MOSCOW, FEB. 1 -- Four-man teams of Soviet soldiers and police began patrolling the streets of Moscow and other cities tonight despite protests from legislators and pro-democracy groups that the new joint patrols are illegal and threaten civil liberties.
Leading military and police officials tried to ease anxieties that the patrols, ordered jointly by the interior and defense ministers, may presage a general crackdown or even martial law. They said the patrols would be used only to combat street and economic crime, and troops would not be ordered to suppress political demonstrations. Interior Minister Boris Pugo promised this week that the patrols would operate only in regions where local governing councils approved them.
Gen. Nikolai Mirikov of the Interior Ministry's Moscow office said no tanks or armed personnel carriers would be used in the patrols. He said 300 to 540 soldiers would be used in the city, with five or six teams deployed in each of the capital's 30 districts. Only about 60 percent of the soldiers in Moscow showed up for their shifts today, and the patrols were not a significant presence on the streets of the capital.
Despite the Kremlin's attempts at reassurance, parliaments in Armenia, Moldavia and Georgia have outlawed the patrols and the legislatures of Russia and the three Baltic republics have denounced them as dangerous or illegal and have urged President Mikhail Gorbachev to suspend the decree authorizing them.
The evening television news program "Vremya" reported that police in Lithuania and Estonia refused to join the patrols and that soldiers began patrolling on their own. Independent opposition groups such as Democratic Russia have begun planning potential measures to oppose the patrols, including civil disobedience actions.
Each patrol will have an armed police officer, two army privates armed only with knives and an army officer carrying a 9mm pistol. Officials said the patrols would walk city streets and ride in squad cars, paying particular attention to dangerous neighborhoods and crime at markets, stores and cooperative businesses.
Soviet soldiers have patrolled Moscow garrisons and railway stations for decades, but only as a means of guarding their own outposts, never to fight crime. Pugo and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov signed the joint order Dec. 29, but it became public only last week after rumors of its existence began appearing in the independent press.
The start of the patrols followed Thursday's critical meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee, which lasted until around midnight. One participant said that while some speakers were critical of Gorbachev, most supported his turn toward orthodoxy in recent months and the new emphasis on law and order. The participant said the Communists were "clearly feeling more confident" than they were last year, when they lost their constitutional guarantee on power.
The Central Committee censured Stanislav Shatalin, a reform economist and former member of Gorbachev's presidential council who repeatedly has criticized the leadership and the party in the press lately.
The committee said it would set up a commission to investigate Shatalin's statements, "which were inappropriate for a member of the party, much less a member of the Central Committee." Shatalin, who has suffered from a series of illnesses in recent years, is in a hospital and did not attend the session.
In a dialogue published this week in Literaturnaya Gazeta, Shatalin called the party's platform "empty" and "amorphous" and said the creation of a genuine social democracy could not be based on the "inhumane" examples of Vladimir Lenin or Karl Marx.
The Central Committee also announced that playwright and reformer Alexander Gelman had been dismissed from its ranks because he had "lost links with" the Communist Party. In an interview, Gelman said he quit the party and the Central Committee three months ago "after it became clear to me" that reform would not come from the Communists.
"When there was only one party, it made sense somehow to be a member, because there were a few decent people there who could still do something positive," Gelman said. "Not anymore."