MOSCOW -- Saying that "society is in danger," Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov declared a "war on crime" yesterday and appealed to veterans of the war in Afghanistan to take to the streets to stop criminals.
"We'll take the most severe measures to restore order in the country," Mr. Ryzhkov said in a televised interview. "People are tired of it all. People are waiting to find out: When at last will order be restored?"
Mr. Ryzhkov was reacting to the latest statistics on crime in the Soviet Union, which show a substantial rise from last year's record level. In 1989, crime was up 33 percent over the previous year, with serious crime rising 41 percent, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The first eight months of this year showed a further rise of 14 percent overall and 20 percent for serious crimes, Mr. Ryzhkov said. The number of murders through the end of August reached 16,400, a number roughly comparable to the U.S. total.
Traditionally, Mr. Ryzhkov noted, the Soviet Union has boasted relatively safe streets. "We were proud that at any time of day or night, a Soviet person could walk down the street and no one would touch him," he said.
Now, personal security has become a constant concern for city dwellers, he said. "How can a man work in a factory or in an institute if he's thinking, 'What happened to my family at home? Did my daughter get to school? Did my wife get home OK?' "
Mr. Ryzhkov virtually called for vigilante action. "Let's go out on the streets. Let's help the police. We'll be helping ourselves. Listen, we have some great fellows -- the 'Afghantsy' [veterans of the war in Afghanistan]. I appeal to them: Help," he said.
While a natural enough response of a government official to rising crime, Mr. Ryzhkov's remarks also have unmistakable political implications.
The 61-year-old Mr. Ryzhkov, a former industrial manager and prime minister for the entire period of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reforms, has been engaged lately in a media campaign to counter his sinking standing in opinion polls and the chorus of calls for his resignation.
Moreover, his latest plan for a transition to a market economy is clearly running second in both professional and popular opinion to the more radical plan of Stanislav S. Shatalin.
But rather than make a quiet exit, Mr. Ryzhkov has mounted an energetic campaign to slow down economic change and preserve his job. In weekly television interviews with a fawning reporter who mutters encouragement and avoids ticklish questions, Mr. Ryzhkov portrays himself as a man of action and defender of the ordinary citizen.
His promise to "restore order" does have a large and growing following as economic and political chaos spreads.
In one populist appeal last night, Mr. Ryzhkov lashed out at "speculation" -- the Soviet term for selling goods for considerably more than they were bought for. Such profiteering is widespread because the controlled prices of the state sector exist side-by-side with far higher prices of the growing private sector, creating a powerful incentive to buy subsidized state goods and resell them illegally.
Yet, as Mr. Ryzhkov knows, the Shatalin plan for a transition to market proposes to repeal all laws banning "speculation" and to release and rehabilitate those convicted under them. Mr. Shatalin considers "speculators" to be normal entrepreneurs seeking a profit.
Mr. Ryzhkov reported a meeting Thursday to discuss crime with Vadim V. Bakatin, the minister of internal affairs, and Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, the intelligence agency that has been seeking a new role in fighting organized crime.
He said that both men had been told their agencies were falling short in the battle against crime and that he gave Mr. Bakatin a "stern warning."