Mikhail Gorbachev is trying to extend his ``revolution'' - but to do so he must reform the Soviet Communist Party's nationwide apparatus. During his 20 months in power, the Soviet leader has moved relatively fast to shore up his position in the central leadership. The dismissal this week of regional party boss Dinmukhamed Kunayev, another relic of the past, shows that Mr. Gorbachev is still chipping away at his opponents at the top.
But the regional party structure has so far remained relatively untouched. And the next plenary session of the party Central Committee, expected before the end of the year, could offer a chance to start work on the regions.
Party sources say that the plenum will concentrate on party cadres, a vague phrase that could mean anything, from a tighter definition of their responsibilities and tenure to the firing of conservatives. But strong Central Committee criticism in the last 10 days of two important regional party committees indicates that the leadership may intend to target recalcitrant regional party leaders.
The plenum, however, is late. Under established practice it should have been held more than a month ago. It is expected to be held any day now - reportedly before Christmas. The delay has spawned rumors that Gorbachev is under increased pressure from party conservatives, or even that he is at loggerheads with Yegor Ligachev, the No. 2 man in the ruling Politburo.
Central Committee staff members insist that any differences between Gorbachev and Mr. Ligachev are ones of temperament, not policy. Indeed, so far there is no evidence to suggest profound disagreements, though the differences in approach are apparent.
Gorbachev seems intellectually more daring and flexible; Ligachev is more of a disciplinarian. Both were promoted to senior positions by former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, whose brief term as party general secretary set the tone for the current reforms. On the other hand, Politburo members have traditionally tried to balance a new general secretary with a somewhat independent-minded second secretary.
Mr. Kunayev's abrupt retirement on Tuesday from his post as party boss of Kazakhstan suggests that at the very least there is a clear consensus in the Politburo on the need for a break with the stagnation of the Brezhnev years. And though the leadership still displays deep irritation with the conservatism of many cadres, it has apparently not been deterred from taking on the regions.
Since Gorbachev took power in April 1985, the composition of the central party apparatus has changed considerably. Nine of the 19 members of the Politburo, which meets on Thursdays, have been elected since April 1985 (and Kunayev, who holds one of the 12 voting seats, will probably be leaving soon). Including Gorbachev, eight of the 11 members of the Secretariat, which handles day-to-day party business for the Politburo, are new. And more than 50 percent of the heads of Central Committee departments have been replaced. But less than one-third of regional secretaries have gone.
The criticism directed at two important regional party organizations, Perm and Voronezh, has been blunt and brutal, and marked by deep frustration. The regional party committees are powerful organizations that can successfully resist the center's writ for a long time.
The regions - a rough rendering of the Russian term oblast or kray - are the key link in the party chain of command. The oblast committee is supposed to translate Moscow's directives into practice; if it decides to block a policy, it can do so with devastating effect.
A regional first secretary wields great power and controls a patronage machine quite similar to those of the political bosses of some big United States cities. He (there are no women in the position) usually has overall charge of several million people - Perm oblast has a population of about 3 million; Voronezh, 2.5 million.
Leonid Brezhnev made the regions one of the principal elements of his power base. And as his 18-year reign (1964-82) progressed, communist officials now say, he allowed them increasing independence in return for unquestioning support. Gorbachev supporters claim that this resulted in stagnation, inefficiency, and corruption. The regional party leadership became a tight, self-perpetuating, and self-protecting clique.
The Perm party committee is apparently being held up as the epitome of incompetence and intransigence. Its poor performance has been discussed twice by Central Committee plenary sessions since April 1985. But it has responded to Central Committee warnings with ``declarations and exhortations'' instead of real action, said a long Central Committee report published last week.
Perm's approach to reform is ``half-baked and timid,'' the report said. It has done little to improve social problems or output in industry and agriculture. Ideological work is poor, and the party leadership remains aloof from the people and the party rank and file.
The Perm first secretary and other senior officials have to take special responsibility for this state of affairs, the report says, because of their long tenure. Secretary Boris Konoplev was appointed in November 1972 and became a Central Committee member in 1976.
Vadim Ignatov, the party secretary of Voronezh oblast, which was severely criticized this week, is also a Brezhnev-era holdover. He was appointed in 1975 and was made a Central Committee member in 1976.
The Central Committee assessment of Voronezh concentrated on its poor organization of food production. Essentially, it put the leadership on probation. Local and nationwide television, radio, and newspapers were encouraged to carry out ``raids'' (the word is transliterated directly from English into Russian) on the oblast to check up on its performance in the coming months.