MOSCOW -- President Mikhail S. Gorbachev announced Tuesday that a crucial party congress will be convened early, hinting that he will use the meeting to purge Central Committee conservatives and promising a dramatic reorganization of the Communist Party in an apparent bid to restore plummeting public confidence.
Speaking at a plenum of the party Central Committee called to discuss the nationality crisis, Gorbachev said the 15 Soviet republics should be given broad political freedom and that a Central Committee commission should be established to deal with ethnic problems.
But he emphasized that Moscow must decide national issues, and he ruled out any redrawing of the Soviet map, saying that those who call for secession from the Soviet Union are demagogues trying to fool people with false promises about the "pleasant sauce" of independence.
Gorbachev said the 12-member Politburo has approved a proposal to convene the 28th party congress next October, even though it was not scheduled to take place until the spring of 1991.
"The decision to convene the congress at an earlier date is dictated by the need to thoroughly update the party itself, with regard for its new role as a political vanguard of society," Gorbachev said, speaking in the Kremlin's Central Committee Hall before a giant mural of Soviet founder V. I. Lenin. "We cannot leave things as they are."
Typically, there is a party congress every five years, to set broad policy lines and determine membership in the Central Committee and Politburo. The 27th congress, in March, 1986, approved the start of perestroika , Gorbachev's plan for restructuring the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev said the congress to be convened next year will be asked to approve a "program of action" to deepen the process of perestroika and that the program will be published six months before the congress opens.
Gorbachev revealed his plans in speeches carried on Radio Moscow and Soviet television, marking the first time that part of a Central Committee plenum has been broadcast nationwide.
The plenum, which was attended by 349 full and candidate members of the Central Committee, as well as the top two party officials from each of the republics and various key organizations, is to continue today.
The fact that Gorbachev deviated from the plenum's main purpose of discussing the crucial nationalities issue to announce the early convening of a congress and outline some of its purposes underlined the importance he attaches to the timing of the congress.
The decision to move up the date of the congress also appeared to reflect Gorbachev's recognition of the growing public skepticism with which his innovative policies are being greeted. A common complaint is that while perestroika sounds good, it is only words so far.
Shortages of everything from soap to fruits and vegetables continue, and long-submerged ethnic complaints unleashed by his policy of glasnost , or greater openness, have triggered a crisis of nationalism.
A recent poll in the newspaper of the Communist Party Youth League found that a third of the young people questioned said they do not support the party, while 15% said they support the party but have some doubts about its actions.
Nevertheless, Gorbachev's willingness to indicate that he plans to rid the party of conservatives is a sign that he feels confident enough of his power base to signal publicly that a further shake-up is in the works.
Gorbachev told the Central Committee that perestroika is at a "crucial--I would say watershed--stage," and that there is no time to waste. The Communist Party, he said, must "act vigorously and imaginatively," and he added: "The work of party bodies and organizations is currently, in many ways, fettered by old structures and outdated rules. The commitment of part of the cadre to old stereotypes also tells."
He said he is convinced that it is "possible to inject fresh blood into party bodies at all levels (and) this also applies to the Central Committee."
'Renovated and Democratic'
"We must bring in the most creative people and those who are most devoted to perestroika," he said. "Only this type of party, renovated and profoundly democratic in its essence, will be able to lead the masses in the future."
In April, Gorbachev forced the resignations of about a third of the Central Committee members, but he could not add his supporters to the body, and this is still viewed by analysts as a conservative restraint on him.
He said the congress will enact "major innovations in regard to the party makeup, the rights and obligations of Communists, the status of various party structures, the principles of interaction between these structures and their interrelation with state and public organizations."
"We need new rules," he said, "that will reflect the spirit of our revolutionary time, provide incentives for restructuring the party, ensure reliable guarantees of inner-party democracy."
He said a specific perestroika platform will be published in the spring of 1990, and after it is discussed by the congress it "could then be presented as a program of action for the near future."
"It is absolutely clear," he went on, "that we cannot limit ourselves to partial changes in the existing program. To draft a new document of such scope and importance we need to accumulate theoretical knowledge and practical experience during the actual implementation of a reform program."
On the question of nationalities, Gorbachev made one of the most far-reaching speeches yet in acknowledging past bitter injustices to the country's ethnic minorities, injustices that began, he said, in the time of the czars, long before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
As the plenum was being convened, the Interior Ministry announced that two soldiers were killed Monday night in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. They were killed in an exchange of gunfire as they tried to disperse protesters, the ministry said.
Nagorno-Karabakh, one of the country's bloodiest ethnic hot spots, is populated mostly by Christian Armenians who are seeking independence from predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan.
Gorbachev called for setting up a Central Committee commission on ethnic relations, "and similar commissions at the Central Committees of the republics' party organizations, regional and city party committees."
In addition, he said, "comrades who think that one of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee secretaries should be assigned exclusively to handle these issues are probably right."
He also suggested enacting "a package of measures to consolidate the political independence of union republics and give real substance to their sovereignty."
Moscow, however, would "retain the powers needed to perform the common tasks of the federation," he said.
He offered a solution to the language issue, which has been a particularly difficult topic in several republics. In Moldavia, for instance, Russian workers caused economic damage to the republic this month by striking to protest legislation making Moldavian the official language.
"Indigenous inhabitants of all republics undoubtedly have the full right to establish their tongue as the state language," Gorbachev said. But he added that the Russian language should be retained as the language of inter-ethnic communication.
Even as he called for new freedoms for the country's republics, Gorbachev flatly rejected the suggestion that any of the republics be permitted to split off from the Soviet Union, something that has been demanded by some activists in the Baltics and in the Ukraine.
The "demagogues" who call for secession, he said, are guilty of "irresponsible gambling with the destinies of the people."
"Who," he said, "would seek to divide or recarve this current intertwined society, bound by economic, political, social, spiritual, human and family links? Only adventurists can make such calls."
Gorbachev urged the Central Committee to take decisive measures when it reconvenes today, saying his reform program would be at risk otherwise.
"All our experience, both in the past and now," he said, "demonstrates that we cannot count on success with perestroika unless we solve the problems of inter-ethnic relations."