Mikhail Gorbachev forged ahead Friday with his demands for new presidential powers despite the objections of deputies who warned he is moving unwittingly toward authoritarian rule.
Reformist members of the Congress of People's Deputies seized on resigning Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's alert to the danger of an impending dictatorship as a rallying point in spirited debate on the conclave's fifth day."A right-wing reactionary state coup is taking place in the country, " said Vladimir Chernyak, a deputy from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
"Reactionaries, centrists and imperialists have united and are on the attack," Chernyak said. "At the head of the coup stands Gorbachev. It is possible that he himself doesn't know this."
Chernyak said that Shevardnadze's dramatic resignation announcement Thursday marked the latest departure of progressive figures from the government, in a process he said also included moderate Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin's dismissal three weeks ago.
While the politicians grappled with the country's grave problems, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi II urged Soviets in a Christmas message to "redouble our prayers for eradicating the spirit of hatred in our society, alleviating ethnic discord and improving the health of our state as soon as possible."
Gorbachev's aides moved quickly to control the political fallout from the bombshell by Shevardnadze, who told deputies Thursday that he was quitting to protest attacks on him and the government by conservatives he said are seeking a return to a totalitarian regime.
Presidential spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko said that Gorbachev and Shevardnadze met for two hours in "an ordinary conversation between a president and his foreign minister," discussing the Persian Gulf crisis and arms cuts in Europe - but not Shevardnadze's resignation.
Both Ignatenko and Foreign Ministry spokesman Vitaly Churkin said that Shevardnadze worked as normal in his office Friday, following reports Thursday that he had agreed to stay on until a successor is picked.
Senior Gorbachev aide Georgy Shaknazarov told repoters, "I am sure that Eduard Shevardnadze will stay on Gorbachev's team. . . . The president is not the sort of person who would lightly part with such allies as Shevardnadze."