MOSCOW, NOV. 24 -- If Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had proposed his draft for a new Treaty of the Union a year or two ago, he would undoubtedlyhave won applause from the country's 15 republics for his sense of fairness and innovation and stunned old-guard Communists for failing to insist on retaining a socialist system.
But events and passions have developed so quickly here that now Gorbachev's draft treaty for a new union of "sovereign states" represents a rear-guard action, a desperate attempt to head off the disintegration of the country.
Gorbachev's treaty, which was drafted in Moscow at the Institute of State and Law and published today in the press, speaks vaguely of a "voluntary" union and the authority of the republics. But it is far more specific about the power that will remain in the hands of the central government.
If the treaty passes in its current form, Moscow will continue to control foreign and defense policy, energy, communications and transport. It will preside over a single currency, levy taxes and regulate the customs, finance and credit systems. And to the Russian republic's special consternation, the Kremlin will even control all gold and diamond reserves.
Georgia and the Baltic republics have already said they will not sign the treaty, and it is hard to see how this draft can satisfy the legislatures of any republics outside the still relatively conservative region of Central Asia. Russian President Boris Yeltsin has said that anything more than an economic union will lead only to an unending series of bitter struggles between Moscow and the republics.
The political battle to come is sure to be furious. Ever since the Lithuanians elected a non-Communist government and then passed a declaration of independence last March, a sense of national empowerment has swept the country. The myth of a "Soviet man," a "Soviet culture" linked to Leninist ideology, has eroded, if not disappeared entirely. In its place comes nationalism.
Gorbachev, however, sees nationalism and excessive regional control as a road to ruin, the creation on Soviet territory of a gigantic Yugoslavia. He still speaks of the "Leninist conception of the multinational state." As he watches the union begin to crack, he envisions apocalypse, one that threatens not only civil war but a threat to international peace.
The collapse of the union, Gorbachev told reporters Friday, "might put this country -- with its great responsibility, even its military responsibility -- in such a state that it would not be acceptable to the world community."
But the republics, after so many decades of Moscow's deceptions and brutality, simply may be unable to trust a new document and its promises of sovereignty. The draft treaty says that the president's cabinet, a Federation Council made up of the heads of the republics, would "determine the main directions of the union's foreign and domestic policies." But even Gorbachev's advisers admit that the last say will be his.
The debate over the Treaty of the Union in the federal legislature and in the republics is likely to take months. The two sides are divided by radically different visions of the future.
Gorbachev sees the 15 republics of the Soviet Union as an organic whole, a single body. He has come around to admitting that the union is the result more of force and tyranny than of voluntary association, but despite the cruelties of history, he argues, the union has become so interconnected, by migration and intermarriage, by economic development, that its breakup would lead only to tragedy.
Nationalists in the various republics prefer another metaphor -- the communal apartment. They say they feel like individuals, with different languages, cultures and histories, who have been forced to live in the same cramped, oppressive flat for far too long. Better to separate, they argue, and then figure out how to create mutually beneficial economic or political arrangements.
It is hard, if not impossible, for a Communist of Gorbachev's generation to think of the union treaty as in any way conservative. Earlier versions of the draft show that as recently as July the government included language insisting that the republics "adhere to the socialist choice" of the October Revolution. Now the treaty has been so "de-ideologized," as the Soviets say, that the name of the country itself has dropped all mention of socialism and will now be the "Union of Soviet Sovereign States."
But for the young, for people who have grown more radical than Gorbachev, the draft is "a new package for the same old structures," as Estonian legislator Marju Lauristin put it.
Because they were annexed only in 1940 and have their cultural roots in Europe, the Baltic states are the most obvious opponents to recognizing Moscow's authority in the future.
After his initial reaction of shock and anger last spring to the Baltic rebellion, Gorbachev appeared to soften, even opening preliminary negotiations on independence with the three republics. But at his news conference Friday, Gorbachev seemed to harden his resolve and looked prepared to fight hard for the inclusion of every republic in the new union.
There is nothing abstract about the debate over the union treaty. Everyone agrees that the battle for power between Moscow and the republics, among various republics and cities, has led to complete economic chaos and a crisis of power. Moreover, popularly elected officials have expressed frustration that they are still stifled and undercut by the old-guard Communist Party bureaucracy, which still controls so much of the economic distribution system.
Moscow's deputy mayor, Sergei Stankevich, said in an interview that he has learned that nine regions around the country have decided, for various political reasons, to cut off or reduce food shipments to the capital.
In Moscow, nearly 700 butcher shops have closed because they have not received meat deliveries from, among other places, Kazakhstan, the Baltic states, Byelorussia and the Ukraine. To compensate, people are forced to buy their meat in private markets at four times the state prices.
"We continue to function in a system governed by a one-party system," Moscow Mayor Gavril Popov said. "That 'democrats' are in power does not mean that they wield any power. I essentially have no real power. I don't command anything. I cannot provide a building, I can't ensure protection for privately run shops. I can't do a lot of things."
Even Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who is known for his radical positions but rather level-headed demeanor, has grown fearful. A further crisis of power will lead to "heightened social tensions that could smash away the fragile democratic structures we have built over the totalitarian structures that still exist unchanged," he writes in a book about to be published here.
"If public content reaches a critical point and triggers rebellion, few of us will survive. The chaos of social unrest would provide little chance for survival for those who have been leading the country, no matter how good their intentions might have been."
So painful and complicated is the coming debate over the future of the union that legislators have become almost casual about the fact that they are about to consider, and probably pass, a law that could lead to an exodus of Soviet citizens.
Nikolai Neiland, a member of the Supreme Soviet's foreign affairs committee, said the legislature is likely to pass a bill that will make foreign travel and emigration far easier than it has ever been in the history of the country.
In anticipation of the new law, leaders in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia have already begun considering their own visa laws and immigration regulations. Last year, more than 200,000 people emigrated from the Soviet Union and that number is likely to double in 1990.