MOSCOW, SEPT. 24 -- The Soviet legislature, after failing today to agree on an emergency economic reform program, granted President Mikhail Gorbachev sweeping new powers that will allow him to rule virtually by decree during the expected turbulent transition from a state-run economy to a free-market system.
The decision by the legislature, or Supreme Soviet, to delegate much of its day-to-day authority to Gorbachev masked its failure to adopt any form of the so-called "500 Day Plan" for economic recovery or a longer-term solution and left unsettled continued divisions within the Kremlin over the pace and scope of reform. Attempting to avoid a bruising political showdown, the legislators postponed a long-awaited decision on their choice of economic strategy until mid-October.
Today's proceedings illustrated the brittle nature of the Soviet Union's fledgling democracy, with Gorbachev's aides openly at odds with each another and one radical-reformist legislator raising the specter of a military coup. At one point, the head of the KGB secret police, Vladimir Kryuchkov, took the rostrum to deny rumors of mysterious movements in the Moscow region by crack army and KGB troops.
Powers voted to Gorbachev today include the right to issue decrees covering such diverse subjects as property, economic management, the financial and budget system, wage policy, price levels and public order. In an interview, Gorbachev's top economic adviser, Stanislav Shatalin, said he hoped for an early decree on measures to stabilize the crisis-ridden economy.
The Soviet economy has deteriorated at an alarming pace over the past few months, as shortages spread from one sector of industry to another, production plummeted and the budget deficit reached critical levels. Last week, senior economist Abel Aganbegyan described the situation as "catastrophic," saying the disintegration had reached a point at which social convulsions were possible.
Gorbachev, in an emotional speech accusing legislators of being out of touch with public opinion, said that the entire country was calling for the effective use of executive power. He promised to act "with due responsibility" but did not elaborate on how he intended to use his new powers.
"Additional powers mean responsibility first of all, and don't you try to oversimplify things, pretending that this is a tea break or a trip to, say, the Canary Islands," Gorbachev said. Supporters interrupted with cries of "You're right, Mikhail Sergeyevich."
Although Gorbachev accused the lawmakers of indecision, he himself has seemed torn between the wish to press ahead with a rapid transition to a market system and political loyalty to his prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, who has been strongly criticized for his management of the economy. Ryzhkov has advocated a gradual and controlled pace of change and has threatened to resign if he does not get legislative support.
At Gorbachev's urging, the Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution calling for a merging of Ryzhkov's proposals and the more radical 500 Day Plan drawn up by a presidential working group headed by Shatalin. Both sides have described the rival programs as irreconcilable, since they differ on such key subjects as the freeing of prices, the speed of denationalization and the degree of autonomy to be granted the Soviet Union's 15 constituent republics.
Shatalin, a soccer fan who frequently uses sporting metaphors to liven up his speeches, compared Gorbachev's behavior to that of a coach who tries to fix the game so that "both sides win." At one point, he appeared on the edge of resignation, saying "I do not want to participate in a show," then made his own proposal for the immediate adoption of the radical variant. He later withdrew the proposal when it became clear it would not be approved.
Ryzhkov, who went on television Sunday night to denounce the 500 Day Plan as a recipe for mass misery and unemployment, appeared relieved at the call for a synthesis of all reform proposals. "It's a compromise. There are no winners and no losers," he told reporters later.
Today's inconclusive outcome of the economic reform debate could rekindle political friction between Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the cosponsor of the 500-day program. The legislature of the powerful Russian republic has already endorsed the plan, which includes proposals for a massive sale of state assets in the first 200 days as a way of soaking up excess money in the economy.
In an interview today, the deputy premier of the Russian republic, Gennadi Filshin, said that the Supreme Soviet's procrastination would force the Russian government to push back the start of the 500-day program by a month to Nov. 1. But he insisted that Russia would implement the plan on its own, even if it did not receive support from the Soviet government.
Radical-reformist legislators are clearly hoping that Gorbachev will use his new powers to implement large sections of the Shatalin program, even as the Soviet leader continues to seek ways of promoting government consensus. The Supreme Soviet set an expiration date for the powers of March 31, 1992, roughly coinciding with the end of the 500-day economic transition period the more radical plan calls for.
The Soviet leader reiterated his insistence that Ryzhkov remain in office, despite mounting calls for his resignation. "If we split, if we clash head on, we will wreck this major turning point," he said.
By supporting Ryzhkov politically, Gorbachev appears eager to placate the vast governmental and Communist Party bureaucracy, which is widely regarded as a powerful obstacle to reform. It is also likely that he does not wish to become bogged down in protracted confirmation hearings for a new government that could result in the loss of such key aides as Kryuchkov of the KGB and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov.
Social Democratic legislator Sergei Byelozertsev enlivened today's debate by claiming that four paratroop divisions had conducted unexplained maneuvers near Moscow and around the provincial town of Ryazan, 125 miles to the south. Kryuchkov linked the movements to the need to help out with the potato harvest and preparations for the annual military parade on Nov. 7 to commemorate the Bolshevik Revolution.
Most legislators reacted skeptically to the notion of threatening troop movements, which marked the first time coup jitters have reached the assembly. Byelozertsev, who was unable to provide further details on the troops, said his information came from an unofficial servicemen's union known as Shield. Gorbachev accused him of wasting the legislature's time.