Soviets OK Free Market -- Lawmakers Endorse Radical Rescue Plan

MOSCOW - Soviet lawmakers voted overwhelmingly today to forsake seven decades of Communist economics, endorsing a rescue plan to create a free-market system.

The Supreme Soviet also gave President Mikhail Gorbachev sweeping new powers to implement the reforms unilaterally. The lawmakers disagree on which of several competing economic blueprints for accomplishing the switch should be followed.

After tumultuous debate, the Supreme Soviet settled on a resolution calling for a committee of legislators and economists appointed by Gorbachev to merge the various recipes into a unified plan by Oct. 15. The vote was 323-11, with 56 abstentions.

Although differences remained, it was the first time the Supreme Soviet had committed the country to switching to a market economy in hopes of ending chronic shortages of everything from housing to bread and arresting inflation and a budget deficit.

Hours later, the parliament approved 305-46, with 41 abstentions, Gorbachev's request for broad emergency powers to carry out reforms. It gave him the authority until March 1992 to bypass step-by-step legislative scrutiny and issue decrees on property, management of the economy, the budget and law and order.

The economic resolution endorses a compromise program backed by Gorbachev but calls for incorporating a more conservative recipe of Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov. It says nothing about a more radical plan approved by the Russian Federation, the largest of the 15 Soviet republics.

The republic's president, Boris Yeltsin, is Gorbachev's chief political rival, and his parliament has set the pace on reforming an economy so inefficient that crops spoil on their way to market and factories stand idle for lack of spare parts.

Gorbachev's program would create a federation of republics with economies built on private businesses, individually owned farms and stock markets trading shares in competitive companies.

The program marks a significant change in Gorbachev's tactics. His perestroika program had been aimed at ``restructuring'' centralized socialism, but now is apparently moving toward destroying it.

Lawmakers had been scheduled to vote on Friday, but failed to muster a quorum. Gorbachev expressed frustration at the time, saying there was no more time to ``talk, think, try and experiment.''

Several participants in today's debate proposed that the national legislature shun the attempt at a compromise and endorse instead the most radical reform plan under consideration - that of economist Stanislav Shatalin.

``There can be no compromise between the programs of the government, the president and the Shatalin group,'' Shatalin told the legislature.

Outside the Kremlin, protesters gathered to express disappointment in Gorbachev's handling of the economic crisis. Dozens of sign-carrying protesters chanted slogans as legislators arrived for the debate.

Ryzhkov, who has become a lightning rod for public unrest, predicted on Soviet television last night that the move to a market economy will take years, not 500 days. He confirmed ``very serious'' problems in bringing this year's bumper harvest to market. He said only one-third of crops have been harvested.