mr. Dodonov. "The Turkmen Communist Party started reforming itself years before other republican parties," says Dodonov, a burly, gray-haired man whose conversational tone exudes confidence. The party shifted its power base to the republic's parliament in 1986, the first full year of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika, he adds. These days the party is virtually synonymous with the parliament, whose membership is about 80 percent Communist. Further reforms, including a possible name change, will come during a party congress planned for late November, says Dodonov, adding Niyazov will give up his post as party leader to concentrate on his presidential duties. However, one thing lacking in the republic is political pluralism. No opposition parties are registered, and leaders of the fledgling and unofficial Democratic Party of Turkmenia say they were forced to hold an organizational meeting in Moscow because they couldn't obtain permission to hold it in Ashkhabad. Dodonov says political liberalization will follow the independence declaration. But Democratic Party leaders say the Communists seek to solidify their hold on power through independence, which could insulate the republic from the political trends sweeping the rest of the nation. Another Party priority will be economic development, Dodonov says. Turkmenia is rich in raw materials including oil, gas, and cotton, and is negotiating development deals worth $800 million with Italian companies. "The republic has a rich economic potential," Dodonov says. "The goal is to produce finished products, not just supply the raw materials." Many feel the party is in the best position to execute reforms. "The party has shown it's flexible," says Meret Seitmukham-edov, a construction engineer and rank-and-file Communist. "And there has to be a political line to guide the development of society."