MOSCOW -- In the latest ironic turn in Soviet politics, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev urged the West yesterday to intervene in what the Kremlin zealously guarded for decades as "Soviet internal affairs."
He said at the first major international human rights conference in this country that it was in Western Europe's interest to prevent violations of minorities' rights in the former Soviet republics as they assert their sovereignty or independence.
"If Europe doesn't want to be faced with a flood of refugees, armed conflicts, interethnic hatred . . . it should pay close attention to the observation of minority rights in all states across the continent," he told the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. "Otherwise, the entire European process will collapse, burying human rights under it."
Since the swift crumbling of the hard-line coup last month led to the dissolution of the Communist Party and weakened central power, interethnic conflicts in a number of republics have reignited. Tensions are running especially high in Georgia and Moldova.
At the same time, the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have achieved recognition as independent countries -- bringing the number of CSCE member states to 38 -- and a number of other republics are striving for such status. Moscow has accepted that even those republics remaining in the planned"Union of Sovereign States" would be able to join the United Nations and have direct diplomatic relations with other countries.
In effect, Mr. Gorbachev said that if Soviet troops were no longer going to play the role of buffer and arbiter in disputes in the former Soviet republics, the world at large may have to fill in the gap.
The Soviet president devoted much of his half-hour keynote address to the failed coup and the "different country" it has left in its wake -- a country he said more than ever needed and deserved Western aid.
He briefly acknowledged some responsibility for the coup, which was carried out by his closest associates, saying he should have moved faster to dismantle the totalitarian system. But mainly he took credit for the democratic reforms that he said guaranteed the coup's failure, and for improved international relations that prompted the West to rally around fledgling Soviet democracy.
He called the aftermath of the coup a "purifying thunderstorm" that had produced "an explosive liberation of all the potential of social, economic and national development that had accumulated during the years of perestroika and been envisioned in its blueprint."
The outpouring of support for democracy that followed the coup's failure has been dubbed in the West the "second Russian revolution," and some observers see events as having overtaken and overwhelmed Mr. Gorbachev's model of cautious reform from above.
But Mr. Gorbachev demonstrated his old skill at making a virtue of necessity. He insisted that all that has happened -- the demise of the Communist Party he headed, the rejection of the Leninist values he long defended, the breakup of the union that he often warned would be a tragedy -- was in fact just what he had wanted all along.
"In principle, everything that has come to light and is taking place now corresponds to my very deepest convictions and intentions," he said.
Seemingly liberated himself after having quit as Communist Party general secretary, Mr. Gorbachev embraced more clearly than ever before the notion that economic freedom is a necessary condition for political liberty.
"The new thinking has helped us understand that a solid foundation for democracy can be not only human rights and freedoms backed by laws but a civilized, contemporary market -- economic freedom. Precisely in such an atmosphere, people take on a new character, thinking and acting independently."
To achieve such a market economy swiftly, he said, "we need cooperation and support, solidarity. . . . I hope very much that now the West will relate with greater attention to that which I've persistently and repeatedly said, calling for practical and result-oriented cooperation with our country. We are counting on it."
One useful step, he said, would be accelerated progress on arms cuts. "Demilitarization is directly related to human rights," he said. Military power "not only drains the economy and ecology, it drains the human condition physically and spiritually."
Canadian External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall warned that revived nationalism posed a threat to democracy. "Are we doomed to perpetuate ancient hatreds?" she asked. "We know now that the great threat to European security in the 1990s is not the danger of a large-scale Soviet aggression, but rather the dangers inherent in a chaotic breakdown of the social and political structures due in part to a resurgence of ethnic hostility and tensions."