MOSCOW -- Thousands of Soviet paratroopers were dispatched yesterday to seven rebellious republics to enforce last autumn's military draft, which was ignored by most of those called up in the seven republics, often with the support of laws passed by local parliaments.
Moscow's challenge to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and the western Ukraine is likely to meet with bitter resistance if troops launch a house-to-house search for draft dodgers. However, it appeared that troops would not use force until at least next week.
The order was viewed by some republican officials as a deliberate attempt to provoke conflict, creating a pretext for suspending republican parliaments and imposing presidential rule from Moscow. Some fear that a crackdown may be timed to take place when the world's attention is focused on the Persian Gulf.
The move came 18 days after Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze submitted his resignation in protest of what he called "dictatorship on the offensive." In an interview last week, he said he feared tough moves by the Kremlin would inevitably lead to bloody conflict with the republics.
But Latvian President Anatolijs Gorbunovs told journalists in Riga that Col. Gen. Fyodor Kuzmin, head of the Baltic military district, said no force would be used before Sunday to allow time for negotiations and for draft-age men to report voluntarily for duty.
General Kuzmin also reportedly said that if Latvian deserters or draft dodgers appeal directly to him, he will give them the chance to do their two-year service in the republic, said Ingrida Shmite, spokeswoman for the Latvian People's Front. In many republics, draftees fear they will be subject to ethnic harassment or violence if they are sent elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
The operation was ordered by Defense Minister Dmitry T. Yazov, who said he was carrying out a decree issued by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev on Dec. 1 that declared void republican laws suspending or restricting the Soviet draft.
Mr. Gorbachev issued a separate decree yesterday aimed at halting violence between Georgians and Ossetians that reportedly took three lives Sunday in South Ossetia, a small mountainous territory in the north of Georgia. The decree risks direct confrontation with Georgia's new, nationalist leadership, elected last fall in multiparty elections.
The draft-enforcement order and dispatch of troops was denounced by Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis in a radio interview as a "provocation" aimed at destabilizing the republics.
The deputy chairman of the Latvian parliament, Dainis Ivans, at a conference in Helsinki, Finland, called the troop movements a step toward a nationwide military regime. Former Estonian Prime Minister Indrek Toome, at the same conference, told Reuters the move "is not a military operation, it's a political operation. The aim is to stop the democratic process in the Baltic republics."
Reports conflicted on the number of troops being sent and whether the troop deployment could be delayed or canceled. The Defense Ministry announcement said only that "paratroopers will be used to help enforce the draft."
Shmite said Mr. Gorbunovs said 2,000 paratroopers were being sent to each of the Baltic republics, while other sources gave higher figures. She said "the troops are on their way, if they're not already here."
Estonian radio reported, however, that General Kuzmin had raised the possibility that the troops might not be deployed at all if republican officials delivered all those sought to local draft boards. There were no reports of such an offer from other republics.
Laws restricting the draft have been passed in several of the 15 republics, either out of fear for the safety of the young men drafted or because of the conviction that the Soviet army is an occupying force.
A Latvian law passed last spring, for instance, gives draft-age men the option of joining the Soviet army or pursuing alternative service in the republic, in jobs that included hospital orderly, customs worker and border guard, Ms. Shmite said.
She said she believed that about 2,000 men now are performing alternative service, while another 900 or so declined to respond to the draft call in any way.
The U.S.S.R. Defense Ministry reported the following percentages of draftees in the autumn 1990 call-up had reported for duty: Georgia, 10 percent; Lithuania, 12.5 percent; Estonia, 24.5 percent; Latvia, 25.3 percent; Armenia, 28.1 percent; Moldova, 58.9 percent. The draft has fallen far short of its goal in the western Ukraine as well, though a specific figure was not given.
Nationwide, 78.8 percent of the quota was met. The figures were similar, and in some cases even lower, in last spring's draft. But no national campaign was launched then to force young men to sign up.
In all of 1990, about 35,000 men evaded the draft nationwide, Marshal Yazov said recently. In addition, 4,300 deserters were being shielded from prosecution by local authorities, he said.