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The Conference CALLS : Convention Controversy Stirring the Soviets' Side

July 17, 1988|Hedrick Smith | Veteran correspondent Hedrick Smith is the author of "The Power Game: How Washington Really Works" (Random House).

WASHINGTON — The political world is topsy-turvy. For the moment it seems East is West and West is East.

Time was when American politicians and political conventions were rambunctious, dramatic and full of passion or unpredictable maneuvers. Lusty battles made them exciting. By contrast, meetings of the Soviet Communist Party were bloodless, censored, predictable rituals of ideological conformity. They were excruciatingly dull. Kremlinologists strained to read between the lines of hackneyed speeches for snippets of titillating nuance.

Now, roles are reversed.

In America, after the long primary season, national political conventions are an anticlimax. The real action has already occurred; the convention is for show. It is a political performance orchestrated to project a winning image for the candidate and to display a party unity that embraces all factions. Indeed, the promise of titillation at the Democratic Convention in Atlanta lies in seeing how much Jesse Jackson disrupts--not the predetermined outcome, but the show of harmony.

For the explosive drama of old-time American political conventions, look beyond the old Iron Curtain to the newly beleaguered Communist Party of Josef Stalin and Leonid I. Brezhnev. For genuine spice and excitement in this convention year, the extraordinary recent Communist Party conference summoned by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev must be the envy of American political organizers. It was riveting both because it was full of surprise and spontaneity and because its actions signaled that real change is occurring.

Ironies abound. Where American party conclaves have become exercises in playing it safe, with the top candidates shying away from candid talk on tough issues for fear of offending the electorate, Gorbachev built popular appeal at the party conference with a brash and daring invitation to draw the most uncomfortable issues into the limelight. Suddenly, ordinary Russians discovered politics and wallowed in the experience.

There, paraded on Soviet prime-time television, were all manner of strange and forbidden things: the Communist Party denounced as the problem, not hailed as the solution; a two-term limit proposed to curb arbitrary power of incumbents; delegates accused from the rostrum of taking bribes; party regulars deriding the uncontrolled sniping of the press; many delegates ignoring grand themes to insist that the nation's No. 1 problem was food.

There, on camera, was a party official from the Ural Mountains telling the assembled comrades that some old guard hard-liners should be fired and ticking off the names of Andrei A. Gromyko and three other prominent figures in the hall. For Russians, a stunning moment. There, too, out in the open, was an industrial manager telling government ministries to go chase mice or starve to death, and a leading actor, toe to toe with Gorbachev, arguing against reining in the press.

Not open revolution, to be sure. But rough and tumble enough to give the lie to the lingering suspicion in America that for three years Gorbachev has been staging some giant Potemkin charade to trick the West for his own and Soviet advantage.

For Gorbachev is doing no less than trying to inject the habits of democracy into a society whose conservative, authoritarian traditions date back five centuries to Ivan the Terrible. He is attempting the most delicate task for any authoritarian ruler--to disperse power without shattering the whole structure of power. And he is using the techniques of modern Western democratic leaders to achieve his ends, so that the very tactics of the battle serve his cause.

First, Gorbachev has dared more boldly than previous Soviet leaders to use the print press against the power hierarchy, the party apparatchiks. For months, he has mobilized newspapers and magazines against the crimes of the Stalinist past, seeking to discredit Stalin's legacy of arbitrary terror and a bloated, centralized system. He is also using the press to reach for an alliance with the urban intelligentsia against the bureaucratic legions still clinging to privilege and the closed system of power.

Second, Gorbachev has dared unleash public protests and mass demonstrations to put pressure on the hierarchy. When party conservatives began to stack the party conference with hard-line delegates, Gorbachev's minions sanctioned popular demonstrations to fight back. Stormy debates blossomed at Moscow party meetings. A party secretary in distant Sakhalin was forced out by one such session. Protesters marched in other cities. In Estonia, 40,000 people formed a new Popular Front to promote Gorbachev's reforms. In power game terms, Gorbachev was using outside pressure to bend insiders his way.

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