MOSCOW — In the Soviet Union's ever-darkening nightmare of economic collapse and political disintegration, suddenly there is new hope for a consensus that could pull the country out of its crisis.
As proposed by Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian populist, and accepted in principle by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the country's top political leaders would gather at a "round table" to thrash out solutions to its problems and then commit themselves to carrying them out.
Gone would be the posturing, bickering and feuding that constitute much of Soviet politics today; instead, the focus would be on action programs that all could accept and that would win the support of the country.
The character and shape of this new forum are still being debated for it would constitute a fundamental shift away from the Communist Party's control of the central government toward the first real sharing of power since Gorbachev insisted that the party give up its monopoly on decision making.
An initial effort late last month, however, brought a far-reaching agreement between Gorbachev and leaders of nine of the Soviet Union's 15 constituent republics regarding the basis for a new Union Treaty, which would in turn become the new political foundation for the country.
To get that, Gorbachev agreed during a day of talks at a suburban Moscow villa to the drafting of a new constitution followed by national elections, including one for a popularly elected president. He also accepted that not all 15 republics would sign the treaty and some would choose independence.
Although the republican leaders supported the government's economic stabilization program, they clearly intend to shape the reforms that follow in the country's transition to a decentralized, market-based economy.
And they made clear their willingness to put aside past political differences to achieve the national consensus that has eluded the country's leadership for more than a year.
"Nobody wants to speak too loudly about this for fear the accord will break down in some new controversy, but it should be understood as a major step toward developing political pluralism," Gennady A. Zyuganov, a secretary of the Russian Communist Party, commented. "It is very, very important. We may, at last, be coming to compromise, consensus and even coalition as a way of politics--and a way out of this crisis."
At Gorbachev's insistence, the Communist Party's Central Committee has now called for an across-the-board outreach effort involving discussions with all other political parties and movements, including the new independent trade unions, at every level of government across the country.
"We have to break the political deadlock that has made it impossible to resolve our economic problems, to solve almost any problems, in fact," Pyotr K. Luchinsky, a Central Committee secretary, said. "In principle, we are committed to sharing power, but in reality a continuing struggle for power has consumed everyone's energies and delayed--even prevented--solution of our problems."
The round table, an idea discussed by liberal political commentators for more than a year and then proposed seriously two months ago by Yeltsin in a bid to end his feud with Gorbachev, has come quickly into vogue. Radicals have endorsed it with enthusiasm, conservatives more grudgingly. Gorbachev's spokesman, Vitaly N. Ignatenko, even gives his boss credit for the proposal.
"In the face of the mounting crisis, the idea of a round table looks to me to be very sound," said Vyacheslav M. Shostakovsky, once a top Communist Party political scientist as rector of its Moscow Higher Party School but now a leader of the Russian Republican Party. "Its main objective, as I see it, is to find a common strategy, common priority issues.
"Political confrontation will undoubtedly persist, and I am convinced the Communist Party will not forsake the principles of communism. Yet those who sit down at this round table will have to forget all 'isms' and clearly agree on priorities."
As the prospects for such a round table grow, the debate is growing over who should participate, what should be discussed, what the rules, conditions and understandings should be and, above all, where it would lead.
"The concept initially contains a contradiction," Viktor Aksyuchits, chairman of Russia's new Christian Democratic Party, commented. "To hold talks with the regime that has usurped power and led the country to misery and catastrophe means to justify that regime. On the other hand, it would be senseless to wait until it collapses, burying all of us under its debris.
"It is vitally important that the partocracy transfers power to democracy by constitutional means without new social explosions. The contradiction in the round table is not insuperable, because it is the only saving way for a transition from the Communist regime to a new democratic state."