Soviet Disarray

Gorbachev Struggles to Put a Saving Face on His Once and Former Union

By Celestine Bohlen
The New York Times

Moscow -- December 9, 1991 -- Brushed aside by the leaders of three Slavic republics who agreed on the future of the Soviet Union without him, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev did his best today to play down any notion that the union had died and that he was out of a job.

In a statement read tonight on the main television news program, Mr. Gorbachev took a lofty approach to the accord on a new commonwealth signed on Sunday by Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia.

"The agreement has its positive moments," Mr. Gorbachev said, listing the benefits of Ukraine's participation, the welcome mention of a single economic space, and the "definite formula for interaction in the military-strategic field."

However, he said in the statement, the accord negotiated in Brest and signed in Minsk was to be faulted both for its "baffling" haste and its undemocratic premise, which bypassed the "citizens and the Parliaments of the republics on behalf of which it was signed."

Thus, Mr. Gorbachev seemed to be auditioning for the role of legal watchdog, who, in the midst of crisis and chaos, stands for the Constitution, for parliamentary order, and more immediately, for an emergency meeting of the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies and a nationwide referendum.

It is a role that fits a little awkwardly on a man skilled at issuing decrees, amassing special powers, imposing embargoes and dispatching troops to breakaway regions. Nor does it match the urgency with which Mr. Gorbachev has recently been calling for a rapid windup to the drawn-out negotiations over a union treaty.

But it may be the only role left for him. No matter what happens to the commonwealth declared by the Slavic Presidents, it is now certain that the union treaty sought by Mr. Gorbachev is dead, and with it, the idea of a future union worthy of a real and functioning President.

A Russian republic television commentary tonight said Mr. Gorbachev could choose among several options -- like remaining as commander of the joint armed forces, or serving as representative to the United Nations. But, the commentator added, "One choice Mr. Gorbachev is certain not to make is any dangerous effort to keep together something that no longer exists."

Mr. Gorbachev did not appear in public today. He and Kazakhstan's President, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, questioned President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia for more than an hour on the terms of the new agreement, but there were no photos taken afterward, only the written statement read on television.

A State Without a State

The silence seemed strange after a week of impassioned appearances, but not surprising given the extraordinary news that came out of the weekend meetings in Byelorussia. For Mr. Gorbachev, the results must have produced mixed emotions.

The three Slavic presidents managed to breathe new life into some kind of unifying structure, thus fulfilling part of Mr. Gorbachev's cherished dream of preventing a total breakdown of the old Soviet Union.

Yet it was not the structure he had sought during months of ineffective negotiations at the presidential dacha at Novo-Ogorovo. His preferred Union of Sovereign States would have preserved something of Soviet statehood; theirs makes the center -- now declared as Minsk, not Moscow -- stateless in the old sense.

Fear of another coup has been fluttering in Moscow lately, as politicians and the people prepare for the shock of free-market prices and other changes. Today, many saw the agreement as a sign that the political situation, in a state of flux since the aborted coup in August, may be about to right itself.

With their agreement, the three Slavic leaders -- who together represent 73 percent of the Soviet population, 80 percent of the territory, and about three-quarters of the economy -- imposed a decision in the midst of political crisis.

That crisis, despite Mr. Gorbachev's efforts, had seemed destined to hurtle back and forth among local and national parliaments. Its supporters argued that the virtue of the Brest agreement was precisely that it was a done deal, which could provide the basis for important joint economic decisions.

But others, recalling the Soviet Union's painful history, called the agreement an act of betrayal, and an insult to the country's new political bodies. Some Soviet citizens found themselves privately mourning the country they had grown up in.

Others worried whether old quarrels over land and borders might now take on new life. Calling for a public protest on Tuesday in Moscow, Nikolai Travkin, leader of the Democratic Party of Russia, warned that a breakup of the Soviet Union would inevitably lead to the breakup of the Russian republic.

A sense of crisis has now dug so deep among the Soviet people that many today barely reacted to the news that the union had effectively been dismembered.

One man, calling an American reporter to have dinner, was not put off when his friend said he would have to work.

"We can't have dinner," the American said. "Your country is falling apart.

"How about tomorrow?" rejoined the Russian, unperturbed.

GRAPHIC: Photo: Mikhail S. Gorbachev as he spoke to reporters recently. (Agence France-Presse)

Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company