MOSCOW -- A group of prominent Soviet political figures, including former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and presidential adviser Alexander Yakovlev, has been holding secret meetings aimed at launching a political party that would challenge the Communists in national elections, Soviet political sources say.
Shevardnadze already has come under the threat of expulsion from the Communist Party for publicly advocating the creation of a new democratic party. And the idea has picked up momentum on the heels of Boris N. Yeltsin's election as Russian president.
The latest in a series of planning sessions was held last night at the insurgent-controlled Moscow City Council, to decide how fast to move, the sources said.
Stepan Kisselev, deputy editor of the liberal weekly Moscow News, said that besides Shevardnadze and Yakovlev, the others involved in the planning included Yegor Yakovlev (no relation to Alexander), the editor of Moscow News; Stanislav Shatalin, a former economics adviser to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev; Moscow Mayor Gavril Popov; and Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.
Kisselev said that a draft manifesto of the new party already existed and might appear in the Moscow News as early as Wednesday.
A decision by Alexander Yakovlev, in particular, to leave the Communist Party would mark another major stage in the development of the opposition and could signal that Gorbachev was ready to lean more heavily on liberal forces. The former Politburo member is considered virtually the co-founder of Gorbachev's reform policies and would be unlikely to act without Gorbachev's tacit approval.
Yakovlev could not be reached for comment yesterday. An assistant at his office in the Kremlin said that he was ill, and could not confirm or deny whether he was involved in last night's meeting. Both Kisselev and Arkady Murashev, a leader of the Democratic Russia opposition umbrella, said that Yakovlev had been actively involved in planning the new party but also could not confirm whether he attended Monday night's session.
While the Democratic Russia movement nominated Yeltsin for the Russian presidency and saw him sail to victory, it is still far from a nationwide entity or even a formal political party. The Communists, by contrast, still have about 16 million members nationwide as well as vast property holdings and revenues from party dues.
Although prominent Communists like Yeltsin, Sobchak and Popov caused a stir when they quit the party last summer, they did not end up leading a mass defection from the Communists. About 3 million people drifted away from the party in the wake of the walkout.
"All of us are interested in splitting the Communist Party," Murashev said. He said that he thought as many as half the Communists might follow Yakovlev and Shevardnadze out of the party. But he said that it was not yet certain that Yakovlev and Shevardnadze would make an irrevocable break with the party.