AS the Sunday referendum for a union treaty approaches, the Soviet government is unleashing a rising crescendo of propaganda aimed at persuading voters that their ballot could determine the fate of the Soviet Union as a united country. But in reality this is a referendum with many questions but one likely to produce few answers.
Only four of the country's 15 republics are simply offering the official question that asks voters if they wish to ``preserve the USSR as a renovated federation.'' The six most nationalistic republics are refusing outright to hold the vote. And the other five republics have either altered the wording or added their own questions, allowing their citizens to vote for a different notion of union.
Even the outcome of the vote on the official query has no juridical consequence. Soviet government officials such as parliament chairman Anatoly Lukyanov have unequivocally stated that even if a republic votes ``no'' to the union, ``it will stay within the USSR.'' The republic must still go through a complex procedure for exit, including at least one more vote, which many republics see as an impossible barrier.
And if voters say ``yes,'' it is far from obvious what they are giving their approval to. The central government interprets this as endorsement of a new union treaty which has been under discussion for months. But even the eight republics that are participating in the drafting have not yet agreed to a final version, nor have their parliaments discussed it. That process could take a month or more, admitted Grigory Revenko, the Gorbachev adviser responsible for the issue.
In Russia, where more than half the population lives, the vote is shaping up into a surrogate contest between Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, his arch rival. Yeltsin supporters, who gathered in impressive rallies across Russia last Sunday, call for a ``no'' to the union query but a ``yes'' to an added question proposing creation of a Russian presidency.
The Soviet Communist Party leadership is uncomfortable with that definition of the contest. People will be voting ``not for Gorbachev or Yeltsin but for the future of their country,'' Moscow party chief Yuri Prokofiev insisted to reporters this week.
Mr. Yeltsin hastened to agree, in his own way. ``Today the issue is not relations between Gorbachev and Yeltsin,'' he told readers of Komsomolskaya Pravda yesterday. ``What matters is the existence of the system, the protection of Russian sovereignty. If Russia is without any rights, as it used to be, it will never come out of its dilapidated state.''
Many among the anticommunist democrats and nationalists say the Kremlin could use a ``yes'' vote to justify forceful interventions of the kind seen in the Baltics in January. The Gorbachev government has retorted by linking those forces to an effort to destroy the country.
``There are movements which call themselves parties,'' Mr. Revenko told reporters Tuesday, referring to the democrats and to nationalists in the republics. ``They say no to the referendum, no to the Union, then back to 1917, to civil war. That's what I call them - civil war people.''
Yeltsin rejects such scare talk. ``A civil war is unthinkable in this country,'' he said in the published interview. For the Russian leader, the issue is the rights of the republics versus those of the center and whether Russia and other republics will be free to pursue a more reformist agenda than the increasingly conservative path the Kremlin has chosen.
Yeltsin's tactics are largely a response to a fierce Communist Party-led assault on him, aimed at trying to engineer a vote ousting him as head of the parliament. The Communists succeeded in forcing the convening of an emergency meeting on March 28 of the Congress of Peoples Deputies, the highest legislative body, for this purpose. Yeltsin is countering with the creation of a presidency, which he hopes would free him from the interference of the strong Communist presence in the parliament.
The Russian government is also preparing a two-year economic program to present to the Congress, entitled ``Russia's Special Road,'' which offers a better deal than the Kremlin's economic program. The official Tass news agency and the independent Interfax agency say the program will provide automatic indexation of incomes to compensate for price hikes planned by the Gorbachev government from early April. It offers tax exemptions for food and other consumer industries and free market conditions in the bu lk of the economy.
Most important, the program asks for a treaty that clearly limits the jurisdiction of the central government, including full division of all property and Russia's share of export earnings. If the center refuses, Russia will tax centrally controlled agencies and enterprises and control food exports.
Many republics share the Russian view that the latest draft treaty, published Saturday, falls short. The Ukrainian parliament added a question to the Sunday ballot stating that the Ukraine would participate in a union only on the basis of its own declaration of sovereignty. Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan have placed similar questions before their voters. Kazakhstan replaced the words in the official question defining the union as ``a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which human rights and liberties will be fully guaranteed for all nationalities'' with simply ``union of sovereign states.''
The nationalist-controlled governments of the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have already held their own polls in which voters overwhelmingly backed independence. Georgia intends to vote on March 31, as does Armenia on Sept. 21.
The Kremlin does not consider these past votes legally binding and plans to hold its own referendums within those republics as well as in Moldavia, with Soviet Army bases and factories run by the central government as the polling places. The Russian-speaking population and other national minorities in those republics are being encouraged to vote. Soviet officials have hinted their votes could be used to justify post-referendum interventions to protect their ``rights.''
``The goal of the referendum is to strengthen law and order in the country, to secure the rights of a citizen irrespective of where he lives,'' Mr. Lukyanov told Komsomolskaya Pravda on March 13.