WHILE civil war has erupted in nearby Yugoslavia, the nationalist leaders of the three Baltic republics are offering the Soviet Union a civilized divorce.Today the Baltic governments plan to present Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev with a document outlining an ongoing economic association with the Soviet Union. Baltic leaders, who met at this Latvian seaside resort last Friday to draw up the proposal, remain determined, however, to move rapidly toward independence. They express some optimism that, as one senior Baltic official put it, "Gorbachev is ready to let the Balts go." The Baltic republics cannot sign the new draft of a treaty of union drawn up by 9 of the 15 Soviet republics, Baltic leaders told the Monitor in exclusive interviews here. "This draft treaty is similar to what we offered two-and-a-half years ago," says Latvian President Anatolijs Gorbunovs, but is no longer acceptable. "Today it is too late," explains Latvian Foreign Minister Janis Jurkans. The Baltic leaders also reject forming an economic union, an alternate structure which some Soviet officials have suggested could include the republics that do not sign the union treaty. "Such a formal union which would embrace the Baltic republics is out of the question because we are separate, independent states," says Estonian President Arnold Ruutel. "If this union were to be joined by some Western states, it would be another thing," says Lithuanian Premier Gediminas Vagnoris. Instead, the Baltic republics offer Mr. Gorbachev basic principles for "economic cooperation ... during the transition period" to independence, as their document states. The seven-point outline proposes the following: * Foreign trade would be regulated by the Baltic states but Soviet goods transported through their territory would be subject to Soviet customs laws. * Goods would be bartered, using a clearing system to meet an agreed trade balance. * Baltic states would provide finance to the Soviet government for participation in joint programs, such as energy systems. * The ruble would be the currency used during the transition. * The Baltic states would guarantee social security payments for all their inhabitants. * All the enterprises will be subject to Baltic authority, but financial and property disputes will be settled by special commissions set up by both sides. * Baltic representatives will take part, as they wish, in the work of Soviet economic authorities. The final point opens the door to Baltic governments joining the republics that sign the union treaty in forming and carrying out joint economic policies. "We can send our representatives to different union bodies in order to organize economic relations," says Mr. Ruutel. "But they won't be representatives of a 'union republic, he cautions. "They will have the status of an observer or something similar." The leaders share the view that after more than a year of stalled talks, Gorbachev will finally come to grips with the Baltic problem after the union treaty is signed. "I am very confident that as soon as the treaty is signed, the approach to the Balts will be a very civilized one," Mr. Jurkans says. Even the more hard-line Lithuanians express some guarded optimism that Gorbachev may respond more positively than in the past. While there is "no serious change" in Gorbachev's view of Baltic independence yet, says Mr. Vagnoris, "I believe that [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin's election fosters a change in Gorbachev's position." The recent wave of renewed attacks by Soviet Interior Ministry commando units on Baltic customs posts and other government sites have raised concerns that conservative Communist forces may seek to block a peaceful solution. For this reason, Baltic leaders urge that the signing of the union treaty by the nine republics take place as soon as possible. "I am very scared that prolonging the signing might lead to serious instability in the country," says Jurkans. "The military, KGB [secret service], and Communist Party are trying to provoke the situation, trying to make things difficult for Gorbachev. I think this holdout may damage this peaceful transition." When Estonian President Ruutel met Gorbachev last week at the former's request, "I warned him that if such barbarous attacks continue any real dialogue is out of the question," Ruutel recounts. He was less than satisfied with Gorbachev's response that Moscow was not behind the incidents and that the procurator's office is investigating them. "This is the same answer as after the Vilnius events," Ruutel says, referring to the Army crackdown that left 13 dead in Lithuania's capital in January. A procurator's report cleared the Army and blamed the nationalist government. Still, Baltic leaders see Gorbachev as an honest if vacillating negotiating partner. In the past, Mr. Gorbunovs says, "the Soviet Union took our suggestions into consideration only after a great delay. That is why we will urge the president to consider our proposals as soon as possible." According to the independent Interfax news agency, Gorbachev will be meeting today with all the republican leaders to discuss the economic situation after the first half of the year. It is likely that the meeting will also discuss an economic reform plan which is being drafted for Gorbachev to take to the London summit of Western industrial leaders in mid-July in his search for economic assistance. In the past, Baltic leaders have called on the West to press the Soviet Union to grant them independence as a price for such aid. "We would like the West to tell Gorbachev that there is an urgent need to resolve this conflict because it is unprofitable both to the Baltic states and to the USSR," says Vagnoris. But others also endorse the view that Western aid to Gorbachev is in the Baltic interest. Gorbachev's survival depends on it, says Jurkans, and "for us, the success of democratic changes in the Soviet Union is crucial. If the democratization process is stopped, we may forget our independence."