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Next Step : Soviet Liberals Taking New Route to Reform : * An independent political movement may put some pep back in perestroika-- and some pressure on the Kremlin.


MOSCOW — Some of the Soviet Union's brightest minds and boldest doers--the men who conceived perestroika six years ago to pull their country out of its stagnation, only to see it lose momentum under the weight of the Communist Party--are going to try again.

But this time they are launching a new political movement, independent of the Communist Party, to make their vision of a new Soviet Union a reality.

"Our main aim is to save perestroika, to save democracy, to develop democratic processes and provide guarantees that there will be no going back to the past, to a totalitarian regime," Eduard A. Shevardnadze, former foreign minister and a co-chairman of the new Democratic Reform Movement, said in a television interview. "We are taking a very important step, a very important step indeed."

In fact, if the group succeeds, it could mean non-Communists taking over the Kremlin, perhaps as soon as the next couple of years. If it fails, the Soviet Union's start-again, stop-again reform movement may be stuck in the same groove indefinitely.

Since the Communist Party grudgingly gave up its constitutional monopoly on power more than a year ago, dozens of political parties have been formed around the country. But so far, none is big enough or influential enough to mount a nationwide challenge to the Communists, with their formidable organizational network and financial base.

The leaders of the Democratic Reform Movement hope to change all that. They believe they will be able to draw the support of powerful people from across the Soviet Union, including most of its constituent republics, to take the political high ground from the Communists.

"The only criterion should be that participants speak in favor of reform," Ivan D. Laptev, another co-chairman of the Democratic Reform Movement, said in an interview. "If they are for reform, they are our friends, our colleagues, and we are ready to cooperate with them."

While the organizers of the new Democratic Reform Movement strive to define their goals and gather supporters from the pro-reform wing of the Communist Party and other political groups, however, many leading liberals are keeping their distance.

"It's a party just for very important people--a party for VIPs," said Galina V. Starovoitova, a liberal member of both the Soviet and Russian parliaments. "Sure, they all believe in very undefined democratic values--but all normal people agree with such values. We want to know what their more concrete steps will be."

The roll call for the new organization does look like it came from a who's who of Soviet politics: Gavriil Popov, mayor of Moscow; Anatoly A. Sobchak, mayor of Leningrad; Alexander N. Yakovlev, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's senior adviser; Laptev, chairman of the Chamber of the Union, one of the two houses of the Supreme Soviet, the country's legislature; Ivan S. Silayev, Russia's prime minister; Nikolai Y. Petrakov and Stanislav S. Shatalin, two pro-market economists--not to mention Shevardnadze.

Although the list looks impressive, many liberals say the prospects for the group's success are dim because most of its declared members have long-time connections with the Communist Party, and most are still party members. Both Shevardnadze and Yakovlev reached the party's highest echelon, the Politburo, and Laptev is still a powerful member of its Central Committee.

"These people are discredited by their former work with the Communist Party," Sergei Parkhomenko, a political observer for the liberal newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said. "Psychologically, it puts a barrier between them and the people."

While many reform-minded Communist Party members have been quick to declare their intention to support the new movement, first announced early this month, leaders of the country's small democratic political parties and many independent liberals have not joined.

"I get the idea that it is just a makeover of the Communist Party," Alexander N. Tikhomirov, a Russian legislator and television newsman, said. "It appears to be a creation of a Gorbachev wing to oppose the extremists in the Communist Party. I left the party last year, and I don't want to join any party."

Although Gorbachev remains leader of the Soviet Communist Party, even he has given lukewarm endorsement to the Democratic Reform Movement, saying it's a positive force as long as it works toward the unification rather than the division of society. Some people go so far as to speculate that Gorbachev was covertly behind the movement in order to create a support structure for his political reforms if he should find it necessary to break with the Communist Party.

Many people are put off because the movement is spearheaded by members of the nomenklatura, the top level of government officials across the country who were always appointed by the party leadership.

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