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Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev warned die-hard Russian Communist Party members Saturday that the party must reform or be relegated to "the sidelines of history."

Gorbachev threw down the gauntlet to conservative communists only hours after they elected a conservative standard-bearer, Ivan Polozkov, to head the dominant Russian Republic's new Communist Party.Russia, although it dominates the Soviet Union and the national Communist Party, has never before had its own party, as do the other Soviet republics.

"We are on the threshold of a multiparty system," Gorbachev declared at a congress of the new party.

He said non-communist parties were already forming because the communists gave up their constitutionally guaranteed monopoly of power in February.

Gorbachev, coming out fighting after four days of attacks against him at the congress, said the Communist Party "should become a new party, grasping everything happening inside the country and outside it." The latter was a pointed allusion to the fates of Communist parties in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

"It (the party) should be the generator of the ideas of perestroika," he said. "It must consolidate all forces.

"If it is not reforming itself, if it exists as it used to exist before, it will not fulfill this role, it will remain on the sidelines of history."

Gorbachev, fighting a conservative backlash, drew only tepid applause as he gathered up his notes and returned to his seat.

When asked by a delegate why he had not mapped out a detailed step-by-step plan for reform five years ago, when he took power, Gorbachev said, "Only Jesus Christ was capable of feeding 20,000 Judeans with five loaves of bread."

In a surprise move, Polozkov, also seen as an opponent of Kremlin reform, came out in favor of Gorbachev's staying on as party chief.

Polozkov, 55, elected head of the 11-million strong Russian party which is dominated by conservatives, said: "I will support him remaining in his role as both president and general secretary or chairman of the party."

There was no immediate explanation for Polozkov's surprise declaration of support for Gorbachev.

It had been assumed he would join Ligachev in pressing Gorbachev to quit his party post and concentrate on the duties of state president.

Polozkov, elected to head the new Russian Communist Party, is best known for closing down all cooperative businesses in the Krasnodar region he controlled and for his unsuccessful challenge to radical reformer Boris Yeltsin's bid last month to head the Russian Parliament.

He said he was now in favor of market reforms "since our economists and our politicians found no other way of getting our economy out of the situation it is in now."