President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's bid for greater powers to overcome the Soviet Union's deepening economic crisis drew sharp criticism Monday from opposition members of Parliament, who warned he could quickly become a dictator.
Calling the move to amend the constitution and elect Gorbachev to the new post a "gross and grave mistake," radical historian Yuri N. Afanasyev said the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies believes that fundamental constitutional reforms should be undertaken first to ensure the country's democratic development.
The group, which has the support of more than 400 members of the Congress of People's Deputies, is threatening to vote against the amendments or simply boycott a vote today, thereby endangering adoption of the measure by the required two-thirds of the 2,250 deputies.
Passage of the amendments would be followed today or Wednesday by Gorbachev's election by the deputies to an initial four-year term. In the future, presidents will be chosen directly in nationwide elections for five-year terms.
"What we are doing now is in reality legitimizing the personal power of a specific man, Mikhail Gorbachev," Afanasyev told the Congress, the Soviet Union's national Parliament. "Do we need this? Does the country need this? Does he himself need this? Our current difficulties are not due to a lack of power but to a lack of trust in it."
The Inter-Regional Group of Deputies, which has come to function as a virtual opposition party in the Parliament, wants the Soviet constitution rewritten entirely before a strengthened presidency is created. It also believes that Parliament's powers must be increased as a check on the executive and that the new federal structure be developed to assure the rights of the country's constituent republics.
Afanasyev went further, however, arguing that the abuse of power by previous Soviet leaders --V. I. Lenin, the Bolshevik who founded the Soviet state, as well as dictator Josef Stalin, who succeeded him--should be a warning against the creation of a strong presidency.
"If our leader and founder laid the foundations of anything," Afanasyev said, shouting over the objections of other deputies in a rare public attack on Lenin, "it was the institutionalization of a policy of mass violence and terror. He also initiated the rule of lawlessness as state policy. This was true throughout the Stalin period. It brought many victims."
But other reformers, who were the first to propose that a "strong hand" guide the nation through its current multiple crises, supported the constitutional amendments as the only way to ensure action, particularly on economic issues.
"The economy is simply going to the dogs," Nikolai P. Shmelev, a prominent liberal economist, told other deputies. "We are now living in a lunatic asylum, and we are living by its rules."
Shmelev, who again called for bold government actions such as encouragement of private enterprise and extensive foreign borrowings to reverse the country's downward economic spiral, dismissed arguments that the new presidency would be too powerful; the proposed legislation contains guarantees against dictatorship, he said, and the Congress itself would remain the ultimate authority.
The case for the new presidency, which will give Gorbachev powers roughly akin to those of the U.S. and French presidents, was made largely on the basis of what Sergei S. Alexeyev, chairman of the Committee for Constitutional Compliance, called "a paralysis of power" in the Soviet Union.
Due to the withdrawal of the Communist Party from day-to-day management of the government and the economy as well as its broad loss of authority, the traditional political structures have lost most of their power--and state bodies have not yet acquired it, Alexeyev said.
"In these conditions, the presidency is the only effective measure to transfer power from the party structures to state bodies," he said.
Anatoly I. Lukyanov, Gorbachev's deputy, sought to reassure the deputies on how much power the Soviet leader would have and what checks there would be on it.
"There are no grounds whatsoever for the suspicions, kindled by some people, that the institution of the post of president allegedly leads to the establishment of authoritarian personal power," he said. "The proposed bill contains a whole system of guarantees against trends of this kind."