Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin demanded Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's resignation a fortnight ago. Mr. Gorbachev soon responded, saying Mr. Yeltsin and his "so-called democrats" favored the "restoration" of capitalism and the "collapse" of the Soviet state.
"In fact, all these 'democrats' are anti-Communist in nature," Mr. Gorbachev complained in a bitter speech. "They do not want to cooperate with the Communists. They reject all propositions by the Communist Party. They want to call the party a criminal organization and put it on trial. . . What they are really up to is to take power."
These uncompromising words show just how polarized the Soviet internal situation has become -- and how far toward orthodoxy Mr. Gorbachev has retreated from his days as a reformist advocate of political pluralism. Yet this is only a foretaste of the agitation that will be taking place throughout the Soviet Union in the days leading to the March 17 election. Mass rallies and counter rallies already have been held in key cities. Now such issues as mining strikes and rationing of vodka have been added to electioneering.
The ostensible purpose of the nationwide election is for the 15 republics to decide whether a new union treaty should be drafted. In fact, the election may determine nothing less than the future of the Soviet state as the kind of Euro-Asian empire it has been since the czarist times.
For months, outbursts of nationalism have been threatening the empire, with many of the republics voicing secessionist demands. After some attempts at accommodation, Mr. Gorbachev has decidedly turned against any bids to weaken the current, Moscow-centered union arrangement. Mr. Yeltsin, on the other hand, advocates republican autonomy and says he is willing to grant independence to the rebellious Baltic states.
Since last summer, Mr. Gorbachev has sought the support of power centers he previously tried to weaken -- the KGB, the military and the Communist Party bureaucracy. He has done so to buttress himself against Mr. Yeltsin's challenge -- and because of vitriolic attacks by ultraconservatives. The ultraconservatives -- led by Col. Viktor Alksnis -- regard Mr. Gorbachev as a traitor who fraternized with the West and gave away Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. They see Mr. Yeltsin as no alternative but view him as a power-hungry political speculator who wants to split the union.
As the two presidents continue their desperate and destructive duel, the ultraconservatives patiently wait in the wings. Their dream is the dictatorship Eduard A. Shevardnadze warned about before resigning as foreign minister.