Although the legislatures of Ukraine and Belarus on Tuesday ratified an agreement to form a Commonwealth of Independent States, a move that further dimmed prospects for the crumbling Soviet Union, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev insisted he will not resign.
But a new dispute arose over Gorbachev's role as the military commander in chief, and there were growing questions about who now controls the 3.7-million-member Soviet armed forces.
Gorbachev met Tuesday with military commanders to discuss "structures" in the armed forces, the Soviet news agency Tass reported.
But top officials in the Russian Federation government refused to admit that Gorbachev is still supreme military commander and implied that the Soviet defense minister sides with them.
Gennady Burbulis, secretary of state for the Russian Federation, when asked who controls the armed forces, paused, then smiled and said: "I think this question will be solved in the coming days."
Burbulis added that Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, the Soviet defense minister, "fully supports" the Slavic republics' new alliance.
Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin plans to meet today with commanders of the armed forces to discuss the military's role in the new commonwealth.
The decision Tuesday of the Ukrainian Parliament to approve the commonwealth was especially pivotal because the republic derailed Gorbachev's attempts to form a confederative democratic union 10 days ago when Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence. Gorbachev had urged Ukrainians not to betray the Soviet Union, saying that he could not imagine a union without Ukraine.
Yeltsin--realizing that he would have to agree to a looser alliance of independent states to keep Russia and Ukraine together--then met with leaders of the two other Slavic republics, and they created the commonwealth.
Ivan Drach, a Ukrainian legislator and head of the Rukh nationalist movement, said that joining the commonwealth was a way for the new Ukrainian nation to protect itself from Russia, which has dominated Ukraine. "It's like boxers," Drach explained. "Sometimes you have to go into a clinch to protect yourself from further blows."
The legislature of Belarus (formerly Byelorussia) ratified the commonwealth agreement with 263 of 286 lawmakers present voting for it; lawmakers said their decision would take effect immediately. The commonwealth agreement stands to drastically improve the status of Belarus because it names Minsk, the republic's capital, as the new alliance's administrative center, replacing the Soviet capital of Moscow.
Leaders of Armenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, Moldova, Tadzhikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (formerly Kirghizia) also have expressed positive reactions to the commonwealth.
And Andrei S. Grachev, Gorbachev's spokesman, indicated Tuesday that even his boss might be willing to go along with the alliance, saying he "is open to any variation of a union treaty" that is arrived at through constitutional means.
But Gorbachev's attempt to retake the political high ground by calling the Congress of People's Deputies into session to debate the commonwealth also advanced, as more than 200 of 460 signatures necessary to convene the congress have been gathered, Russian Television reported.
The Congress, or national Parliament, is much more conservative than most of the republics' parliaments, and Gorbachev has a history of getting almost anything he wants from it.
But leaders of the republics scoffed at the idea of the national Parliament--which all but dissolved itself after the hard-line coup in August--having any say over their future.
As for Gorbachev's future, his spokesman said the Soviet leader will stay in office "as far as he feels he has the possibility to exercise substantial political influence on the developing process in the country. Presently, he is not thinking about resigning," Grachev said.
When asked whether Gorbachev still considers himself the leader of the three republics that founded the commonwealth, Grachev said: "Mr. Gorbachev considers himself to be the president of the U.S.S.R., which certainly includes these states."
Yeltsin's men, however, made it clear that they feel certain that Gorbachev's fate is now in their hands. "I think President Gorbachev, having not little experience in politics and having been an irreplaceable person at a certain stage of our reforms, can be constructively employed," Burbulis said. "We absolutely deny that our agreement was meant to remove Gorbachev from the political scene."
But Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk, in a damning speech before Ukraine's legislature, blamed Gorbachev and his men for breaking up the union and accused the Soviet leader of attacking the commonwealth to preserve a powerful central government.
Immediately after the three Slavic leaders proposed the commonwealth, Gorbachev's government "began blaming us for dissolving the union," Kravchuk said in his speech. "But today one can ask: Who is really to blame for this collapse and when did it begin? Everyone understands that it didn't begin Dec. 7-8 (with the commonwealth's announcement) but it began with the beginning of perestroika. And we even know the names of the authors of this collapse."
Kravchuk accused Gorbachev of having a hidden agenda to "renew the centralized state that will decide all problems for us, a powerful centralized state that, with time, would take all authority on itself."
Stressing that Ukraine, in joining the commonwealth, has not given up the independence its people overwhelmingly supported at the polls, Kravchuk said: "Each state remains a state, without losing a gram of independence."
The lawmakers responded to Kravchuk's rousing speech by voting 288 to 10, with 62 abstentions, in favor of the commonwealth.
Times staff writer Carey Goldberg in Moscow and Times special correspondent Mary Mycio in Kiev contributed to this report.