MOSCOW -- Signs were growing yesterday that the Kremlin is preparing for a major crackdown in the Baltic republics and other areas of ethnic tension, possibly including imposition of direct rule by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Saying he had learned from "bitter experience" that appeals for ethnic peace have been ignored, Mr. Gorbachev told the Congress of People's Deputies he is prepared to suspend local authorities and take direct control in trouble spots, as permitted by the Soviet Constitution.
"Where the situation becomes especially tense, creating a serious threat to the security of the state or to people's lives, it will be necessary to impose a state of emergency or presidential rule," Mr. Gorbachev said.
Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, who is widely believed to be on his way out, told the Congress that perestroika as it was conceived when Mr. Gorbachev came to power in 1985 had failed, partly because of "destructive forces."
"Here we need firmness. We should have shown it earlier, when the fire of national hatred was just beginning in some regions," Mr. Ryzhkov said.
"Now, when the scale of this disaster for the people is growing steadi
ly, and the lives of thousands of innocent people are under threat, there may arise the necessity of taking severe measures."
Defense Minister Dmitry T. Yazov told reporters during a break in the session, "You can't keep watching people die. It is necessary to ensure order."
Their remarks coincided with a strongly worded appeal from 50 prominent citizens, mostly conservatives, for presidential rule in areas of conflict. Signatories include Mikhail A. Moiseyev, chief of staff of the Soviet armed forces; Yuri V. Shatalin, commander of Ministry of Internal Affairs troops; Patriarch Alexi, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church; Soviet Minister of Culture Nikolai Gubenko; and several Russian nationalist writers, Communist Party officials and factory directors.
The appeal assured Mr. Gorbachev that a crackdown would be backed by the Communist Party, the armed forces, many cultural figures and even "leaders of world politics," who it said are more afraid of a disintegrating Soviet Union than of a totalitarian Soviet Union.
At the same time, Soviet television stepped up a propaganda campaign against the Latvian leadership, using five minor explosions in Riga recently to charge nationalists with resorting to terror. Latvian officials say that the bombs were a right-wing provocation creating a pretext
for a crackdown.
The most prominent voice countering the apparently orchestrated calls for a crackdown was that of Russian Federation leader Boris N. Yeltsin, who said the Kremlin leadership was trying to preserve its power at any price.
He warned against increasing power for Mr. Gorbachev, whose proposed powers he said would be unequaled in Soviet history.
"In fact, the center is trying to create constitutionally an unlimited authoritarian regime, which could in the end find constitutional justification for any dictatorial act," Mr. Yeltsin said.
Far from trying to break up the union, he said, he and other republican leaders are trying to use the last chance to save it. He noted that while most republics are refusing or delaying the signing of Mr. Gorbachev's proposed union treaty, they are actively concluding economic and political agreements with one another.
Yesterday, for example, two rebellious republics, Lithuania and Moldova, signed a detailed agreement on economic and political cooperation during 1991.
Over the past month, Mr. Gorbachev has taken a sharp turn to the right, increasing his dependence on the KGB and army and toughening his rhetoric in the face of republican defiance.
But it is unclear to what degree the shift is a tactical move to appease conservatives. While expressing a willingness to resort to presidential rule, he yesterday also took pains to stress the delicacy of inter-ethnic conflict.
"I sense deep dissatisfaction that we have not managed to protect the individual, the family, the rights of the individual," he said. "We should correct the situation."
He said the leadership was "extremely disturbed" by developments in the breakaway Baltic republics, where citizenship laws may deprive many recent, mostly Slavic migrants of full citizenship rights.
"That's not compatible with any constitutions or laws, including international agreements on human rights," he said. He said a half-century of inclusion in the U.S.S.R. had created ties that would be hard to break, and reiterated his proposals for referendums on both the future of the union and private ownership of land.
Mr. Gorbachev has ordered crackdowns before to control the forces his own reforms have unleashed.
In December, 1988, he ordered the arrest of top Armenian nationalist leaders. But they were released after six months, as their detention proved an increasing embarrassment and heightened rather than curbed Armenian nationalism.
0$ Two of those arrested are now Ar
menia's president and prime minister.