SOVIET Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze shocked the country yesterday by announcing his resignation as a ``protest against the advent of a dictatorship.'' In an short but emotional address to the Congress of Peoples Deputies, Mr. Shevardnadze called on the forces of reform to rally against a rightist shift.
``Comrade democrats, in the broadest sense of the word, you have scattered, reformers have left the stage - and a dictatorship is coming,'' he said. ``Nobody knows what kind of dictatorship this will be or who the dictator will be.''
The surprise move by one of the most popular liberal politicians in the country is clearly a blow to President Mikhail Gorbachev. Shevardnadze has been one of his closest associates since Mr. Gorbachev came to power in 1985, acting as the architect of Gorbachev's ``new thinking'' in foreign policy.
The resignation is ``irreversible,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Vitaly Churkin told reporters. He said Shevardnaze would stay on until the Congress session ends next week, when a new foreign minister would be chosen.
Shevardnadze's decision to step down is sure to shake foreign confidence in Gorbachev and boost the growing fear within and outside the Soviet Union of a drift toward authoritarian rule.
The mood set by Gorbachev at the Congress has had a decidedly conservative tint, dominated by calls for law and order and by demands that ``separatists'' in the rebellious republics of the Soviet Union be suppressed.
Shevardnadze directed most of his fire at right-wing Communists, who he said had hounded him for his pro-Western foreign policy. But he also clearly criticized the president for yielding to the right and for seeking to concentrate vast powers in his office. He called on the Congress to reject Gorbachev's proposals to increase the authority of the president.
``If you make a dictatorship,'' Shevardnadze told the Congress, ``no one can say who will become dictator.''
Though Gorbachev sat impassively during the speech, Shevardnadze's decision shocked Gorbachev, his spokesman added. But it also reveals a gap between Shevadnadze and Gorbachev that has been a subject of rumor in Moscow circles for some time.
Sergei Blagovolin, a senior researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations and an adviser to Shevardnadze, cited several reasons for the surprise resignation.
``Firstly, he is sick and tired of struggling alone with conservative forces. Secondly, he is afraid the president is under tremendous pressure from the right wing, and they have already succeeded in causing him to shift to the right. Lastly, it is a sign of a split between the president and Shevardnadze.''
Shevardnadze's own words bear this assessment out. He bitterly referred to prominent right-wing military parliamentarians - men ``wearing the epaulettes of a colonel'' - who have been calling for his ouster, accusing him of ``losing'' Eastern Europe, and plotting the involvement of Soviet forces in a war against Iraq. ``Not a single person ... stood up and said such behavior is not worthy of a civilized state,'' he said.
The architect of the Soviet Union's opening to the West since 1985 strongly defended the alliance with the US against Iraq as ``a serious policy, a thought-out policy corresponding to all civilized standards of relations between states.''
Although denying any plans to send troops to the Persian Gulf region, he declared that ``we have no moral right to put up with aggression, the annexation of a small, defenseless country. Otherwise, we would undo everything accomplished by us, by the entire country, by everyone over recent years, to reaffirm principles of new political thinking.''
In recent months, Shevardnadze has been the target of both public attack and private grumblings over his pro-Western orientation. The appointment of pro-Arab expert and presidential adviser Yevgeny Primakov as Gorbachev's special envoy to try to settle the Gulf conflict spurred rumors here that Shevardnadze would be replaced.
Shevardnadze had also been seen as a possible candidate for the post of vice president, which is to be created at the Congress, the country's highest legislative body. Though his resignation casts doubt on that scenario, there are still some observers who believe Gorbachev is only making a tactical move to the right in preparation to make a leftward shift for more radical reform.
``I still hope Gorbachev is preparing some sophisticated maneuver,'' says Mr. Blagovolin. ``Of course, I have no reasons for being sure.''
The 2,000 members of the Congress responded warmly to Shevardnadze's announcement, giving him several minutes of standing ovation. Perhaps, Blagovolin suggests hopefully, Shevardnadze's resignation might be ``a kind of shock therapy.''