Soviet Disarray

5 Asian Republics Join Slavs in Plan for Commonwealth Replacing the Soviet Union

By Francis X. Clines
Special to The New York Times

Moscow -- December 13, 1991 -- The five central Asian republics agreed to join the new Commonwealth of Independent States today, conclusively rebuffing President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's protestations and all but sealing the end of the Soviet Union.

The decision, reached in a meeting in the Turkmenian capital of Ashkhabad, 1,500 miles southeast of Moscow, means that 8 of the 12 Soviet republics are now in accord on the commonwealth plan, and the 4 others have expressed interest in joining.

The agreement considerably dampens the threat of political divisiveness between the old Soviet Union's western Slavic majority and eastern Islamic minority. It also groups together the four Soviet republics with nuclear capability under weapons-control treaties. One of those republics, Kazakhstan, is joining the commonwealth's three co-founders, Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia.

50 Million People

In addition to Kazakhstan, the second-largest republic in area, the others that agreed to join the commonwealth today were Kirghizia, Tadzhikistan, Turkmenia and Uzbekistan. The five republics embrace about 18 percent of the land that remained in the Soviet Union after the Baltic states became independent. The five republics' combined population of about 50 million is equivalent to 18 percent of the people in the country, including most of the non-Slavs.

President Gorbachev had warned that interrepublic conflict would be a likely result of abandoning the union in favor of a commonwealth of fully sovereign republics.

But the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, in announcing the Asian republics' accord, made a point of rejecting Mr. Gorbachev's views as having "nothing to do with the real state of affairs."

New Role for Gorbachev?

Mr. Gorbachev, who had drawn early support from Mr. Nazarbayev in his fight against the commonwealth, thus appeared totally isolated and was pronounced out of touch by his fellow politicians as they prepared for a highly uncertain but rapidly evolving future without the union.

The Asian republics' action further teased the question of when President Gorbachev might resign his post at the shrinking Kremlin power center. He said Thursday that this was a step he would be obliged to take if the republics rejected his invitation to revive the union.

According to current political speculation, Mr. Gorbachev could resign in the next few days, but will most likely remain to meet Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d after he arrives Sunday on a visit to assess the shifting political landscape.

Some politicians are already talking about crafting a new role for Mr. Gorbachev that would take advantage of the high regard in which he is still held overseas, however much his stock has fallen in the current domestic crisis here over the dismal economy.

"I would like Gorbachev to keep his finger on the nuclear button," said Mayor Anatoly A. Sobchak of St. Petersburg, referring to the Soviet President's decisive role in ending the cold war by initiating sweeping nuclear disarmament proposals. "I think the question is being discussed."

The commonwealth plan announced last weekend by Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia proclaimed the end of the Soviet Union and the creation of "coordinating bodies," rather than a separate union government, to see to common needs in defense, foreign affairs and the economy.

Whether there might be room for Mr. Gorbachev in such an amorphous arrangement remained an open question today. He has bitterly denounced the commonwealth initiative all week.

Said to Be Satisfied

But significantly, perhaps, his spokesman, Andrei Grachev, reacted to the news of the central Asian republics' accord with a noticeably milder approach, saying Mr. Gorbachev was "satisfied" with the Ashkhabad meeting and with the orderly way in which the republic leaders were going about their business.

President Gorbachev indicated that he felt considerable personal hurt over the sheer surprise of the commonwealth announcement last weekend, never mind its substance. In particular, he was grieved that the commonwealth's chief initiator, President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia, had called President Bush with the news but not him.

"This is a real shame," Mr. Gorbachev protested in a rambling, valedictory-tinged interview on Thursday with Soviet reporters. "Here you spoke with the President of the United States, but didn't speak with the President of our country. This is dirty. It's a matter of ethics. It won't do."

Violence in Moldavia

While broad interrepublic amity was being proclaimed in Ashkhabad, the narrower world of localized nationalist tension was highlighted in an ethnic clash in the Moldavian republic, which along with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia has not yet joined the commonwealth.

At least five people were reported killed in a gun battle between the Moldavian police and defenders of the self-proclaimed Trans-Dniester Republic of eastern Moldavia, where a largely Russian and Ukrainian minority fears Moldavia's nationalist leanings toward Romania.

There has, however, been peace on much of the broader scale of nationalist relations that Mr. Gorbachev was pointing to with alarm, including relations between the commonwealth's keystone republics of Russia and Ukraine.

Whatever his personal future, Mr. Gorbachev today received notice, in effect, from the Asian republics that he had best stand aside as the crumbled union pursued a new life as a commonwealth more interested in planting free-market economics than in debating his political advice.

But Mr. Gorbachev's office indicated he was still pursuing his presidential role as he saw it. He telephoned President Leonid M. Kravchuk of Ukraine, which precipitated the union's final collapse in voting this month to secede as an independent state.

Mr. Gorbachev, apparently fearing usurpation, was concerned at Mr. Kravchuk's sudden announcement on Thursday that he would assume the role of commander-in-chief of army units. But the Soviet President was told that Mr. Kravchuk's move would only be carried out under future commonwealth accords, Mr. Gorbachev's spokesman said.

The five republics that joined the commonwealth today expressed surprise at the way in which the commonwealth was announced but otherwise endorsed its goals of reviving the nation's economic productivity and living standards after the collapse of the union. They also suggested that the new arrangement might better be called the Euro-Asian Commonwealth of Independent States.

"We understand the drive of the leaders of Byelorussia, Russia and Ukraine to create in the place of previously shackled republics, a commonwealth of independent law-governed states," the republics declared in a statement.

GRAPHIC: Photo: The Presidents of the Soviet central Asian republics after agreeing to join the new commonwealth. From left were Askar Akayev of Kirghizia, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenia, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Rakhmon Nabiyev of Tadzhikistan. (Associated Press)(pg. 1)

Map of the Soviet Union showing the proposed Commonwealth of Independent States. (pg. 6)

Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company