THANKS to a last-minute intervention by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union this week narrowly avoided being placed under a series of sweeping emergency powers. On Monday evening the country's parliament was poised to pass emergency measures that would have banned all strikes, restored firm central control over factories, and immediately deployed troops to get Azerbaijan's railroads working again.
By Tuesday evening measures had been passed that, while still severe, had sharply reduced the scope of the initial proposals. Strikes in key sectors, including heavy industry, energy, and transport, were banned. And the Azerbaijani's were told to lift their rail blockade of Armenia or face military intervention.
The turn of events was so abrupt that it caused considerable confusion. Some Western reports portrayed the decision as a rebuff for Mr. Gorbachev. But Ales Adamovich, a writer and civil libertarian with good access to Gorbachev, summed up the shift in a speech to the parliament Tuesday.
Gorbachev's decision Monday night to postpone a decision on the original package was vital, Mr. Adamovich said. It gave deputies time to ``understand what we were rushing into, and how difficult it would have been to get out'' of the new situation.
Emergency powers would have been welcomed by conservative-minded regional political leaders, he said.
The sudden turnabout highlights the confusion that often bedevils policy moves by the present Soviet government. In this case a measure proposed Monday at 5 p.m. by a deputy prime minister was a few hours later being described by the interior minister as illegal. And by Tuesday noon Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov was saying that the measures proposed on Monday evening were simply an ``oral proposal'' from Deputy Premier Lev Voronin.
Gorbachev's successful watering down of the measures casts interesting light on his own political skills and inclinations. It shows that he is not willing to go as far in the direction of authoritarianism as some of his colleagues. It once again demonstrates his ability single-handedly to reverse the flow of debate in the Supreme Soviet. And it underlines his almost instinctive urge to avoid being locked into decisions that are difficult to reverse.
Many of his admirers view this latter feature as his strength. They stress his ability to foresee potential political traps and appreciate his reluctance to resort to strong-arm policies. Others view it as dangerous irresolution. Support for the second view seems to be growing. Several unpublished public opinion polls reportedly show a sharp decline in Gorbachev's popularity.
The drama began on Monday evening at the Supreme Soviet, the country's standing parliament. After expressing concern at the wave of strikes nationwide and continuing tension between the southern republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Gorbachev gave the floor to Mr. Voronin.
Voronin proposed to ban all strikes for 15 months. Troops were to be called in to protect railway facilities and workers in Azerbaijan. And despite plans for decentralization of decisionmaking, no factories were to close or reduce their output without the agreement of the Council of Ministers in Moscow.
The proposals may have reflected Voronin's views. Observers suggest that his main prescription for the country's economic ills is more discipline. But the measures were presented as a government proposal, not an individual initiative. Baltic deputies, unhappy at anything that would provide a precedent for sending in troops to handle ethnic unrest, were cool. So was Andrei Sakharov, watching the debate from the rear of the hall. Azerbaijani deputies were dejected, Armenians delighted.
Most other reaction indicated that the proposals would be passed with a comfortable majority. ``It's about time,'' one deputy shouted.
Then Gorbachev intervened. He reasserted the need for special and urgent measures to stop the slide in economic output. But then he suddenly proposed that the relevant parliamentary commissions and government members examine the proposals overnight. His proposal was accepted.
By Tuesday morning the strike ban had been limited to key industries. Azerbaijanis were given a week to lift their blockade; if not troops would be sent in.
Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin told this correspondent that, during the late night discussions, he argued that the emergency measures were illegal. Mr. Bakatin also said that Prime Minister Ryzhkov had taken the lead in narrowing the scope of the measures.
Bakatin added, however, that the new version ``just won't work.'' Despite similar complaints from the floor, the proposals were reviewed again during Tuesday's lunch break and further diluted by the afternoon session.