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Is the Party Over?

THE Soviet Union already has the rough equivalent of multi-party politics. This became clear in the past week as national front organizations from the Baltics, Armenia, and Azerbaijan held talks designed to resolve violent nationalistic conflict in the Caucasus region. The Communist Party was out of the loop. President Mikhail Gorbachev's call for an end to the party's guaranteed monopoly on power was to some degree, therefore, an effort to catch up to Soviet reality. It also put communism's homeland on the path followed by all the former Soviet ``satellites.''

Mr. Gorbachev only a couple of months ago was asserting he was against opening the system to other parties. Is he now a confirmed democrat? He has undoubtedly recognized the difficulties of reining in democratic reform once it has begun. Old-line party bosses are predictably calling for a restoration of order. Gorbachev appears more interested in a new order.

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``Man and his well being are put at the center of the party's policy now and forever,'' said the Soviet leader. In the context of the tension between conservatives and progressives, that means party prerogatives and bureaucratic perquisites should no longer be at the center. Gorbachev was speaking more to the hundreds of thousands who had demonstrated outside the Kremlin for an end to party privileges than to the few hundred party regulars inside.

The Soviet old guard will fight this threat to its authority, but the disappearance of the Communists' leading role appears assured. Can the party compete for power, as Gorbachev says it should? Election results last year indicated profound dislike for Communist office holders.

With the door opening to multiparty participation, popular front organization may also face a dilemma: how to make the transition from loosely structured groups whose identities come mainly from an opposition stance, to political parties with constructive programs.

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