Soviet showdown looms over rally ban in Moscow

March 27, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Moscow officials and the Democratic Russia reform movement flatly rejected yesterday the Kremlin's new ban on political demonstrations and vowed that a rally in support of Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin would go ahead tomorrow as planned.

But Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, apparently determined to prevent any show of popular backing for his chief political rival, stripped the reformist Moscow leadership of control over the capital's police force. His decree put the force directly under the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs.

In a 90-minute television interview last night, Mr. Gorbachev made clear that he had initiated the three-week ban on Moscow demonstrations imposed starting yesterday by the Cabinet of Ministers.

He said the ban was necessary to eliminate undue pressure on BTC the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet, which is now in session, and the Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation, which is to open tomorrow.

"All our constitutional organs should be safeguarded at this time from any kind of rule-by-rally, any pressure on deputies," Mr. Gorbachev said. "That's no good. What kind of democracy is that?"

Two hours earlier, on another television channel, Yuri M. Luzhkov, Moscow's city manager, said he believed that both the ban on demonstrations and the transfer of Moscow police were ill-advised and unconstitutional.

He said Democratic Russia, which encompasses all the significant non-Communist parties and political groups, had applied for a rally permit 10 days in advance as required by law and had previously proved that it was capable of running orderly mass meetings.

"The rally will take place," Mr. Luzhkov declared.

Historian Yuri N. Afanasyev, a leader of Democratic Russia, denounced the ban as what he called the latest step in a deliberate march toward dictatorship on the part of Mr. Gorbachev. He and other reformers noted that the ban is to last until April 15 -- long enough to prevent or dampen any street protests of sharp price increases of food and consumer goods set for April 2.

The stage was set for a confrontation tomorrow evening of unprecedented scale, in which tens of thousands of demonstrators could find themselves facing hundreds of troops

and police ordered to stop them. As the object of a political tug of war, the police may be getting contradictory commands from different bosses.

In the past, Moscow police frequently have broken up small, unsanctioned demonstrations involving dozens of participants. But they have never tried to prevent the big rallies that have drawn crowds of 100,000 and up to Manezhnaya Square, next to the Kremlin, in the past 13 months.

Neither side showed any inclination to back down. Rally organizers said they would encourage City Council and parliament members to march to discourage violence.

The rally is set to coincide with the opening day of the special Russian Federation Congress, where Communist hard-liners are expected to seek the removal of Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Gorbachev's populist nemesis.

Rumors of troops and military equipment deployed around Moscow swept the city, and the City Council newspaper Kuranty ran a front-page photograph of several dozen armored vehicles that arrived in the city last weekend. The newspaper expressed skepticism at the army's assertion that the vehicles were simply in transit.

Moscow Police Chief Pyotr Bogdanov, a Kremlin loyalist, told the Communist Party daily Pravda that he feared weapons might be used during the rally. Rally organizers denied the accusation and said it suggested that authorities were planning a provocation during the event to discredit democratic forces.

"We will never call on people to storm the armored vehicles or take any other violent actions," Democratic Russia leader Lev Ponomaryov told reporters.

The controversy over the rally resembles the larger standoff nationally over the coal miners' strike, which in three weeks has closed about one-fourth of Soviet pits and begun to force the closing of metallurgy plants.

The U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet passed a decree yesterday "suspending" the strike for two months. But initial response from the big coal fields of the Kuzbas in Siberia and the Donbas in the Ukraine was negative, and it appeared that most strikers would ignore the return-to-work order.

Some miners have forgone economic demands and are making only political demands: the resignations of Mr. Gorbachev and Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov, dissolution of the Soviet parliament and a shift of power from Moscow to the republics.

The lengthy, unusual television interview with Mr. Gorbachev aired last night illustrated the credibility problem he faces as he claims to be pressing ahead with reform.

While stressing his continued devotion to democracy and openness, Mr. Gorbachev was interviewed by Leonid P. Kravchenko, head of state television, who has emasculated news and commentary programs since the Soviet president appointed him a few months ago.

With Mr. Gorbachev's evident approval, Mr. Kravchenko canceled "Vzglyad" (View), a lively interview and investigative show that drew the highest ratings in the country. He recently fired the three most popular anchors for Television News Service, previously a bold alternative to the staid official news show "Vremya."

Though last night Mr. Gorbachev stressed his desire to form a "centrist" coalition to back reform, he dismissed his political opponents as "adventurists" and said they were incompetent.

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