MOSCOW, DEC. 17 -- Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, opening a 10-day session of the Congress of People's Deputies, appealed today for strict law and order to overcome the "dark forces" of nationalism and called for a nationwide referendum on a new treaty binding the nation's 15 republics to the central government.
The hard-line state-of-the-nation speech -- one of Gorbachev's most conservative since coming to power -- came after a deputy accused him of "leading the country to ruin" and called for the legislature to schedule a no-confidence vote. The proposal was rejected, 1,288 to 426, with 183 abstentions.
Gorbachev's proposal for a referendum to give the "ultimate verdict" on a treaty that would form a union of sovereign, federated states was seen as a maneuver designed to bypass the republics' parliaments. Legislatures in Moldavia, Georgia and the three Baltic states have already said they will reject the document, while others, including that of the Russian republic, say they will agree to a treaty only if the draft is changed to allow for greater decentralization of power.
The attack on Gorbachev came from Sazhi Umalatova, an obscure factory foreman from the Chichen-Ingush region. "We are begging for food around the world," she said. "In all the applause from the West, Mikhail Sergeyevich, you have forgotten whose president you are. . . . The people believed in you and you deceived them."
Gorbachev blamed himself for "indecisiveness" and mistakes in handling the deteriorating economy and in coping with the "guerrilla tactics" of the myriad independence movements around the country. He said that unless the Congress passed his proposals for a stronger presidency and the Soviet constitution was regarded as the "supreme" authority, the "war of laws" between Moscow and the republics would continue and the economy would deteriorate even further.
"If we fail to achieve this, a greater discord -- the rampage of dark forces and a breakup of the state -- will be inevitable," Gorbachev said. "We have no time to wait. The situation has grabbed us by the throat."
Gorbachev's speech reflected his move in recent weeks toward alliance with the pillars of traditional Soviet power -- the KGB secret police, the military and the Communist Party -- as a means of protecting central power. Although he said he was not prepared to abandon the course of overall reform, he clearly has decided to draw the line against the Baltic republics and other regions that have rejected Moscow's authority.
"This is not a return to the methods of dictatorship and arbitrary power which we have rejected, but we must have order if we are going to get the country out of the crisis it's in," Gorbachev said. "We are facing a paralysis of executive power, locally and at all higher levels. We must break this knot."
In nearly every respect, Gorbachev seemed determined to de-emphasize radical reform in the name of order and stability. The economic section of his speech reflected views far closer to Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov's than to those of the two economists in his cabinet, Stanislav Shatalin and Nikolai Petrakov. He expressed his ideological objections to private ownership of property but suggested that republics hold their own referendums on the issue.
Gorbachev also gestured in the direction of cultural conservatives when he attacked "mass media profiteers" who purvey "violence, pornography and the undermining of public morals." He also criticized the intelligentsia, his earliest base of support, accusing them of failing "always to think through" their proposals.
The president seemed to give a time limit to his movement to the right. He said "the only sensible policy" was to consolidate executive power and "steer the country over the next 12 to 18 months toward normal, healthy development along the path of renewal."
The overall response to Gorbachev's speech could be summed up in the reactions of two well-known politicians: Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian republic, and Yegor Ligachev, a former Politburo member who was Gorbachev's keenest conservative critic until he was forced out of the leadership last summer.
After the speech, Yeltsin was downcast and disgusted. Although he sat next to Gorbachev on the presidium throughout the session and often chatted amiably with him, Yeltsin said he was very disappointed by the report. "It looks like we are returning to a hard diktat of the center," he said, meaning Moscow's control over the republics.
In contrast, Ligachev was ebullient. "Our views are coming together," he said of Gorbachev's law-and-order speech. "When we were in the Politburo together, we debated over whether conservatism was the most important danger. But no, a split in the union is the greatest danger."
Some liberals, however, said that the current crisis demands a more hard-line approach from Gorbachev in order to get the country through a period in which the old economic and political structures are crumbling and there is little to take their place. "Our political regime should be more authoritarian," said Moscow's deputy mayor, Sergei Stankevich.
Vitaly Korotich, editor of the liberal weekly Ogonyok, said the Congress rejected the no-confidence motion not because the Soviet president is so popular -- his ratings have plunged in the last year -- but because of the fear of alternatives. "The democrats are afraid of a Pinochet," he said, referring to Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former right-wing military ruler of Chile, "and the right is afraid of something worse than Gorbachev."
Gorbachev's proposals for a stronger executive include a presidential cabinet made up of the heads of the republics and a security council, which would include the leaders of the military, KGB and Interior Ministry. His adviser Georgi Shakhnazarov said that Ryzhkov, an unpopular economic conservative, was not likely to be included in the new government.
Deputies from Armenia and Lithuania boycotted the session. Both republics have declared independence and refuse to sign a union treaty.