Soviets Strengthen Police Powers
Reformers see latest steps as leading toward dictatorship and curtailing move to a free market
THE announcement last week of decrees that allow military patrols in major cities and secret police searches of businesses was necessary to maintain stability, Soviet officials say. Reform-minded politicians and businessmen, however, say the moves were designed to destroy democracy and free enterprise.Skip to next paragraph
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In the republics, especially the restive Baltics, Moscow's moves were seen as an attempt to roll back the drive for independence. The Lithuanian parliament passed a resolution on Monday calling the new measures a ``violation of human rights'' and a ``step towards a military dictatorship.''
Beginning Friday, military units will combine with police to patrol the streets at night in virtually all major cities, according to a joint statement last weekend by the Defense and Interior ministries.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev also has given the KGB (the secret police) broad powers to investigate any business, including foreign joint-ventures, for illegal dealings. Both measures were taken to combat crime, particularly organized racketeering, officials say.
The decrees followed the surprise announcement that 50 and 100 ruble notes would be withdrawn as part of an economic reform, aimed in part at disrupting black-market activity. The nation virtually came to a stop for three days as people scrambled to exchange the old notes for new ones.
``The measures already taken by the government are the first steps in a series necessary to restore full order in the country,'' wrote Albert Balebanov, a commentator for the official Tass news agency, adding that the stern steps should have been taken earlier.
Still, the measures have not had their intended effect on the underground economy, Tass said, quoting three prominent black marketeers who were not identified. The black marketeers unloaded most of their 50- and 100-ruble notes in December, when word leaked out that the government was printing new money, Tass said.
The real reason for the economic reform and the KGB searches is to wipe out legitimate private ventures, not the black market, said Artyem Tarasov, a vice president of the Union of Cooperatives in the USSR and a legislator in the Russian Republic.
``Changing the money meant the closing of about 60 percent of the cooperative enterprises in the country,'' Mr. Tarasov said. ``The KGB will probably close the remaining 40 percent.
``It's no longer the politics of the free market, but the politics of discipline,'' he said at a news conference.
The harshest symbol of the perceived move to authoritarianism could be the military patrols, which have been denounced by advocates of democracy as unconstitutional.
``The document's legal basis is very doubtful,'' says Moscow Deputy Mayor Sergei Stankevich, referring to the Defense Ministry order. ``It changes the essence of the political regime in the city and introduces some elements of a state of emergency.''
SOME leading democrats say that the patrols could promote conflict, rather than ease tension.
``The orders of the ministers will bring us to the brink of war - a civil war,'' warned Lev Ponomaryev, leader of the Democratic Russia movement. He said patrols could easily create an incident that could touch off a wider conflict. He called on the Soviet parliament not to ratify the orders, and demanded the resignation of Mr. Gorbachev and organization of civil disobedience.
Despite calls to resist, the scattered democratic movements seem powerless to stem the conservatives' momentum.
Reformers are partly to blame, says Yuri Afanasyev, a radical historian and member of the Soviet legislature.
The conservatives can assert their authority at will ``because of the weakness of democratic forces,'' Mr. Afanasyev says. ``The democratic forces have yet to come up with concrete plans of their own.''
Meanwhile, the military says reformers are overreacting to the patrols. It stresses that soldiers will continue to be guided by the Soviet Constitution.
``Military men do not intend to ride on armored vehicles in the streets as some presume,'' said Maj. Gen. Viktor Solomatin, head of the armed forces military department, in an interview published yesterday in Krasnaya Zvezda, the Soviet Army daily. He criticized those opposed to the order, saying they were trying to whip up anti-Army sentiment.
In the Baltic republics, the new measures may boomerang on Gorbachev, says Valentina Zeile, a Latvian legislator and chairwoman of the parliament's Budget Commission.
The decrees aim to bring the rebel republics into line with Moscow, but may instead stiffen the resolve of many to break away, she says.
``It only stimulates us to implement our own plans and our own currency,'' she says. ``And that, of course, will increase the chances for a conflict.''