MOSCOW -- Profound political changes are under way in the Soviet Union as the country prepares this month for its first contested parliamentary elections since the earliest days of the Soviet state.
A dramatic upsurge in political activism at the grass-roots level has followed President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's pledge that the Communist Party will end its 70-year monopoly on power and seek instead to play a leading--but no longer all-controlling--role in the government.
New constitutional structures--a powerful national parliament, an executive presidency, strengthened regional and local governments--should be in place within months of the March 26 elections, and Gorbachev has declared his determination to use them to push through further reforms.
A new political culture is being created at the same time, one that fosters popular participation, encourages debate, permits dissent and is already challenging the party.
Gorbachev calls the process "a vast school of democracy" for the country and sees it as the key to his overall effort to transform the entire Soviet political and economic system.
"It is already clear that we are not dealing with merely a formal procedure but with genuine elections of people's representatives to the highest organs of power," Gorbachev said as the country entered a month of formal campaigning. "This is an enormous step forward from the practice of previous years."
The changes are not aimed at turning the Soviet Union into a liberal Western democracy but at reshaping and redefining socialism. The Communist Party has made it clear that its interest is in sharing power, not forsaking it.
The election process has not been smooth. These are the Soviet Union's first multi-candidate, nationwide elections in memory. Most of the procedures have never been used before, and confusion has been widespread.
Those who fear the loss of power frequently have been ruthless in dealing with their opponents to ensure that they win--effectively demonstrating that real power is at stake.
Although the difficulties have discouraged many liberals who had hoped the elections would be "the dawn of democracy," as one writer put it, most of the country's senior political analysts rank the changes, in terms of potential, second only to the 1917 Revolution, which overthrew the czarist regime and brought the Bolsheviks to power.
Huge Impact on Country
"We are witnessing very great shifts in political consciousness, which the elections have awakened and brought to a high level," Prof. Boris Grushin, deputy director of the Center for Public Opinion Research, said last week in an interview. "There has been a huge impact across the country. Many things that once were so certain no longer are. The scale of change is hard to predict, and it is not irreversible.
"There have been procedural difficulties, to be sure, but we are also accumulating important experience, which I believe will expand and accelerate the process of change."
Extraordinary scenes, all the more dramatic after years of political passivity, have unfolded across the nation in the last two months of preliminary campaigning for the new Congress of People's Deputies.
Veteran party officials, whose word has virtually been law, have been cast aside in dozens of constituencies in favor of determined reformers--also party members but from the rank and file--as they stand for election to the congress.
Meetings that even three years ago would have been broken up by police as illegal "anti-Soviet agitation" now fill community centers, labor union halls and school auditoriums almost every night, drawing overflow crowds and continuing for 12 hours or more.
Party Policies Under Attack
Party policies, unchallengeable for so long as "the will of the working class," are under unprecedented attack--from workers, farmers and intellectuals alike and from within the party as much as from outside.
Even V. I. Lenin, the Bolshevik revolutionary who founded the Soviet state and who has been revered here as politically infallible, is being criticized. Lenin, it is said, pushed the party into its long monopoly on power, now regarded as the root of the country's problems.
"The most zealous optimist could not have imagined such an outburst of public activity," the Communist Party newspaper Pravda commented last week, expressing amazement at the upsurge in the country's new, participatory politics. "Today, public activity is the main factor determining the political atmosphere across the country."
At times, the Soviet Union's emboldened people appear ready to storm the citadels of power with their new energy and excitement--and yet it is the Communist Party, under Gorbachev, that deliberately set all these events in motion.
The elections are a first step toward the redistribution of power that is at the heart of perestroika , or restructuring, as Gorbachev's program of political, economic and social reforms is known.
Lethargy and Paralysis
In proposing major constitutional changes last year, Gorbachev argued that the concentration of political, economic and social decision-making in the Communist Party had led to national lethargy and paralysis. The party had to be subordinated to the state, he said, and it had to share power at all levels of the government and step back from the day-to-day management of the economy and society.
"We have to create a system that makes decisions democratically and with full public participation," Otto Latsis, deputy chief editor of the party journal Kommunist, commented in an interview last week. "Otherwise, there not only will be no fundamental restructuring but only a reversion to the repression of the past. . . . And that, we know, does not work."
Under changes to the constitution, proposed by Gorbachev at a special party conference last June and enacted in December, three houses of 750 deputies each will be elected to the Congress of People's Deputies this month.
