The Supreme Soviet voted overwhelmingly Thursday to adopt Mikhail S. Gorbachev's overhaul of the political structure, but a handful of "no" votes and abstentions showed the reforms remain controversial.
Five deputies in the Supreme Soviet, or parliament, voted against the package of constitutional amendments, which give more power to President Gorbachev and provide for indirect election of the president and lawmakers.Gorbachev, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party, told the deputies that a storm of controversy over the reforms - including 250,000 letters to the Kremlin - could have been reduced, and he took the blame.
"We did not care about explaining the essence, the meaning" of the changes, Gorbachev said. "The center was just following the old practice, thinking, well, they would get used to it.
"All of us are now learning our lessons. All of us are in a school of democracy, and we should be good pupils in that school," Gorbachev said.
In the Soviet of Nationalities, half of the bicameral Supreme Soviet parliament, the vote was 657 in favor, 3 against and 26 abstentions on amending the constitution to incorporate Gorbachev's proposals.
The Soviet of Unions voted 687 in favor, 2 against with one abstention to approve the same measures. A companion package providing for multiple-candidate elections was adopted unanimously by both houses.
At least three of the negative votes came from Estonians, whose tiny Baltic republic has declared its sovereignty from Moscow.
The reforms create a strong presidency in place of the largely ceremonial role now accorded the head of state. They also establish a new Congress of People's Deputies to elect the president and a new Supreme Soviet, which will meet for eight months a year.
Elections for the new congress were set for March 26, and Gorbachev said Thursday's session was the last meeting of the current Supreme Soviet. He said no emergency sessions would be called before the elections.
The package was being changed almost up until the final vote to incorporate objections from lawmakers and the public.
Many of those who objected to various drafts said it gave too much power to one person. The most vociferous and widespread complaints came from independent-minded republics, including Estonia, which claimed the reforms would prevent them from governing their own affairs.
The Supreme Soviet rejected Estonia's last-ditch request to be allowed to keep a single parliament in the republic, without creating a new congress.
The reform provides for the same double-parliament structure in each of the republics as at the national level.
The body also voted down an amendment that would effectively have given the republics veto power in the parliament. The revision was offered by Jemma Sculme, a delegate from Latvia, another Baltic republic.
The final version of the package was not immediately published in the official media, so it wasn't known how many concessions were made before the vote.