Facing a joint appeal from top generals, prominent writers and the Russian Orthodox patriarch to “stop the chaos” in the Soviet Union, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev declared Wednesday that he is prepared to impose emergency rule in the country’s most troubled areas.
“I would like to stress that, where the situation is getting especially acute and state security as well as people’s lives are in jeopardy, a state of emergency or presidential rule will have to be introduced,” Gorbachev told the national Parliament.
“In that case, I think the president will have to assume full responsibility himself,” he added.
Pressured by growing calls to salvage the country’s economy, cut crime and quell ethnic conflicts, Gorbachev has appeared to veer toward the right recently. He has sought added presidential powers, appointed a tough new interior minister and backed a hard-line speech by the head of the KGB security police.
Addressing the Congress of People’s Deputies on Wednesday, Gorbachev warned the country that the coming year will force him to make “the most crucial, perhaps very unpopular but inevitable decisions that are necessary for this painful process not to last forever and keep torturing our society.”
Gorbachev has imposed states of emergency several times in the last two years to quell ethnic violence, but they have been limited in time and scope. Generally, this has meant curfews, tight controls on transport, a heavy military presence and sometimes a military commander with full authority in the region.
Under the Soviet constitution, Gorbachev also has the power to declare more sweeping presidential rule, taking over the executive and legislative functions of regional and local governments, including those of the country’s 15 constituent republics, and running the areas from Moscow. He has not yet introduced presidential rule anywhere.
Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin accused Gorbachev, even before he spoke Wednesday, of already amassing too much power and attempting to hold the country together by force instead of consensus.
“Russia will not consent to the restoration of the Kremlin’s dictate, (especially) when it does not even have a real program to revive the country,” Yeltsin, president of the vast Russian Federation, told the Congress.
Gorbachev, unable to let Yeltsin’s latest dig in their unfriendly rivalry go by, promptly denounced charges of supposed Kremlin dictates as “populism with rotten roots.”
Rivalry aside, however, Yeltsin’s attack on Gorbachev boded ill for the Soviet president’s current campaign to gain approval from the country’s 15 constituent republics for a new treaty to reunite them in a revamped federation.
The proposed union treaty, the main topic for the 2,250-member Congress now convened in Moscow, would give the republics more autonomy but let the national government retain control of defense, foreign relations, state security and large portions of the economy.
Yeltsin, in a brief, blistering speech, rejected the proposed treaty and warned that “toughening the central government’s attitude toward the republics will only bring on a negative reaction.”
He called for the republics, rather than the Kremlin, to decide the future role of the central government, which he said is now maneuvering energetically to retain its hold on the country.
“The scale of the powers of the presidency has no equal in Soviet history,” Yeltsin said, claiming that neither dictator Josef Stalin nor Leonid I. Brezhnev had been granted such status by their legislatures. The two former leaders ruled mainly through the Communist Party, which dominated all aspects of Soviet life.
Despite such warnings from Yeltsin and others that too much power is being concentrated in Gorbachev’s hands, most deputies at the Congress appeared willing to give the president as much power as he wants if only he will bring the country out of its deepening crisis.
In an appeal distributed Wednesday at the Congress, 53 prominent officers and cultural figures called on Gorbachev “as the respected leader of the nation to stop the chaos and prevent the collapse of the state by using all the power and authority left to you.”
Signed by Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church, Chief of Staff Mikhail A. Moiseyev, Russian writer Yuri V. Bondarev, Culture Minister Nikolai N. Gubenko and navy commander Vladimir N. Chernavin, the appeal proposed that if other means against criminals and separatists failed, the president should impose a state of emergency and presidential rule in “zones of major conflicts.”
Marshal Victor G. Kulikov, another ranking officer who signed the appeal, said in an interview that he does not expect a rash of declarations of presidential rule around the country “today or tomorrow.”
But in certain areas where “the Russian population is in danger,” it may be necessary, Kulikov said.
Marshal Dmitri T. Yazov, the Soviet defense minister, did not sign the appeal, but he told reporters that “you cannot continue to watch people die--it is necessary to ensure order. How this will be done--through presidential rule or a state of emergency--is up to the Soviet president.”
The appeal, combined with Gorbachev’s speech, brought frightened concern from representatives of the three Baltic republics, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, where several leaders have predicted recently that Moscow would soon force them back into the fold.
“The only way to impose order is by military force, by presidential rule,” said Longinas Vasiliauskas, an observer at the Congress from the Lithuanian mission in Moscow. “Either that or let the republics swim away by themselves.”
“When you get a wolf into a corner, that’s when he bites,” Vasiliauskas said, adding that Gorbachev may not be desperate enough at this point to impose direct rule, but he might be soon.
Col. Victor I. Alksnis, an anti-independence deputy from Latvia, said he thought presidential rule “is quite inevitable” in Latvia, the center of the Baltic Military District and site of several recent bomb attacks in which no one was hurt.
Gorbachev, however, did not equate the political unrest in the independence-minded Baltics with the bloodshed in such ethnically torn areas as the republics of Moldova and Azerbaijan; Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, and Southern Ossetia, which is part of Soviet Georgia. He said only that “we are deeply worried” about attempts to deprive non-native residents in the Baltic region of their citizenship.
And Moiseyev, the chief of staff, told journalists that he “ruled out the possibility” of extreme measures in the Baltics in the near future.