The just-completed Communist Party conference marks a watershed in the history of Soviet reform. By sleight of hand and force of personality Mikhail Gorbachev has shifted the center of attention to the reshaping of political institutions. A clear timetable has been laid out for the changes (see Page 5).
But the conference, which ended Friday, also revealed the remarkable diversity of political views within the Soviet Communist Party.
The conference was a personal victory for Gorbachev - and arguably a more discreet victory for the architect of radical reform, Alexander Yakovlev. Gorbachev proved wrong pessimistic predictions that the debate would get bogged down in wrangling and recriminations.
It was, however, a paradoxical victory. He championed democratization and free debate at the conference - exemplified by the remarkable exchange between Central Committee maverick Boris Yeltsin and party No. 2, Yegor Ligachev.
But Gorbachev achieved his political coup by simply not giving any advance notice of the main element of his reform program. The key idea in his report to the conference - the proposal for a presidential system of government - was floated in the Soviet news media two weeks before the conference began. Usually reliable sources say many members of the Communist Party Central Committee found out about it at roughly the same time.
There was at least one other paradox: while the conference gave Gorbachev a mandate for reform, it also revealed a groundswell of apprehension among rank-and-file party members about many of the byproducts of reform.
The next stage of reform will be particularly delicate. Gorbachev's success so far has been partly due to the force of his own personality, and partly to the elitist nature of the Soviet system. This has given him the power to conduct a revolution from above. But now he will be trying to dismantle part of the system that gives the party its authority. Much of the day-to-day power will, in theory, shift to the soviets (the representative bodies or parliaments) from the locality level up, which have hitherto been rubber stamps.