MOSCOW -- The Kremlin's decision to declare the country's 15 constituent republics sovereign as part of a proposed treaty to remake the Soviet Union has forced the central government to give up its pretensions to being an empire, a senior official explained in a recent interview.

"I think the British and the French experienced the same sense of disappointment when their empires fell apart," said Georgi Shakhnazarov, one of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's top aides and an author of the draft Treaty of the Union, which was unveiled last month.

"But, actually, our situation is a bit different," Shakhnazarov said. "We have a chance still of keeping our union more or less intact, even though we might suffer certain losses."

The main issue addressed by the treaty, which the Congress of People's Deputies is to consider during a 10-day session that began yesterday, is not whether the union will remain a first-rank superpower, Shakhnazarov said. "The main thing is the well-being of the people. Is the Russian nation going to live under decent conditions? Can we improve the ecological situation? . . . Those are the things that will determine the greatness of our country."

Shakhnazarov, who has also been Gorbachev's main adviser on Eastern Europe, said the Soviet leader never hesitated during 1989 to let those countries break away from the former Soviet empire.

Without being specific, Shakhnazarov said a number of Communist leaders called Gorbachev, "and they said, 'Look what's going on. We're on the verge of being ousted. Please come and help us.'

"But Gorbachev said, 'No. If we move in with our tanks, we will betray our principles, and that will be the end of our own reforms.' "

Shakhnazarov said that although the republics would not be forced to join the union -- the draft treaty uses the word "voluntary" -- republics that refuse would "still have to go by the old law" in seeking independence. They could gain independence only by holding referendums and then prolonged negotiations with Moscow over how to divide properties and other issues of "divorce."

Shakhnazarov said, however, that he thought the smaller republics would have "no chance" of surviving economically on their own. Citing annual shipments of oil and other resources from the Russian republic to Soviet Georgia, he warned that Georgian officials can hardly expect to retain such subsidies if the republic chooses to become independent.

"What will they do, trade tangerines for the oil?" he asked. "That is absurd."