MOSCOW -- Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, one of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's closest political allies and co-architect of a foreign policy that has changed the world, said yesterday he was resigning because reactionary forces are pushing the country toward dictatorship.
"Dictatorship is on the offensive -- I say that with full responsibility," Mr. Shevardnadze declared, describing his resignation as a protest against what he said was an imminent threat of tyranny in the Soviet Union.
Mr. Shevardnadze's statement stunned and angered Mr. Gorbachev, who accused his foreign minister of panicking and of abandoning the government in the midst of crisis. It shocked and divided the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies and left the international community worried about the fate of Soviet reforms.
After two phone conversations with Mr. Gorbachev later yesterday, Mr. Shevardnadze agreed to continue to work until the parliament can formally consider his resignation. But he insisted that his decision was final.
Mr. Gorbachev later said he "condemned" Mr. Shevardnadze's decision to resign without consulting or informing him. "This is what hurts most," he said.
He said he had been planning to nominate Mr. Shevardnadze for the See new post of vice president, as had been widely rumored. He implied that he might not now make the nomination but said that Mr. Shevardnadze's career "is not being written off."
While subject to various interpretations, Mr. Shevardnadze's impassioned warning against dictatorship represents by far the most authoritative confirmation to date that the Soviet right wing threatens to halt the transformation of totalitarianism launched five years ago by Mr. Gorbachev.
He did not appear to be accusing Mr. Gorbachev of dictatorial ambitions but seemed to be responding to the Soviet president's increasing reliance on the army, KGB and central ministries.
"I think it's a very serious warning to the world and to the Soviet people," said political scientist Oleg T. Bogomolov in an interview. "He warned us of the possibility of a coup d'etat and military dictatorship in the U.S.S.R., and we should take it
Mr. Gorbachev, concerned about international reaction, hastened to say that Soviet foreign policy would not change with Mr. Shevardnadze's departure. He said a strengthening of legal, central power was necessary to halt anarchy and disintegration that could open the way for a tyrant.
"At issue is strong power rather than dictatorship. The two concepts should not be mixed up," he said.
Mr. Shevardnadze, 62, dropped his bombshell before the 1,700 deputies, who had expected him to deliver an official report on foreign policy. Instead, he said that he had prepared a written report and that he would make "the shortest and most difficult statement of my life."
In the emotional, 15-minute speech that followed, Mr. Shevardnadze expressed bitterness and exasperation at criticism of Soviet foreign policy and of him personally from those he called "reactionaries," distinguishing them from "conservatives" he said he respected. He spoke of the intense political battle between reformers and such reaction
aries at last summer's Communist Party Congress.
"Comrade democrats," he continued, consulting notes and shaking a fist in the air, "you have scattered. The reformers have hidden in the bushes. Dictatorship is on the offensive -- I say that with full responsibility. No one knows what kind of dictatorship it will be, who will come to power, what kind of dictator, and what order will be established.
"I want to make the following statement: I am resigning. Don't react, don't reproach me. Let this be my contribution, if you wish -- my protest against the advance of dictatorship."
Mr. Gorbachev watched in stone-faced silence as he went on: "I express my deep gratitude to Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. I am his friend; I am his ally. I have always supported and will support, until the end of my days, the ideas of perestroika, of renewal, of democratization.
"We have accomplished great deeds in the international area. But I consider it my duty [to resign] as man and citizen, as a Communist. I cannot reconcile myself to the events taking place in our country, and to all the trials that await our people. I nonetheless believe that dictatorship will not succeed, that the future belongs to freedom and democracy."
As he stalked away from the podium, most deputies began to applaud, then stood for an extended ovation. Though several members of the congress presidium onstage stood and clapped, Mr. Gorbachev remained seated and motionless.
Soviet deputies and journalists and foreign diplomats read the drama variously: as the outburst of an exhausted, insulted and possibly unstable man, as a political ploy to rally reformist forces, even as the indirect reaction of a proud ethnic Georgian caught in the escalating clash between Mr. Gorbachev and Georgia's nationalist leadership.