Gorbachev Takes His Hits

So much for communist decorum. Party leaders assembled in Moscow tittered loudly last week when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev claimed triumphs in the production of consumer goods. Hoots from a hall filled with 4,700 delegates interrupted Politburo ideology chief Vadim Medvedev when he praised "deepening democratization." Deputy Prime Minister Leonid Abalkin, architect of the government's discredited economic policy, could barely be heard above rhythmic clapping when he told the meeting that the only option was to accept a market system. Among the delegates, anger and bitterness were rife. Even low-level functionaries spewed scorn for the bosses.

The rudeness could never have occurred without glasnost. But it stems from the most elemental form of conservatism--fear that Gorbachev's policies threaten the party bureaucracy's grip on power and privilege. Officials concede that 137,000 of the party's 19 million members quit last year and that far more will follow this year. Members of the liberal Democratic Platform, which fielded only 3 percent of the delegates but claims as much as 40 percent support among party members, may bolt the party. Zhanneta Pashnova, party ideology chief in the Ukrainian mining city of Donetsk, said she fears losing the intellectually powerful faction "will be the death of the party."

That would suit many ordinary Soviets. The Communist Party's 28th Congress clearly enjoyed little more popular support than its first, convened in Minsk by a handful of socialist revolutionaries in 1898. One poll found that 85 percent of the Soviet people believe the party merely promotes the interest of its own apparatchiks. "People are tired of hearing all these speeches," said Igor Belyayev, an independent member of the Moscow City Council. A speaker at one Moscow demonstration shouted, "Down with the bandits who captured power in 1917." Russian Supreme Soviet Chairman Boris Yeltsin, who skipped many of the sessions, warned party bureaucrats that they will surely be driven from power unless they accept radical reforms. "Look at the communist parties of Eastern Europe," he said.

While losing popular support, the party has fiercely resisted giving up its vast property holdings or levers of control. The armed forces, the KGB and the police still report to the party leadership. Gorbachev recently demoted a KGB major-general who complained in public about politics. And he refused reformers' calls for the elimination of communist cells within the KGB and military. "We'll never give up our party organizations in the armed forces," Interior Ministry troop commander Yuri Shatalin told NEWSWEEK. Asked about polls showing that younger officers favor removing politics from the armed forces, he gestured around the crowded lobby of the Kremlin's Palace of Congresses, remarking: "That's not what we believe here."

Cleaning house: Some in the party's lower ranks, though, were intent on voting out their elders. Gorbachev announced that four Politburo members would not see reappointment, and the housecleaning is not likely to stop there. "We just don't trust those guys," said a grim-faced delegate. Some Politburo members were prepared to quit the party leadership. "What's the point of holding two jobs at the same time?" said KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, who also sits on Gorbachev's new Presidential Council.

The congress was also likely to change the proposed party rules and platform. But there was no prospect that the delegates would propose any remedy for the country's economic ills beyond Gorbachev's limited reforms, let alone take the advice of radicals like Yeltsin. For lack of better ideas, the party's hard core appeared likely to press ahead with perestroika, yielding as little as possible to their more reform-minded comrades or to growing popular discontent. Gorbachev won only perfunctory applause for a stultifying address that vaguely promised more perestroika. He suggested that "this leadership" would resign in two years if the reforms make no headway, but it wasn't clear whether he was referring to himself or to other leaders. For now, his position as party chief seemed safe. Speaker after speaker reviled the excesses of glasnost and perestroika, then offered grudging support for their leader. "Many functionaries blame Gorbachev for their troubles," said party Central Committee member Georgi Arbatov. "But they realize that without him, the whole ruling party will lose its respect and authority."