EARLY returns from Sunday's nationwide referendum on the future of the Soviet Union show a majority voting in favor of continued union. But the "yes" vote is far from a clear mandate for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. At best, many parts of the country voted narrowly for his union, including Moscow, the capital of the USSR. In others voters found ways to say that the union they want is not the same as the one that Mr. Gorbachev wants.
The turnout was generally high. But in many areas, voters complained about the question posed by the central government. And in others, voters used the presence of altered or additional questions to send their mixed message to the Kremlin.
In the Ukraine, the country's second most-populous republic, voters cast ballots more strongly in favor of a concept of union backed by nationalists. According to preliminary estimates made by the Ukrainian nationalist movement Rukh, more than 50 percent voted "yes" in response to the central government question asking if they favor "preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation." But about 85 percent voted "yes" to a question offered by the Ukrainian parliament which c alled for remaining in the union only on the basis of their own declaration of sovereignty.
In some areas of the Ukraine, the anti-Moscow feelings ran even higher. In the capital, Kiev, Rukh estimates a 55 percent "no" vote against the central government's union formula. And in the western Ukraine, where nationalist sentiments run strong, about 90 percent backed a question supporting independence.
The results show "most Ukrainians want to keep the republic part of the union but with a higher degree of independence and sovereignty than before," comments Yuri Lukyanov, deputy head of Rukh's information department in a telephone interview from Kiev.
The people of the Russian Federation, the largest republic with about 150 million population, also had the opportunity to say two things in this referendum. Aside from the question on the union, Russians also voted on whether they favored creation of a Russian presidency directly elected by the voters. For many this was a surrogate vote between Gorbachev and his rival, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin.
In a radio address Friday, Mr. Yeltsin made clear that he favored a negative answer to the union query, not to oppose a union as such but "as a signal to the union leadership that their policy needs serious changes."
Gorbachev, speaking to reporters after voting on Sunday, opposed the Russian presidency, while insisting this was not a contest between himself and Yeltsin.
The early Russian results reported by the independent news agency Interfax, mainly from the Soviet Far East, where polls closed earlier because of the time difference, seem to indicate that Russians gave an edge to Yeltsin. Although majorities said "yes" to the union, the pro-Yeltsin vote was generally higher. For example, in the Far Eastern area of Magadan, 64 percent said "yes" to the union while 71 percent said "yes" to Yeltsin's presidency.
In other areas, the results seemed less clear. The official Tass news agency reported that in the oil-producing Tyumen region in western Siberia, the same bare 53 percent majority voted both for the union and for the Russian presidency. In the Siberian region of Chita, Tass says 85 percent said "yes" to union but a little over 50 to the presidency.
Moscow itself proved to be a bastion of anti-Gorbachev sentiment. According to Interfax, citing Moscow city government officials, the union received an estimated 50 percent backing. Yeltsin's query got 78 percent backing, however.
In Moscow, as elsewhere, many people felt the question was the problem. It asked: "Do you think it is necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedoms of individuals of all nationalities will be fully guaranteed?"
"Too much is combined in one question, and I can't say yes to all the parts of that long question," said carpenter Victor Zakarovas as he left voting station No. 47 in the working-class Moscow district of Sevastopol.
In Kazakhstan, the government simply changed the question, asking only if people backed a "union of sovereign states." According to Interfax, that formula garnered higher backing, with 94 percent giving their support.
The only places where the Kremlin got unambiguous support for its union question seemed to be in more conservative Central Asian republics and among the Russian-speaking minorities in the six nationalist-led republics that refused to officially carry out the vote. In the Central Asian republic of Turkmenia, considered perhaps the nation's most conservative, Radio Moscow reports, 95 percent voted "yes."
Similar majorities were reported from areas of Moldavia and the Baltic republics of Latvia and Estonia, where Russians and Army members voted on military bases or at central-government controlled factories. In Moldavia, clashes were reported with nationalist pickets opposing the vote. The same type of voting took place in Lithuania, Armenia, and Georgia, the other republics boycotting the referendum.
Baltic leaders and others expressed concern that the referendum could be used as a prelude to new crackdowns on nationalist governments. On Monday, Soviet Interior Ministry special troops arrested the head of the Lithuanian defense force, a move Lithuanian officials see as ominous.