Soviet Disarray

Gorbachev Rejects Move to Discard Kremlin Role

U.S. Keeps Link to Moscow

By Serge Schmemann
The New York Times

Moscow -- December 9, 1991 -- President Mikhail S. Gorbachev today rejected the right of the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia to dissolve the Soviet Union, adding to the uncertainty over the fate of the Soviet lands.

"The fate of our multinational country cannot be decided by the will of three republican leaders," Mr. Gorbachev said in a statement read on the evening television news. "This question can only be resolved through constitutional means with the participation of all sovereign states and taking into account the will of their peoples." [Text of statement, page A18.]

He said the proclamation of a new "commonwealth of independent states" by the three Slavic republics should be treated as only a proposal, to be discussed alongside his proposed new "union of sovereign states" by republic parliaments and a full Congress of Peoples' Deputies.

Power Flows to Republics

Under the Soviet system, ultimate power lies in the Congress, which in practice delegates its responsibilities to the Supreme Soviet, or legislature, of the Soviet Union. But since the failed coup attempt last August, the central Soviet Government has disintegrated and increasing power has fallen to the various republics and their leaders.

There is no obvious body such as the United States Supreme Court to decide differences between the central Government and republics and therefore any decision may have to be worked out politically rather than judicially.

Demonstrating that he did not intend to vanish quietly from the political stage with his vestigial union, Mr. Gorbachev declared that the Slavic leaders' annulment of Union laws was "illegal and dangerous," and the speed with which they proclaimed the new commonwealth "baffling."

Announcement Is a Surprise

Mr. Gorbachev's statement was issued at the end of a tumultuous day in which he and leaders of other republics, foreign diplomats and the press tried to sort out what the unexpected proclamation by the Slavic leaders meant.

Mr. Gorbachev and the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, questioned President Boris N. Yeltsin of the Russian republic for more than an hour, then met with presidents of other republics. The Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, met with foreign diplomats, while reporters dogged them all at every step.

It emerged during the day that the announcement on Sunday was not anticipated by anyone outside the remote Byelorussian retreat where Mr. Yeltsin, President Leonid M. Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich, the leader of the Byelorussian Parliament, agreed to declare the Soviet Union dead and to join in a new commonwealth that would be open to other former republics.

Mr. Nazarbayev, who serves as unofficial spokesman for the Muslim republics of Central Asia, made no effort to conceal his irritation at not being consulted. "Shaping interstate relations on the basis of national-ethnic principles is a vestige of the Middle Ages," he muttered.

Mr. Nazarbayev also declared his support for Mr. Gorbachev, saying that the Soviet leader had yet to exhaust his potential. "The country needs him," Mr. Nazarbayev said.

Commonwealth Idea Defended

One of Mr. Yeltsin's aides confessed that they had tried to reach Mr. Nazarbayev on Sunday, but that there were only two telephones at the retreat and that they were unable to reach the Kazakh leader. The aides said Mr. Gorbachev was informed by telephone only after the agreement was reached.

Mr. Yeltsin's lieutenants, as well as the Ukrainian and Byelorussian leaders, argued that there was no alternative to the replacement of the doomed union with a new commonwealth.

In several separate interviews, they reiterated the basic argument of the agreement Sunday that efforts to forge a new union had reached a dead end and that only the new commonwealth could preserve their republics' separate independence and safeguard their links, open borders and mutual responsibility for the Soviet military.

The day's turmoil gave no immediate indication how the competing claims to the former union could be resolved.

For now, the lines seem sharply drawn. The three Slavic leaders declared that the old Soviet Union was dissolved on Sunday and that all the old laws and institutions were void. But Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Nazarbayev and some political movements insisted they were not and reduced the Slavic leaders' proclamation to a mere proposal.

What May Follow

Nobody appeared to believe that Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Kravchuk and Mr. Shushkevich would try to impose their new commonwealth by force. Nor did it seem likely that Mr. Gorbachev would consider using his powers as Commander in Chief to oppose them.

Most probably, given the developments since the August coup attempt, the three Slavic leaders will use their proclamation as authority for speeding the process of choking off the central authorities and beginning regional changes.

