DUSHANBE, TADZHIKISTAN — 'TC DUSHANBE, Tadzhikistan -- Here along the remote frontier of Soviet Central Asia, where men sit cross-legged on colorful cushions much as they did when Marco Polo rode through following the silk route to China, a small band of Communists is trying to stop the march of history.
While Communists across the Soviet Union have been tearing up their party cards, the Tadzhik party bosses are holding fast before the democratic storm sweeping the crumbling red empire.
The bosses who dominate the republic's parliament forced their president out when he acquiesced to democratic demands to suspend the Communist Party. Then they replaced him with an old-time hard-liner.
They began turning Russian against Muslim with dark warnings about Muslim fundamentalism, attempting to sway the 7 percent minority Russian population.
The showdown unfolds daily in this poverty-stricken republic bordering Afghanistan and China, about 1,800 miles from Moscow. Nearly two weeks since the Communists began their campaign, the square outside the parliament building in Dushanbe is filled with crowds of disciplined but angry protesters bellowing against the party.
"The time has passed for communism. This is its final convulsion." said Davlat Khudonazarov, a Tadzhik opposition leader who is a member of the Soviet parliament. "Communism is not a party. It is a government structure."
Mr. Khudonazarov was speaking in an interview in Dushanbe's City Hall, which is plastered with pictures of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. The Tadzhiks love Mr. Gorbachev as the initiator of perestroika who made their cry for freedom possible. They admire Mr. Yeltsin for standing against the attempt to reverse those trends in August.
One day later and a block away, Rakhman Nabiyev, the Communist boss turned president was standing in parliament, beneath a statue of Lenin, addressing the legislators.
Mr. Nabiyev looked confused and affronted. He recalled a news conference a few days earlier when local reporters asked when he had last drunk vodka.
"Why do they treat people this way?" he asked. "I have suffered too much. . . . The workers are behind me."
The standard-issue worker rhetoric so beloved by Communist seemed out of place in this land, where the exotic blends with the commonplace. Men wear caftan-like coats and small square skull caps. They squat when they relax. Women wear long, brightly colored dresses over pants of competing colors.
But Dushanbe, with 540,000 people, also shows the effects o years of Soviet rule. An unremarkable center turns quickly into masses of slum-like, high-rise apartment buildings. The lurching Hungarian buses familiar in Moscow fill the streets. The police wear standard Soviet uniform.
Work is labor intensive and ill-paying, centering on cotton field and mining. Sixty percent of the republic's 5 million people live below the poverty line, worse than elsewhere in Central Asia. Most live in small mud houses.
Such are the dreary conditions that have brought thousands o protesters from the countryside to the square in Dushanbe. Usually they number around 10,000, sometimes 20,000. Most are ordinary working people summoned from the countryside by Muslim leaders. Many students join in on weekends.
Six elderly and revered Muslim religious men, joined by 15 sympathizers, are on a hunger strike.
The opposition leaders have been threatening civil disobedience unless the parliament suspends the Communist Party, as the Soviet Union has done, nationalizes its property and removes Mr. Nabiyev.
Inside the stately parliament, ringed by policemen, th legislature -- 94 per cent Communists -- has been doing its best to ignore the nearly constant roars of "Freedom!" and "Democracy" outside. Most of this week they have been mired in debate about what to do next.
Yesterday, the parliament conceded one point to the protesters They agreed to suspend the party, as the Soviet Union has done, pending an investigation. But the opposition calls such a ban a farce if the president stays in office.
Only a few weeks ago, Tadzhikistan appeared to be going th way of many of the 15 republics that made up the Soviet Union.
On Aug. 31, President Kakhar Makhkamov resigned after a parliamentary vote of no confidence. He was criticized for being indecisive during the August coup in Moscow. He was replaced by Kadreddin Aslonov, a Communist himself until Sept. 15.
Here, the top party leaders still look like the old bosses who dominated the Soviet Union in the pre-perestroika years, like that symbol of stagnation, Leonid I. Brezhnev.
Mr. Aslonov resembles a youthful Brezhnev with a head of hair so dark and luxuriant he might be wearing a fur hat. Mr. Nabiyev looks like the elderly Brezhnev, all puffy-faced, mottled and squinting.