One house of this "super-parliament" is being elected on the basis of territorial constituencies, another will be elected on the basis of regional and ethnic representation and the third will be chosen from "public organizations," including the Communist Party, labor unions, the Soviet Women's Committee, veterans' groups and academic bodies.
Although this congress will exercise what the Soviet constitution calls supreme power, it will meet perhaps only once a year. From among its own members it will elect the Supreme Soviet, a parliamentary body with broad authority to enact legislation and to supervise government operations.
Focus of Political Action
This will make the Supreme Soviet the focus of political action, many here believe, and Gorbachev clearly intends to use its popular mandate to overcome bureaucratic opposition to his reforms and to broaden and accelerate them.
"If Gorbachev has five more years with hostile people, if he cannot get people into the Supreme Soviet who support change, he will not survive," said Vitaly A. Korotich, the crusading editor of the popular weekly magazine Ogonyok, explaining the importance to Gorbachev's reform effort of both the elections and the constitutional changes they implement.
With about 450 members and sitting for three or four months twice a year, the new Supreme Soviet is supposed to have real debates on legislation and to exercise a controlling influence on the power of the party--in contrast to the old Supreme Soviet, which amounted to a parliamentary rubber stamp, approving everything put before it during its semiannual meetings of two days each.
The chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet--certain to be Gorbachev--will have executive authority, act as the country's president and be responsible to the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People's Deputies.
"The work of deputies will change immensely," Guri Marchuk, president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and a member of the old Supreme Soviet for more than a decade, predicted as he campaigned last week for the new congress. "We took formal decisions on proposals that had been previously 'approved' by some (party or government) departments and other bodies.
"The election campaign has shown that members of Parliament will both table questions (directed to government ministers) and will openly discuss problems and take independent and principled decisions on them."
Over the past 50 years, members of the Supreme Soviet have been elected on ballots with only a single name--that of the candidate chosen by party officials--and the result was usually an approval rate of 98% or 99%. The Soviet Union last held contested elections in the 1920s.
"When you consider how we used to justify those old, one-candidate elections as expressions of the 'people's approval' for party policy, then you will realize how fundamental a change multi-candidate elections are for us," Fyodor Burlatsky, a leading political scientist, said while campaigning for the congress.
"The new structure, though still a one-party system, is based on pluralism, not the political monotheism of the past. Now, candidates must put forward their own programs, party policies will be judged on their merits against other alternatives and party members must compete with everyone else. That is the starting point, and it can make the Supreme Soviet our central political institution where all trends, all opinions and alternative programs converge."
Hundreds of New Faces
As he presses forward with his reform program, Gorbachev clearly intends to work as much through the new governmental structures as through the party organization. With hundreds of new faces, the new parliamentary bodies should be more committed to reform than the bureaucracy has been, and the majority of their members will have campaigned on platforms of active reform.
"With elections, deputies for the first time will feel the pressure of popular dissatisfaction," Mikhail Poltoranin, a leading political commentator and a candidate to represent the Union of Journalists in the new congress, said in an interview. "They will come not just with a vaguish mandate for change but with a real feeling that if changes don't come quickly, this country will explode."
As he campaigns, Poltoranin tells voters: "Send me there to fight. As a deputy, I would work to include my program, the one that you elected me on, in the government's policies and directly in legislation, along with your directives--and then I would follow up."
He said in the interview, "It seems so obvious, but never has a candidate for the Supreme Soviet been able to say that and mean it."
Competition has been intense in most places, first for nominations and now for the elections themselves.
7,531 Candidates Nominated
According to the Central Electoral Commission, 7,531 candidates were nominated by workers' collectives, groups of residents and other organizations for the 1,500 territorial and regional constituencies--an average of five per seat. But in some districts, as many as 20 candidates were fielded, while only one was nominated in about 180 places.
In a complex, often controversial second stage, the number of candidates was reduced to two in nearly 1,000 constituencies under rules taken by some officials as intended to ensure a clear winner March 26, rather than a runoff election two weeks later.
Many anti-establishment candidates, most of them liberals, appear to have been squeezed out in this process. Party bosses in many districts packed the meetings with supporters to ensure their candidates' selection. In some places, police reportedly blocked streets leading to the meetings or admitted only those with special tickets.
Some of those selection meetings nearly degenerated into riots--the Soviet press called them "stormy," "tumultuous" and "volcanic"--as competing candidates' supporters battled for the right to speak.
The Soviet press, freed from many past restrictions, has engaged in some of the roughest polemics of all, bringing charges from candidates, again largely from the left, of distortion and libel.
