Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Yegor K. Ligachev chatted amiably at a televised ceremony Friday, apparently trying to stem reports that they had fought about reform and Ligachev was on his way out as the No. 2 man in the Kremlin.
Reports of a confrontation in the Communist Party Politburo circulated for several days before they made the display of unity for thousands gathered at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses and millions watching television at home.Ligachev's fate and his relationship with Gorbachev have been subjects of gossip and debate in official and intellectual circles since a newspaper published a letter to the editor a month ago defending dictator Josef Stalin.
The 67-year-old No. 2 man in the hierarchy is known to espouse milder reform than Gorbachev's plan for a restructuring of Soviet society, which inspired speculation that he was behind the letter in Sovietskaya Rossiya.
It appeared in the name of a Leningrad teacher and was interpreted as a sign that conservative opposition to Gorbachev was gaining strength.
Pravda excoriated the pro-Stalin letter. The Communist Party daily made clear that the "glasnost" policy of more openness does not authorize opposition to "perestroika," Gorbachev's word for his reform program.
In Moscow, the newspaper exchange was seen as an allegory for the struggle between Gorbachev and Ligachev. When the heavy hand of Pravda came down against the defense of Stalin, speculation began about what revenge Gorbachev would exact.
Some sources report that Gorbachev called a special meeting of the Politburo to reprimand Ligachev for opposing his reforms, and that his responsibility for ideology and party personnel were given to Alexander N. Yakovlev, a Politburo member who is a staunch Gorbachev ally.
Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze held a news conference Friday night and told reporters in response to questions that there were no serious disagreements in the leadership.
"Sometimes we differ but this is only an indication of the fact that our society is undergoing a process of democratization," he said. "There is no sign of any conflict situation."