MOSCOW -- Nine top political figures, most of whom have close ties to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, warned yesterday that "ultraconservative forces are strengthening" and appealed to Soviet citizens to unite behind a single reform movement.
Their statement, distributed to reporters last night, was far from the first attempt to hammer into a disciplined opposition the diverse and quarrelsome critics of the Soviet Communist Party establishment.
But the nine political leaders, some of the biggest in the politics of the Gorbachev era, lent the appeal enough clout to make the Communist Party look nervously over its shoulder.
If their plan to transform the reform movement into a political party in September succeeds, the Soviet Union might find itself with a viable two-party system.
Among those signing the statement were Alexander N. Yakovlev, a Gorbachev adviser who is generally considered the intellectual power behind Soviet reform; and Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who resigned as foreign minister in December, warning of the threat of dictatorship.
Though their influence waned with the leadership's conservative shift over the winter, the two men probably were the strongest advocates of change in the ruling Politburo during the first five years of Mr. Gorbachev's rule.
Other signers include Arkady Volsky, who held key jobs in the Communist Party Central Committee as Mr. Gorbachev rose to power; and Nikolai Petrakov and Stanislav S. Shatalin, Mr. Gorbachev's former top economic advisers, both of whom quit in protest of the Soviet president's turn to the right in January.
The generation of elected politicians who quit the Communist Party last year was represented by Moscow Mayor Gavriil K. Popov and Leningrad Mayor Anatoly A. Sobchak, both of whom were recently elected to newly established mayoral posts.
From the Russian Federation leadership of President Boris N. Yeltsin, the appeal was signed by Prime Minister Ivan S. Silayev and Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoy, founder of a party faction called Communists for Democracy.
Aides say Mr. Yeltsin, who quit the Communist Party last year and explained that the Russian leader should be independent of all parties, will not join the movement formally, but its stance is clearly close to his.
The reformers depicted a stark choice in their seven-page appeal:
"Either the country goes further on the path of fundamental reforms for the liberation of society and the genuine freedom of the individual, and will make real strides toward well-being and prosperity, or [there will be] the riot of reaction, blinded by hatred for freedom and progress, the prospect of losing privileges; new dictatorship; the restoration of an order which has proven its social destructiveness. Fear, violence and destitution will triumph again. A national tragedy will be unavoidable."
Question No. 1 for the new movement will be Mr. Gorbachev's relationship to it. The movement, or a party growing out of it, is likely to nominate a candidate for president of the Soviet Union if elections are held as anticipated next year.
Mr. Gorbachev, still general secretary of a Communist Party he sometimes seems at odds with, would almost certainly lose if he ran
as a Communist Party candidate. But, by abandoning the party, he would anger many powerful Communists while remaining anathema to some democracy activists.
Also yesterday, the Communist Party leadership held a news conference to advertise the party's new program, which they said makes it a force for "democratic and humane socialism." But it is hardly likely that publishing a new program can significantly influence the widespread view that the party was responsible for turning the Soviet Union into a giant, impoverished prison camp.
The Communist Party's weakness was demonstrated by Mr. Shevardnadze's refusal to turn up for questioning yesterday when summoned by party officials in connection with his support for the opposition movement.
The leaders of the small anti-Communist political parties that already exist, most of them younger and lower in profile than the signers of yesterday's appeal, generally have endorsed the new reform movement, which has been the subject of rumors for several months.
But some radicals received the reform appeal skeptically, as a Trojan Horse sent into the democratic camp by the otherwise doomed Communist Party. At a rally Sunday, Viktor Kuzin, a Moscow City Council member, denounced plans for the movement as a vehicle for preserving the power of the nomenklatura, the ruling elite.
The new reform movement is vulnerable to criticism on other points. It presumes to be a nationwide movement, not just a Russian one, but the only non-native of Russia among the nine signers was Mr. Shevardnadze, an ethnic Georgian who is reviled by that republic's current leadership.
Moreover, the statement is heavy on noble rhetoric and quite vague on the specific issues dividing the democratic movement, how the independence drives of the three Baltic republics should be handled and what should be done about Communist Party property, for example.