'Things Can Get Pretty Nasty'
"We are discovering there are a lot of ways to 'steal an election,' as Americans put it, but they are all new to us," Anatoly Rubinov, a veteran journalist who enjoys his reputation as a muckraker, said after being defeated by the "party machine" in a district northeast of Moscow. "Things can get pretty nasty."
Now, in a quarter of the constituencies--many of them in the Ukraine, where the conservative party machine sought to eliminate any opposition--there will be only a single name on the ballot.
Korotich, who stalked out to protest what he called the "rigging" of the Moscow meeting where his nomination was being considered, spoke for many disappointed liberals when he called the election process a "regulated democracy."
In more than 200 districts, however, there will be three or more candidates, including 12 in a Moscow constituency.
A preliminary analysis by the Central Electoral Commission shows there will probably be shifts in the composition of the new legislature: more professionals, fewer workers and farmers, fewer women and young people, and fewer party and government workers, but more party members.
"Party members--those from the rank and file, not the bosses--are winning significant support because they have thought-through positions, they are better organized and show political maturity," Rubinov said. "And I am talking about those nomination meetings that have been fair."
One Moscow newspaper complained last week that it could not distinguish the candidates' programs one from another. But the heated debates among candidates and their supporters, along with citizens' questions at the election meetings, made it clear that the key issue of the election is not perestroika and its goals but how it can be speeded up.
" Perestroika is simply marching in place," Boris Bondarev, a candidate in Moscow's Kuntsevo district, told a rally. "How do we move on? How do we go faster? How do we get results? Those are the central questions."
And on those questions there is wide debate, varying with the candidates and their backgrounds, with the voters, with localities, according to press accounts and people who have attended many meetings.
"For issues to narrow, to coalesce, people have to be speaking the same language, and we don't," Grushin said. "We are just developing a political language to express our own ideas, rather than the thoughts that we have been given. So, when a person says one thing, others understand another."
Inflation, Low Pensions
Besides the pace of perestroika , certain other common concerns are also clear--inflation, low pensions, undiminished government bureaucracy, defense spending and the environment.
"It used to be said that people were afraid to speak, to raise problems, to criticize, but I never thought so," Grushin said. "It was either that they did not have anything to say that differed with whatever had been decreed from on high, or they lacked the language to articulate their positions.
"This is what is changing, and that change will have greater ramifications than the results of the election itself . . . because it means a new political culture here, really a new way of doing things."
Other analysts, in fact, are already looking beyond these elections toward those for local and regional governments in the autumn.
"There is much more room to maneuver at lower levels, and the changes will come even faster there," Latsis said. "People will have more experience, they will be able to organize themselves more effectively and the issues will be closer to home."
Impact on People's Lives
Those elections, journalist Rubinov says, will have "an even deeper impact on people's lives. At the national level, big decisions are made, but at the local level is where they make or break people.
"This political process is not going to stop with these elections," he added. "It is going to grow and grow. A lot of new people are coming into politics now, and they will run in those local elections. Then the new people will be agitating from below, while the old ones, who may make it through to the Supreme Soviet, try to retain their hold from above. And it won't work."
GOVERNMENTAL OVERHAUL Soviet voters go to the polls March 26 in the first contested parliamentary elections since the 1920s. The elections are the initial step in a fundamental redistribution of constitutional authority that will strip the Communist Party of its monopoly on power. The Soviet Union will remain a one-party state but the new governmental structure is designed to encourage greater public participation and debate. The new structure: Congress of People's Deputies: This new "super-parliament" will, under the constitution, exercise supreme power. It will meet perhaps once a year and will consist of three houses of 750 delegates each. One house will represent territorial constituencies, the second ethnic and regional constituencies and the third "public organizations," such as the party, labor unions, women's and veterans' groups and academic bodies. Supreme Soviet: This parliament will be composed of 450 members chosen by the members of the Congress of People's Deputies, and it is expected to be the focus of political action with broad authority to enact legislation and to supervise government operations. It will meet three or four times a year in contrast to the existing Supreme Soviet, which met semiannually for two days each to "rubber stamp" directives of the party leadership. Presidium of the Supreme Soviet: The executive body of the Supreme Soviet is to be composed of the chairman and a number of vice chairmen and other officials. Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet: In effect, this leader will be the national president and top executive authority, elected by the Supreme Soviet and responsible to it and to the Congress of People's Deputies. The post almost certainly will go to the current Soviet president, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, champion of the reforms.