Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev Saturday 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 fear that 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 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.
Although police and KGB officers can inspect foreign and joint ventures, embassies remain sacrosanct.
Saturday'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 Saturday "to Muscovites, councils of other cities and parliaments of the republics so this illegal and unconstitutional decision can be blocked by our joint action."
Although the world's 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, the Soviet leader also has issued a series of firm 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. 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 refused to trust Soviet banks and instead hoarded cash at home.