A commentary on Russian television speculated that Mr. Gorbachev himself could be eased out on a golden parachute, perhaps as Commander in Chief of the joint armed forces or as representative to the United Nations.

Mr. Gorbachev's proposal to convene the Congress of Peoples' Deputies, the 1,800-member assembly elected in 1989, was supported by several deputies, who began gathering the necessary signatures.

After the coup, it was Mr. Gorbachev who bullied the Congress into surrendering its powers to an interim State Council of republic presidents, and the deputies had to struggle to win a provision that they could reconvene if one-fifth of their number signed a petition.

Future of Republics' Deputies

But given the considerable sovereignty assumed in the interim by most republic governments, it is hard to visualize how deputies from republics like Ukraine can be persuaded to attend a new session.

The reaction of other republics was also difficult to guess. The three co-founders of the commonwealth appeared to presume that most republics would eventually be compelled to join for economic reasons, and if they did not, the Slavic giants in any case controlled 80 percent of the land and most of the wealth of the old union.

For now, only the Armenian President, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, has expressed "full support" for the Slavic initiative and declared his readiness to join the new commonwealth. But Russian officials speculated that once Mr. Nazarbayev got over his pique, he would probably advise the Central Asian republics to join.

While rejecting the authority of the three republics to dissolve the union, Mr. Gorbachev was cautious not to reject totally the first agreement on any kind of association that Ukraine has joined in, and one that appeared to resolve many of the most serious problems facing the republics, including the future of nuclear weapons, the ruble and open borders.

"The agreement has its positive moments," Mr. Gorbachev said in his statement. "The Ukrainian leadership, which previously showed no activity in the negotiating process, has joined it."

It was Ukraine's overwhelming vote for independence that previously appeared to torpedo any hope of a new union agreement. But in agreeing on a new commonwealth with Russia and Byelorussia, the new Ukrainian President, Mr. Kravchuk, signaled that he was prepared to form an association as long as it was totally disassociated from the old "totalitarian center."

"The document stresses the need to create a single economic space, operating on coordinated principles with a single currency and finance-and-banking system," Mr. Gorbachev continued. "It expresses readiness for cooperation in the field of science, education, culture and other spheres. It suggests a definite formula of interaction in the military-strategic field."

Unanimity Is Elusive

All these issues had been central to the union agreement Mr. Gorbachev was seeking. But the negotiations on his treaty seemed to stumble repeatedly on the reluctance of several republics, chiefly Ukraine, to have any dealings with the old center, and on the impossibility of achieving unanimity among the disparate republic leaders.

Yeltsin aides suggested that this latter problem was also central in prodding the three Slavic leaders, who are closer on the fundamentals of a new association, into forging a core commonwealth.

Pavel Voshchanov, Mr. Yeltsin's press secretary, said the republics had developed different approaches to human rights, democracy and economic changes. "Gorbachev hoped that the attractive power of the Union would help overcome all of these difficulties," he said. "This did not happen, however."

By contrast, Mr. Voshchanov said, Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia, for all their differences, had more in common in their vision of the future, and so could more easily overcome their differences.

View of Muslim Republics

Such arguments, however, did not offset the widespread impression that the Slavic republics were setting themselves apart from all others, and especially the Muslim republics of Central Asia. These republics have all experienced a growth of Islamic awareness in their populations, which could be fanned by a sense that they were being slighted by the Slavs.

It was also not immediately certain that the Ukrainians, especially the more fiery nationalists, would accept the proposed commonwealth.

Reports from Kiev said Mr. Kravchuk came under immediate fire from some hard-line nationalists in the Ukrainian Parliament. The Reuters news agency quoted one of them, Stepan Khmara, as having said: "I caught my breath when I heard about this agreement. It is Kravchuk's first big political mistake. Ukraine should not be signing any agreements of any kind with Russia."

But the major grouping of opposition forces, Rukh, supported Mr. Kravchuk. The president of Rukh, Ivan Drach, said, "I think it is a correct tactical move on the chess board."

GRAPHIC: Photo: A view of the Kremlin last night -- grand, serene and illuminated -- hardly suggested the tumult within created by the Slavic proclamation. (Associated Press) (pg. A18)

Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company