MOSCOW -- The military regime of right-wing Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet, who ruled for more than 16 years after toppling a socialist government in 1973, not surprisingly was long a target of bitter Kremlin invective.
Hence the astonishment of reporters yesterday when a top Communist Party associate of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev held up General Pinochet's Chile as a model for the future of the Soviet Union.
Listing Japan, South Korea and Spain as countries with valuable economic lessons for the U.S.S.R., Moscow's party chief, Yuri A. Prokofiev, declared: "I would not be afraid to name even Chile, where developed market infrastructures were created in a short period of time."
At a press conference, Mr. Prokofiev, a member of the party's Politburo, offered a number of clues to what Mr. Gorbachev is planning as he seems to retreat from democratic reforms he has launched over the past few years.
Mr. Prokofiev suggested that the Soviet Union's hard-won press freedom, already curbed in recent months, will be curtailed even more.
He said republics would be allowed to secede only under the laborious process laid out in a law passed last year, which many republican leaders consider a thinly disguised attempt to prevent secession.
And he implied that Western, free-enterprise models for a market economy are being junked in favor of strict state control of the transition.
Meanwhile yesterday, Mr. Gorbachev issued the latest of numerous decrees whose ostensible purpose is to combat crime but which appear to have a parallel, political goal.
The decree sets up a new department in the Ministry of Internal Affairs to combat organized crime, corruption and the illegal narcotics trade. It calls for regional investigative units to be established to answer directly to the new department and to be equipped with the latest crime-fighting technology.
Many republics are likely to be wary of Kremlin-controlled police units in their own ministries of internal affairs. The suspicion will be compounded by the units' special responsibility for corruption -- an easily fabricated charge that could be used to remove uncooperative republican leaders.
Also yesterday, Mr. Gorbachev promoted his new Minister of Internal Affairs, Boris K. Pugo, to the military rank of colonel general.
The promotion comes after Soviet troops, including some under Mr. Pugo's control, were responsible for violence that cost 20 lives in Lithuania and Latvia last month. Mr. Pugo defended the troops' conduct in Vilnius before the Soviet parliament.
Thus the promotion sent an unmistakable message: The force used by Mr. Pugo's troops and defended by him was no mistake.
At his press conference, Mr. Prokofiev insisted that -- contrary to the views of virtually every Soviet and foreign observer outside the Communist Party leadership -- there had been no conservative turn in Mr. Gorbachev's policies.
He said the "most important directions" of the reforms remain: transition to a market economy; tolerance of competing, non-Communist political parties; and transfer of political and economic management from party structures to elected soviets, or government councils.
But as Mr. Prokofiev himself acknowledged, no party comes close to the Communist Party in size and power, and none is likely to grow fast as long as the media and economy are controlled by the Communist Party. Most soviets are still Communist-controlled.
Significantly, Mr. Prokofiev did not mention among the important goals of the reforms glasnost, the policy of openness in the media.
In fact, he said he expects Mr. Gorbachev to move soon to impose stricter control on the state media, which include all television broadcasting, virtually all radio stations and such key newspapers as Izvestia.
Mr. Prokofiev said Mr. Gorbachev believes such control is necessary because some state-run media have taken stances too critical of the government and president.
He held up Voice of America as a model for government control, saying the U.S.-government broadcaster is subject to censorship and cannot take stands critical of the U.S. government. Voice of America, however, broadcasts only to foreign audiences, while the Soviet state media to which Mr. Prokofiev referred are aimed at domestic audiences.
In the spirit of the Kremlin stance, the national television news program Vremya last night attacked plans of the Lithuanian leadership to hold a plebiscite on independence Saturday.
Interviewing residents of a heavily Polish district where opposition to independence runs high, the program said the plebiscite would decide nothing while further aggravating political conflict in the republic.
Vremya said the question on the ballot -- which asks whether a person agrees with the Lithuanian constitution's description of the republic as "democratic and independent" -- would not determine people's views of secession from the U.S.S.R. The broadcast implied that Lithuania could be "independent" while remaining inside the U.S.S.R.
Ironically, the Soviet authorities have long faulted the pro-independence Lithuanian leadership for not carrying out a referendum on secession. The Lithuanians, in turn, have replied that because the republic was occupied by force in 1940 and never legally entered the U.S.S.R., it remains independent in the eyes of the law and many inhabitants.
Now the Lithuanians have announced a referendum, which is likely to return a lopsided pro-independence stand. So Moscow is rushing to discredit the poll in advance..
Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis said yesterday that a "yes" vote in the poll would be a vote for Lithuanian independence outside the U.S.S.R.