MOSCOW -- Trying to quell a firestorm of domestic and Western criticism, Mikhail S. Gorbachev denied last night that he ordered Soviet troops' attacks in two Baltic capitals and said he had not abandoned his course toward democracy, press freedom and a market economy.
"Neither domestic nor foreign policy has undergone changes," Mr. Gorbachev said at a hastily summoned news conference.
He lashed out at foreign criticism, saying that it was "reminiscent of the ideological warfare of the past" and that it was based on a misunderstanding of Soviet policy.
"It will be regrettable and dangerous if as a result of such a wrong interpretation, recent achievements in international relations are threatened," he said.
He condemned as "strange and absurd" appeals of the Baltic republics and the Russian Federation to the United Nations for assistance in settling peacefully the conflict between Moscow and secessionist republics.
"The country's internal problems should be settled exclusively by the Soviet people," he said.
Appearing deeply resentful of his critics, Mr. Gorbachev read a prepared statement on the domestic situation and made brief remarks on the Persian Gulf war. He refused to take questions and left with a tense smile, saying, "I think we'll meet again."
In his statement, he declared that "the developments in Vilnius and Riga are by no means expressions of the policy of presidential power. Therefore I resolutely reject all speculation, suspicions and slander on that score."
He said that neither a paratroopers' assault on Lithuanian broadcast facilities Jan. 13, which left 14 dead, nor riot troops' attack on Latvian police headquarters a week later, which cost five lives, had resulted from "mythical orders from higher authorities."
Instead, he blamed elected nationalist leaders of the Baltic republics for "unlawful acts, trampling on the [Soviet] constitution, disregard for presidential decrees, flagrant violation of civil rights, discrimination against other nationalities and shameful behavior toward the army, servicemen and their families." He said such conduct had "created an environment in which these kind of clashes can flare up very easily."
While saying troops' actions would be "carefully investigated and judged under the law," he appeared to some degree to defend the assault on Lithuanian broadcast facilities, saying the leadership would not tolerate inflammatory propaganda.
"Certainly this does not mean we can close our eyes when propaganda -- yes, precisely propaganda, let's call things by their names -- are deliberately used to provoke chaos, panic, ethnic strife, to pit the army against the people, for calls to disregard laws," he said. He clearly was referring to Lithuanian TV and radio broadcasts the army used tanks and automatic weapons to halt.
Mr. Gorbachev likewise repeated his long-standing demand that the Baltic republics cancel all laws contradicting the Soviet Constitution, and he attacked recent moves in support of the Baltics by Russian Federation leader Boris N. Yeltsin.
He specifically took Mr. Yeltsin to task for raising the possibility that a Russian army might be necessary to defend Russian sovereignty from Moscow. "Such irresponsible statements are fraught with serious dangers," he said.
Mr. Gorbachev's decision to make the statement appeared to be dictated by unprecedented criticism by the United States and many European countries of what is being seen as his dramatic move to the right. It undoubtedly was also intended as an answer to the more than 100,000 people who rallied in Moscow Sunday to demand his resignation.
The president postponed a scheduled meeting yesterday of the Federation Council, made up of the leaders of the 15 republics, presumably because he wanted to put off a major confrontation over republican rights.
In recent months, Mr. Gorbachev has replaced top reformist aides with hard-liners, has come to rely more and more on the KGB and army and has even called for a return to state control of the press.
To counter the notion that reformers have abandoned him, he was accompanied to the news conference by the new foreign minister, Alexander Bessmertnykh, who is considered a liberal, as well as by Alexander N. Yakovlev and Yevgeny M. Primakov, old allies who had been reported to have left Mr. Gorbachev's staff.
Yet the Soviet president's appearance left many unanswered questions, and it was far from clear that it would reassure his critics.
He offered the republics no compromise and did nothing to veer from his collision course with Mr. Yeltsin, who has enormous public support. His inflexible stance appeared to ignore the political reality of powerful secession movements.
In the wake of the Soviet troops' violence, the independence movements have grown still stronger. Mr. Gorbachev's repetitive demand that republican parliaments cancel most of their legislation appeared unrealistic.
For instance, in Lithuania, the chief target of his wrath, a new poll shows that 93 percent of the republic's residents support the declaration of independence passed by parliament last March and denounced by the Soviet president.
More strikingly, the percentage of ethnic Russians and Poles backing independence has risen dramatically: from 28 percent and 12 percent respectively six months ago to 75 percent and 66 percent today. The figures were from a poll conducted the day after the troops' assault.