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Gorbachev tightens his grip

OTHERS may be out, but Mikhail Gorbachev is most definitely still in. The Soviet leader's political virtuosity was on display this past week, as ``deadwood'' flowed out of the Politburo, and bothersome critics of reform were deprived of a platform. Mr. Gorbachev's quick summons to the Communist Party's Central Committee indicated urgent business. Some speculated that the party leader himself might be in trouble. Signs of discontent at the grass roots and dissent in higher places have been numerous. Gorbachev himself had been saying that perestroika - his policy of economic restructuring - was not moving fast enough.

All of which now appears to have set the stage for a very fast shuffle by the general secretary. His most formidable critic, Yegor Ligachev, has been demoted from party ideological chief to head of a new commission on agriculture. Longtime party figures like Andrei Gromyko have been bumped into retirement, a development that carries the clear message of a break with the past. Mr. Gromyko's departure also opens a door on the future, with Gorbachev himself stepping in as the Soviet president.

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That has traditionally been a ceremonial office, but it may now become a fulcrum for broader changes in the country's system of governance. At the Moscow party conference in early summer, Gorbachev unveiled plans to strengthen the presidency as a means of shifting power toward the government's administrative and elective offices and away from the party apparatus. In line with this, deep cuts are planned in the party bureaucracy, from the Central Committee on down.

Gorbachev calculates that if the meddlesome bureaucrats are out of the way, the country's plant managers can start doing some creative planning, taking into account market forces and consumer needs. Certainly a trimming of bureaucratic middlemen will help unclog the productive machinery, but it will doubtless be only one step in a long journey toward a revived Soviet economy. Initiative, cooperative relationships, and the work ethic are going to have to be shaken awake, and that may take a lot more than the removal of bureaucrats.

Political reform does not equal economic progress. Gorbachev has bought added time - perhaps a good deal of it. The shake-up of the last few days has put more of his people into key positions. Now, even if economic reform continues to move painfully slowly, the chances of Gorbachev's being toppled are reduced. His quick moves defused a crisis, but until reforms start to pay off tangibly for the Soviet people, criticism will continue to germinate. And Gorbachev, with characteristic cunning, can continue to use criticism to his own advantage - as an occasion to keep shaking up the system.

Westerners looking on may breathe easier, finding that a Soviet leader of unprecedented popularity outside his country remains in control. It's doubtful that Gorbachev himself is breathing much easier. His political life is bound to the success of perestroika, and that success is still but a distant hope.

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