Faced with ethnic violence in the Soviet south and secession in the north, Soviet leaders may formally agree by the end of this year to dismantle their country as it now exists to found a new union with far greater powers for independence-minded local authorities.
In a monumental reversal of traditionally top-heavy Communist rule and of centuries of relentless Russian centralization begun by the czars, the leadership of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is envisaging "a new union of independent states" to keep the Soviet Union together as separatist pressures grow, top adviser Grigory I. Revenko said Tuesday.
Negotiating a new "union treaty" to replace the nearly 68-year-old agreement that created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is now "the No. 1 priority for us," the member of the Presidential Council, or Gorbachev's personal cabinet, told reporters.
Revenko predicted that a draft of the document putting an official end to the ability of the Moscow-based central government to decide virtually any issue anywhere in the world's largest country could be agreed upon by December.
However, spokesmen for nationalist groups and governments in the Baltic and Transcaucasian states said the plan for a new treaty will not sway them from their goal of complete independence, and they said it cannot prevent the Soviet Union from fracturing. The treaty was discussed in detail Friday by the Presidential Council and the Federal Council, a body of representatives from the 15 Soviet republics.
"For us, the treaty is belated and is none of our concern," said Raul Myalk, press attache of the Estonian Supreme Soviet, or legislature, which in March voted to pursue a step-by-step approach to restoring the independence lost 50 years ago when the Baltic state was annexed by the Kremlin.
Revenko and another participant in Friday's meeting also reported that Gorbachev outlined eight areas--including defense, the KGB, foreign affairs and foreign trade--that would remain within the purview of the central government, a provision that directly challenges the claims of sovereignty made by some of the republics.
Nevertheless, the treaty as outlined by Revenko, an erstwhile Ukrainian Communist Party official, would be far more flexible than the country's present political structure. Under that structure, tiny Armenia in theory has the same rights and obligations as the behemoth Russian Federation because both are Soviet republics.
In the new union, "every republic should decide which powers it wishes to delegate to the union as a whole," Revenko said.
Some may opt for a planned "special status" or "associated status," he noted, which would allow them to remain part of the Soviet Union while having fewer obligations to it than other republics.
"The Baltic republics do not oppose having close social and economic ties with the union," he said.
Told of Revenko's comments, Jozef Dumyalis, a member of the governing council of Lithuania's grass-roots pro-independence movement Sajudis, replied: "We have been part of the Soviet Union for the last 50 years, and we know what that means, while we know nothing yet about the so-called union treaty. In other words, we are not going to stay in the union or take part in this project."
According to the outline offered by Revenko, the new union would be strictly voluntary, unlike the 1922 agreement under which non-Russian republics from the Ukraine to Central Asia were virtually welded onto the administrative structure of Bolshevik-ruled Russia.
"We are opposed to the forcible inclusion of anyone in the union," Revenko said.
However, he insisted on the importance of "wholeness," suggesting that the Soviet leadership would push, presumably hard, for all 15 republics to join.
In yet another rejection of orthodoxy and sign of the Kremlin's growing willingness to be flexible, Revenko said he believed that even if a republic declared itself non-socialist, it ought to be able to remain a part of the country.
"We ought today to give up abstract arguments about ideas; we should think about the state," he said.
Despite that dramatic de-emphasis of ideology, which would have been hard to imagine even six months ago, Revenko said no thought had yet been given to changing the country's name from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But he did not rule out a name change.
According to Revenko, August and September should be devoted to working out "general principles" on the union treaty and the country's transition to a market-style economy, two reforms Gorbachev has said are inseparable.
"Documents will be compiled for a treaty in October and November, and in December this could go to a first reading," Revenko said. "But this could drag itself out for a few months into the new year."
The new treaty, he said, will be discussed by the legislatures of the various Soviet republics and, if necessary, put to a referendum.
Implicit in Revenko's comments was the assumption that republics not opting for membership in the reformed union would be free to seek independence, perhaps under more advantageous terms than those laid this year by the Soviet Parliament, which fixed a five-year "cooling-off" period before secession can occur.
Latvia's representative at Friday's closed-door meeting, Andrejs Krastons, the deputy chairman of the Parliament, reported that Gorbachev outlined eight key policy spheres to be controlled by the central government, including:
Defense, borders and the KGB.
Foreign policy, foreign trade and customs.
Personal and legal rights and the creation of a national institution to prevent ethnic conflicts.
Coordination of market relations, unified monetary policy, prices and standards.
Guarantees of energy supplies for all republics.
Coordination of transport.
Environmental regulation and emergency assistance in the event of natural disasters.
Guarantees for scientific and technical progress.
Basically confirming that list, Revenko said the central government would be responsible for "the free movement of peoples, goods and, I might say, ideas."
As Gorbachev's reforms allow many of the country's more than 100 ethnic groups to voice grievances they long held silent, eight Soviet republics have served notice that they want a new deal by asserting their right to self-rule or independence in varying degrees.
The latest was the Ukraine, whose Parliament last week issued a bold declaration of sovereignty, saying it plans to establish the second-largest Soviet republic as a neutral state and assume the right to create its own security forces and coin money.
Nationalist fervor and revolt against Moscow's rule have ranged from the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, which declared last month that its laws were supreme and claimed the right to decide all issues of domestic and foreign policy, to Lithuania, which proclaimed independence in March.
Potentially the most alarming step toward home rule came when the huge Russian Federation, the biggest and most populous of the Soviet republics, declared itself sovereign last month under the urging of its populist president, Boris N. Yeltsin, and ruled that Russian laws would now take priority on its territory.