Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who emerged as head man in the Kremlin almost a year ago, has aroused hope inside and outside the Soviet Union that at last there is a Soviet leader who will do things differently. Both western experts and the Soviet people will be watching the 27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, which convenes Tuesday, for clues as to whether the hopes are justified.
The job of the 5,000-odd delegates to the Moscow meeting is not to make policy, or even to debate it seriously, but to dutifully approve decisions already made by the party hierarchy. But party congresses, which are held every five years, are important. They are used by party leaders to mobilize the party machinery in support of party goals and policies. The process frequently provides western observers with insights as to where the secretive men in the Kremlin are heading.
Considering the Soviet Union's role as a nuclear superpower, and its ability to influence events far from its own borders, such insights are crucially important to policy-makers in the United States and other western countries.
This week's gathering is of special interest as the first congress to be held since Gorbachev became general secretary of the party. The 54-year-old leader inherited a powerful military machine, but he also inherited a slumping economy, an outdated system of economic management and an aging and corrupt bureaucracy that was resistant to change. In seeking to make the USSR an economic as well as military superpower, he faces an awesome challenge.
Gorbachev has done a lot of housecleaning already, replacing a hefty proportion of party officials at high and low levels, mostly with younger and presumably more flexible men. He has enhanced his new-broom image by talking a lot about modernization and computerization of industrial management and production, and improvement of consumer services. His speeches place less emphasis on ideological dogma, and his conduct of foreign affairs is refreshingly different in style and, to some degree, substance.
Yet questions remain as to whether Gorbachev has the political muscle--or even the desire--to do much more than tinker with the system.
The military no longer has a voting member on the ruling Politburo, and some observers detect a coolness between Gorbachev and military leaders. But there is no evidence yet that defense spending will be cut to benefit the civilian economy.
Proponents of bold economic reform are allowed to express their views, but actual changes have so far been modest and Gorbachev's number two man has flatly said there will be no swing to market principles as in Hungary and China.
Writers and other artists hope for a relaxation of state controls, but so far the treatment of political and religious dissidents has actually become worse.
Propaganda assaults on the United States have softened. And Gorbachev has come up with some intriguingly bold arms control proposals--posing a challenge to which President Reagan has not adquately responded--but it remains unclear how serious the Soviet leader is.
Miracles cannot be wrought in any society in only 11 months--and the Soviet Union is no exception. The absence of more substantive reforms is nevertheless conspicuous. It may be that Gorbachev is prudently waiting until he has more of his own men in place before inaugurating the sweeping changes that most western experts believe are required to correct the grave economic and social problems. Or, Gorbachev himself may be reluctant to undertake the necessary reforms lest they erode the party's monopoly of power.
The party congress may not provide answers. But it almost certainly will give fresh indications of where Gorbachev is going.