Shevardnadze explains fears of military crackdown

January 03, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze submitted his resignation last month because he feared that demands for order could end with a military crackdown that would undermine domestic reform and East-West relations, he said in an interview published yesterday.

"I am not certain that presidential rule, or any other punitive measures, in whatever direction they may be aimed, can be a means to resolve our current problems," Mr. Shevardnadze told Moscow News in his first interview since his dramatic resignation speech Dec. 20 warning of "dictatorship on the offensive."

"It is very difficult for me to reconcile myself to the thought that as a backdrop for democratization, force, lawlessness and reprisals are acceptable," he said. He referred to Soviet military attacks on nationalist demonstrators in his native Georgia and in Azerbaijan over the last two years as examples of what he feared.

Meanwhile yesterday, submachine-gun-toting Soviet troops occupied the main publishing house in the Latvian capital, Riga, and reclaimed it on behalf of the Communist Party, defying the decision of the republic's parliament to nationalize the plant.

Soldiers shot out the tires of a van from which Latvian officials were observing the action and pointed a submachine gun at the deputy chairman of the parliament to prevent him from entering the building, the parliament's press center reported.

The Latvian parliament condemned the action and demanded the troops' withdrawal, and several thousand demonstrators rallied in protest. Most of the 1,300 journalists and printers at Press House, as the facility is called, refused to work, adopting a resolution saying it was impossible to work "at gunpoint."

But the Latvian Communist Party's hard-line leader, Alfred Rubiks, said the seizure was justified by a decree of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev authorizing use of force to defend Communist Party property. "The publishing house is the property of the party, and we will protect it," he told the Soviet news agency Tass.

In Vilnius, meanwhile, troops tightened control of the headquarters building of the Lithuanian Communist Party, dismissing local police guards. As in Riga, special units of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs known as "Black Berets" were used, underscoring the close ties of the police and military to the Communist Party.

Both moves appeared to be designed to keep up the psychological pressure on independence-minded Baltic leaders, reminding them that local Communists can call on the force represented by the Kremlin in the political conflict over the republics' future.

More broadly, the troops' actions take place against the background of a general toughening of Moscow's political line, particularly toward rebellious republics. That shift prompted Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation speech before the Congress of People's Deputies.

His speech, the first warning of possible dictatorship from a senior reformist official, has provoked doubts in the West about Mr. Gorbachev's ability and desire to continue democratic reform.

Mr. Shevardnadze, who turns 63 this month, has agreed to continue in his job until a successor is named. There have been contradictory reports about whether Mr. Gorbachev, who reacted angrily to the surprise resignation, might try to persuade him to stay on or offer him another post.

In his remarks to Moscow News, Mr. Shevardnadze had words of praise and sympathy for the Soviet president. "And, of course, today it is harder for the president than anyone else: He was the first to make a resolute beginning, and the first to show great courage. It is very hard for him now," he was quoted as saying.

Nonetheless, his criticism of the option of direct presidential rule in trouble spots runs directly against Mr. Gorbachev's recent threats to use such a measure.

To some degree, the Moscow News interview dispelled the mystery surrounding Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation. Little light had been shed on his motives, and last Friday, conservative Soviet television chief Leonid P. Kravchenko banned the country's most popular TV show, "Vzglyad" (View), because its hosts intended to explore the Shevardnadze affair.

In the interview, Mr. Shevardnadze suggested that his speech was prompted not by inside information about specific plans for a crackdown but about the general course of events in recent weeks.

Despite the success of the Soviet Union's reformist foreign policy, he said, "Eventually I realized that if destabilization of the country continued, and the democratization process stopped, then it would be impossible to follow the previous foreign policy course.

"The development of events could lead to a repeat of what happened in Tbilisi or Baku. What would be the good of talking about new thinking [the policy behind Soviet disarmament initiatives] then?" he asked.

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