MOSCOW -- Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin imposed his own version of the Hatch Act yesterday, declaring that his republic's government workers had to stop politicking on the job.
In the Soviet Union -- in sharp contrast to the United States, where the Hatch Act forbids political activity on government time for legions of federal workers -- Communist Party membership has practically been a prerequisite for a career-minded worker.
For decades, ambitious Russian government workers knew if they wanted to get ahead, they had to be practicing Communists, on the job and off. With his decree yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin -- who won office as Russia's first elected president after he himself quit the Communist Party -- was backing up his campaign promises to dismantle the party cells that have been an integral part of government and industry.
Mr. Yeltsin's assault on party structure and influence comes as the Communists appear to be on the verge of a nasty divorce. All the messy details, such as who gets the cars and who gets the furniture, may be fought out as early as this week.
A senior Western diplomat told reporters last week that democratic reformers and hard-line Communists can no longer bear to live together. The two factions are expected to confront each other Thursday at a meeting of the party's Central Committee here.
Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, returning from London, where he asked the world's major industrial democracies to line up on his side, hinted that the break-up was near. In a London television interview, he appeared to concede Friday that a non-Communist might someday have his job running the Soviet Union.
"There will be many parties, and elections will be on a multi-party basis," Mr. Gorbachev said. "Let these parties compete with their programs, nominate their candidates. Whoever wins, whoever gains support, let him continue the reforms."
Mr. Yeltsin appeared to be helping to promote that goal yesterday with his decree -- the Communists entrenched in government offices have been accused of repeatedly sabotaging reform efforts.
But if those from without, like Mr. Yeltsin, are doing their best to take the advantage away from the Communist Party, those within it seem to be working toward the same cause.
Some reformers want to separate their movement from the Communists, taking Mr. Gorbachev along as well, as they set up a new party.
Another faction wants to stay Communist but transform the party into so many liberal reformers. And then there are the die-hard conservatives who would love to get rid of the other two.
Whether the reformers force the die-hard Communists to leave the party or whether the die-hard Communists force out the reformers remains to be seen. That's because there's a lot of community property at stake.
"Some reformers, particularly out in the provinces, have told me they see no reason to pull out of the party now because they think they can oust the reactionaries and then take over the party property," the Western diplomat said. "To quit would be to cede property."
Yuri Prokofiev, the Moscow party boss and conservative, largely confirmed this assessment at his own press conference Friday. "A split in the party is inevitable," he said.
Mr. Gorbachev, master politician, clearly has his work cut out for him. Will he be the last Communist president or the first non-Communist?
The man on the street, at least one out walking on a summer evening, thinks Mr. Gorbachev will go wherever the cars and furniture seem to be heading. "He'll change like a chameleon," said Vassiliy Bolotsky, who, like many others here, is tired of waiting for reform.