Gorbachev makes a plea for emergency powers

September 22, 1990|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, frustrated by the indecision of parliament over alternative economic plans, asked yesterday for emergency powers to cope with growing political and economic chaos.

Pounding on a wooden lectern, Mr. Gorbachev warned of a spreading "paralysis of power," with old Communist hierarchies no longer functioning and newly elected bodies failing to act decisively. He said that, where necessary, he would consider dissolving local elected councils and imposing direct presidential rule.

"We now are in a dangerous situation, one fraught with serious hazards, and we must act," he told the Supreme Soviet. He spoke of the danger of the breakup of the Soviet Union into "15 nuclear powers," referring to the 15 republics -- a prospect, he said, that "makes the world community tremble."

He said that in the face of "vandalism" -- an apparent reference to recent attacks on monuments to V. I. Lenin, KGB offices and other targets of public scorn -- local officials are remaining "on the sidelines."

"I think we've reached the point when we cannot be on the sidelines. I ask you for these powers, and we will act," he said, drawing applause from some deputies.

Ironically, at the end of a stormy day of debate, so many deputies had left for the weekend that there was no longer a quorum. Neither the economic program nor the expanded presidential powers could be voted on, and the decisions were postponed till Monday.

The language of the draft act that would grant Mr. Gorbachev emergency powers is somewhat vague, but it appears to give him the right to impose new regulations and laws unilaterally as long as they are connected in some way with economic reform. The Supreme Soviet would have the right to cancel or amend the presidential order after the fact.

Mr. Gorbachev said he understood that the emergency powers act would give him the right to take actions in violation of existing law. He gave the example of the possibility of cutting the Ministry of Finance staff by 20 percent, which he said would violate existing budget laws.

Illustrating what he called a crisis of executive power, Mr. Gorbachev said that only 10 percent of the potato crop has been harvested in the countryside around Moscow. He said that the critically slow harvest was partly a result of constant rain but that local authorities had not adequately responded to it.

Three days ago, he said, he summoned Moscow Communist Party boss Yuri A. Prokofiev and ordered him to summon Communists who are directors of major enterprises in the capital. Mr. Prokofiev passed on Mr. Gorbachev's "party request" that the factory directors drop everything to "save the harvest," and they quickly mobilized their workers to help with gathering crops.

Betraying considerable nostalgia for the old command system of running the economy, Mr. Gorbachev said: "They said, 'What's the conversation for? The party has asked us. We'll do anything.' There were no questions. They began to divide up roles -- who goes to which district, what money is used, what transport and so on. They took the matter in hand."

The story dramatizes the dilemma facing Mr. Gorbachev: To modernize the economy and raise the living standard the Soviet Union must shift to a market economy. But the shift will inevitably be extremely disruptive, and people must still be fed, clothed and housed in the meantime.

In general, the recurring note in yesterday's economic debate was bafflement. Confusion and trepidation about the market make the deputies apparently quite willing to give greater powers -- and greater responsibility for the consequences -- to Mr. Gorbachev.

But a minority said they think the move would be a dangerous precedent in a country trying to build a law-based state with separation of legislative and executive power.

Sergei V. Belozertsev, a radical deputy from Karelia, said in an interview that the measure was "anti-constitutional" and would therefore undermine stability and respect for law rather than stabilize the situation.

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