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Communist Party gathering: a turning point for the Soviet Union

This year's Communist Party Congress is likely to be a turning point for the Soviet Union. The 27th Congress, which opens next week, will give Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev the chance to consolidate his position and to appoint more of his men to the seats of power. (There are rumors that one or more members of the ruling Politburo will be ousted following the congress.) Also, the new leader's proposed five-year plan will be up for adoption. And the party's program -- more down-to-earth than in the past -- will be approved. IT'S something like a political convention, a ``State of the Union'' address, and a back-room session around a congressional pork barrel, all rolled into one event.

It happens only once every five years, and it's one of the most important events on the Soviet political calendar. It is a congress of the CPSU (the Communist Party of the Soviet Union).

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Any such congress is a signal event on this country's political calendar. But the one starting Feb. 25 will be particularly significant because it offers an opportunity for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to strengthen his control over this country.

Although the congress is theoretically the highest authority in the party power structure, most of its actions will be carefully choreographed by the party hierarchy, and it will largely rubber-stamp decisions that have been made beforehand.

The coming congress will be the 27th in the party's history and will last approximately 10 days. When it is over:

More Gorbachev loyalists may be moved into key party posts.

New economic plans and a party program bearing his personal stamp will be approved.

Gorbachev will have delivered a major address outlining his vision of Soviet domestic and foreign policy.

The congress will, in the view of one diplomat, have major import ``in terms of who the new leadership can count on to get things done, and to help them get things done.''

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So, like many things in this country, the congress will be both more -- and less -- than meets the eye. It will, in some respects, be a rather sterile exercise in political theater. In other respects, it could be an important benchmark in Soviet political history.

During the rough-and-tumble 1920s, Communist Party congresses were dramatic affairs, filled with fiery debate and political intrigue. At the 1927 congress, for example, Leon Trotsky and his followers were expelled from the CPSU. In the ensuing years, congresses became much more sedate. Still, each one contains the seeds for surprise. Khrushchev began de-Stalinization

At the 1956 congress, then party leader Nikita Khrushchev, in a famous ``secret'' speech, denounced the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and started the process of ``de-Stalinization'' that marked a historic turning point in this country. He also declared the policy of ``peaceful coexistence'' with the West. In 1959, he pledged that the Soviet Union would ``overtake and surpass'' the United States in key fields of economic competition. And in 1961, he engineered the removal of the embalmed body of Stalin from the mausoleum in Red Square (where it had lain alongside that of Vladimir Lenin) and had it buried behind the Kremlin walls.

This congress is not expected to be nearly so dramatic. But it will be more important than most, because of an unusual combination of factors.

The most significant factor is Mr. Gorbachev's leadership of the party. In office for less than a year, he is still gathering the reins of political power into his own hands.

The congress will give him a chance to speed up the process.

The 54-year-old Gorbachev is the youngest man to come to power since Stalin. He may well be the Soviet leader for the rest of this century. Consequently, his major address at the congress (the last one, delivered by Leonid Brezhnev, ran some four hours) should provide significant insight into the thinking of a man who will be a key player on the world stage for years to come.

Moreover, the party will also adopt a new program -- similar to a United States political party platform. The process of drafting it had started well before Gorbachev came to power, but he clearly had a hand in shaping it. It is a more pragmatic document than the one it replaces, which was pushed through the CPSU Congress by Khrushchev in 1961. Gone are the pie-in-the-sky promises of a utopian Communist society just around the corner. The new program, unveiled last Oct. 16, calls for hard work and discipline, and recognizes that capitalism is far from a spent force in the contemporary world.

Every party congress approves a five-year-plan for the country's economic development. This congress will do that, and also will endorse a longer-range plan that is intended to chart the country's progress until the year 2000. Even though such plans sometimes come to nought, they do take on a ritualistic importance in the Soviet Union, and offer gauges of Soviet economic success. Congress expected to be turning point

This congress promises to be more important than most, mainly because it marks a potential turning point in Soviet politics.

To understand how the congress works, it's necessary to understand something about the Communist Party itself.

First of all, only about 9.5 percent of the adult population -- or 19 million people -- are card-carrying members of the Communist Party. And it is a rather elite group. Twenty-two percent of its membership is from the intelligentsia: One out of every two Ph.D.s, two out of every three master's degree holders, and schoolteachers, half the country's writers, and a quarter of its engineers are members.

It's a male-dominated organization. Only one-third of its members are women, and women occupy none of the key posts in the upper reaches of the party hierarchy.

The membership is grouped in over 400,000 so-called ``primary party organizations'' in factories, villages, and neighborhoods across the country. Above these are various city, district, regional, and republic-wide groupings. Real power is behind the scenes

Once every five years, these organizations elect some 5,000 delegates to attend the party congress in Moscow. It will meet in the modern, massive, plate-glass-faaded Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin.

Like most organizations that have large memberships and meet infrequently, the congress, of necessity, has limited power.

To act as the party's nominal trustees between congresses, the delegates elect a Central Committee, consisting of some 300 full members and some 150 candidate, or nonvoting members.

But the Central Committee is also large and unwieldy, and meets only twice in most years. Consequently, the real power of the party is vested in its political bureau (the Politburo), currently consisting of 12 men, and in the CPSU Secretariat, its full-time staff at party headquarters in Moscow. There are, at present, 10 party secretaries. General Secretary Gorbachev is ``first among equals'' in both groups, overseeing the party bureaucracy and chairing meetings of the Politburo.


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