MOSCOW -- Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin denounced yesterday a plan to deploy troops in Soviet cities as unconstitutional and the latest infringement of republics' rights.
"There were no consultations with the republics" on the order of the ministers of defense and internal affairs to begin patrols this Friday, Mr. Yeltsin said in a meeting with workers, as reported by Soviet radio. "This order once again shows the attitude of the center to the sovereignty of the republics."
The Russian leader, seen as the strongest advocate for the republics against the increasingly hard-line stance of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, said "conservative forces are actively consolidating." He did not indicate what action he might take in Russia against the patrol decree, which has been denounced by leaders of Moscow, Leningrad and several republics.
A top police official last night explained the army patrols on Soviet television as a crime-fighting measure. Many republican and city leaders have scoffed at that explanation, saying that the crime rate hardly warrants an effective declaration of martial law and predicting that the troops would provoke more unrest than they deter, as has been the case with recent violence in the Baltic capitals of Vilnius and Riga.
Several sources linked the plan to price increases on food and consumer goods variously predicted for February or March. They said the government feared massive protests against the higher prices.
A prominent Russian businessman and legislator said the KGB, dTC acting on a decree issued Saturday by President Gorbachev, began searches yesterday morning of his and several other private businesses.
He said five businesses had called him to report KGB or police visits under the decree, which allows agents to view or seize records, cash and bank accounts and to take other actions in the name of fighting "economic sabotage."
The businessman, Artyom Tarasov, said an earlier decree of Mr. Gorbachev's on currency reform had drastically limited access of private businesses to their own money in bank accounts, with disastrous consequences for the struggling private sector.
The second decree, authorizing KGB searches of any premises used or believed to be used for any kind of commercial activity, will scare off many Western partners, Mr. Tarasov said.
"The decrees have virtually liquidated the free market in the Soviet Union," Mr. Tarasov said.
He said he believed the Gorbachev leadership may be reorienting its economic and political strategy from the West to Japan, which Mr. Gorbachev is scheduled to visit in April. He said the regime sees in Japan a more reliable potential partner with fewer concerns about Soviet democracy and greater sympathy for a state-controlled economy.
Japan, in turn, has a long-term need for Soviet natural resources and labor, he said.
Mr. Tarasov said he believes that during the April visit Mr. Gorbachev will take a step toward turning over to Japan the disputed Kurile Islands, whose status has been the major stumbling block to improved relations. Japan will respond with major aid, credit and investment programs, Mr. Tarasov predicted.
Mr. Tarasov said such an approach would meet Mr. Gorbachev's three goals: to preserve Communist Party rule in the Soviet Union; to strengthen his power as president; and to develop the Soviet economy.
A Japanese journalist said he thought the general scheme proposed by Mr. Tarasov credible, but he doubted Japan would do anything that would risk offending the United States. A Western diplomat declared the theory "intriguing. It would explain a lot of what seems to make no sense," he added.
The Soviet military continues to keep up the pressure on Lithuania, where 14 people died in an army seizure of broadcast facilities Jan. 20.
Sunday night, troops destroyed two customs posts set up by the Lithuanian government, threatening unarmed customs officers with their guns, the Lithuanian information office said. Reporters in Vilnius said that armored vehicles were moving in the city at night and that soldiers were stopping cars and checking identification.
Meanwhile, a new coalition of 31 democratic parties from most of the 15 republics called for a campaign of civil disobedience and other action to oppose what members see as a return to centralized Soviet dictatorship.
The coalition, called the Democratic Congress, held its founding conference in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov over the weekend.
It endorsed creating a Commonwealth of Sovereign States, along lines proposed by Mr. Yeltsin, to be formed voluntarily by republics choosing to join and to replace the current U.S.S.R.
Mr. Gorbachev has ordered a nationwide referendum March 17 on whether to preserve the U.S.S.R. The Democratic Congress said voters should be offered a choice between the centralized, federal state offered by Mr. Gorbachev and the plan for a commonwealth of independent states.
If no such choice is offered, leaders of the coalition said, they will urge people to vote against preservation of the union, said Lev Ponomaryov, a Russian activist and leader of the Democratic Congress.