MOSCOW, JAN. 26 -- Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev today gave the KGB security forces and the police broad new authority to inspect "without hindrance" the properties, supply stocks, cash accounts and ledger books of all domestic and foreign businesses in the country.
The decree, which was read on the state-run television news program "Vremya," is intended to combat economic crime, including the theft of state goods and their sale on the black market. Economists here have said one of the key reasons for widespread shortages of food and consumer goods is theft at factories, stores and distribution points.
Although the decree is said to be aimed at economic crime, pro-democracy forces in the Soviet Union have expressed fear expanded powers for the KGB and the Interior Ministry, which controls police activities, will further undermine civil liberties and could be used as a pretext for heightened police control of political and public organizations.
Gorbachev's decree also gives the KGB and the police the right to demand, without delay or warrants, documentation from banks and credit institutions on foreign business deals and the right to inspect the premises of joint ventures with foreign businesses.
The KGB and Interior Ministry police now will have the "right to enter all business enterprises or institutions without hindrance" to verify that consumer protection laws on production and transportation of goods are being observed. The decree, which goes into effect immediately, allows law enforcement officers to take evidence "for analysis."
Although police and KGB officers can inspect foreign and joint ventures, foreign embassies will remain sacrosanct.
Today's decree came a day after Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and Interior Minister Boris Pugo announced that joint teams of soldiers and police would patrol major cities to maintain order, starting Friday.
That announcement brought immediate opposition from the leaders of the Baltic republics and officials of cities where non-Communist councils were elected last year.
Moscow's deputy mayor, Sergei Stankevich, appealed today "to Muscovites, councils of other cities and parliaments of the republics so this illegal and unconstitutional decision can be blocked by our joint action."
"We must not allow ourselves under any circumstances to be used as a screen for dictatorship," he said at a news conference.
Although attention has been focused since November mainly on the way Gorbachev has steadily given the KGB, the military and the Interior Ministry greater powers to combat independence movements in the republics, he also has issued a series of decrees designed to halt the country's economic collapse.
Gorbachev has given the KGB, as well as citizens' committees, the right to inspect food stocks in the stores. The KGB also was given authority to monitor distribution of foreign food aid. This week Gorbachev stunned millions of Soviet citizens by ordering the immediate withdrawal of all 50- and 100-ruble notes -- a decree designed to combat currency speculators, but which hit hard many ordinary people who had hoarded cash at home.
While making such moves to strengthen law and order in the economy, Gorbachev has backed off the promises he made last summer to institute a radical transition to a market economy, opting insteadform for a conservative, centralized program. Gorbachev was reportedly under heavy pressure from the army, the KGB, the Communist Party and conservative legislators to do so .