Moscow.--THE SHOWDOWN BETWEEN Soviet reformers and conservatives has reached a fever pitch this past week with Russian leader Boris Yeltsin's sensational call for President Mikhail Gorbachev's resignation.
Mr. Yeltsin's public challenge, broadcast live over state television, has drawn the battle line between progressive forces based in regional and local governments and the Communist apparatus, which retains firm control over the central ministries, particularly the army and the KGB.
"I was wrong to have placed so much faith in the president," said Mr. Yeltsin. "After giving people hope, he proceeded to destroy it."
Mr. Yeltsin's remarks represent the final rift in the stormy relationship between liberals and Mr. Gorbachev that has propelled perestroika in fits and starts since 1986.
Mr. Gorbachev's growing reluctance to keep pace with the popular aspirations unleashed by his own reform initiatives has placed him in league with the conservative camp, which opposes any further dismantling of the bureaucratic state.
With the departure of influential Soviet reformers from Mr. Gorbachev's inner circle, Soviet progressives are fighting to consolidate their political gains in many of the country's 15 republics. Liberals see republican autonomy as the last hope for preventing a rollback of perestroika's gains.
To withstand pressure from the center, pro-autonomy forces will need to forge a strong alliance around Russia, the country's largest republic. The Communist apparatus hopes to foil this by orchestrating a no-confidence vote March 28 in the Russian legislature against Mr. Yeltsin's team.
The current tension between the Kremlin and the republics reflects political and economic disputes as much as ethnic conflict. Simply put, an important subtext in many nationalities conflicts is the question of who gets what part of the pie. This is a key issue underlying the upcoming referendum on the future status of the Soviet Union.
The next month's events will be critical. Mr. Gorbachev has scheduled a referendum for March 17 on preserving the Soviet Union in its present form.
Reformers fear that a "yes" vote will give Moscow carte-blanche to override any local or republic-wide initiatives that threaten the interests of the central government. Ultimately, Mr. Gorbachev could use the referendum as a quasi-legal pretext for dissolving legislatures of the republics and invoking direct presidential rule.
The Baltic republics decided to have their own, distinctly-worded referendums ahead of the scheduled date. On February 9, the overwhelming majority of voters in Lithuania approved a ballot initiative calling for the establishment of an "independent democratic republic." Undeterred by Mr. Gorbachev's calling the Lithuanian referendum invalid, Latvia and Estonia will hold similar votes next Sunday.
The Ukrainian legislature has decided to assert its autonomy by asking voters to make a clear choice about maintaining the Soviet Union. Feeling the pressure of his restive constituency, Ukrainian legislative chairman Leonid Kravchiuk, a veteran Communist Party apparatchik, even went so far as to call for the creation of a separate Ukrainian currency and army.
The legislators of the Russian republic accepted Mr. Gorbachev's wording of the referendum, although the pro-Yeltsin camp hopes to add several other questions to the ballot, notably one about the creation of a presidency of the Russian republic (which presumably would be filled by Mr. Yeltsin himself).
The provinces are more radical than the center because election results have produced in the last two years local and republic legislatures much more representative of popular opinion than is the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union.
Although the Communist Party managed to manipulate the BTC Supreme Soviet elections two years ago, it was unable to prevent the major regions and republics from falling, one by one, into the hands of nationalists and democrats.
The end of monopoly politics in many areas of the country caused an unending series of disputes over ownership and control of state enterprises and raw materials. The absence of a firm legal foundation has made conflicts endemic between cities, regions, republics and the central government, contributing to the country's economic decline.
A rapidly-sinking economy, in turn, fuels political polarization. Leaders of democratic strongholds in Moscow, Leningrad and the Baltics charge bureaucrats in the central ministries with outright sabotage.
Could the conservatives come back to power? The question is asked so often that many Soviet citizens take the possibility as a given.
A comeback by deposed conservative Communists would necessarily entail Mr. Gorbachev's eventual removal. His actions during his liberal phase simply created too many powerful enemies.
The timing of his replacement would depend on whether the conservatives took power gradually and squeezed him out through back-room intrigue or a reactionary faction suddenly seized control with the assistance from disgruntled military officers.
While some sort of victory of the party apparatus over reformers appears increasingly plausible, it is unlikely such a victory could produce any substantial improvement in living standards.
Perhaps a hard-line government could put some consumer goods on the shelves in the short run. But the most an orthodox revival can bring is a return to "barracks socialism," under which all but the chosen few are equally poor.
Vladimir Klimenko is an American free-lance writer based in Moscow.