ONCE again the Soviet Union has stepped to the brink of self-destruction, only to pull back at the last moment.Plans to form an economic union among the republics of the Soviet Union seemed headed for the rocks last week because of opposition from the governments of Russia and the Ukraine, the two largest and richest republics. But the republican leaders emerged from a meeting last Friday with an agreement to sign a treaty creating an economic community, perhaps as early as today. The republics also reached consensus on Saturday over food supplies for 1992. In addition, the republics will take up a draft treaty on political union circulated on Friday by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The key to this turnabout, observers agree, was the clear backing given to the economic community pact by Russian President Boris Yeltsin who returned from a two-week vacation last Thursday night. In addition, the Ukrainian government eased off its insistence that it would take no steps toward union until after a Dec. 1 referendum on independence.
West discusses aid The consensus came as a Soviet delegation was heading to Bangkok for meetings with Western financial leaders gathered for the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Following the talks in Bangkok, the Group of Seven leading industrial nations indicated they would not provide further financial aid until a clear definition was given of who among the central government and the republics would be responsible for repaying the debts. Mr. Gorbachev made a plea to republican leaders at the State Council meeting on Friday to set aside their differences if they were to have any hope of getting Western aid. "People's patience is at a breaking point," the Tass news agency quoted him warning. "Attempts are being made to set members of the State Council against each other, to sow mutual suspicion, to hamper in every way the adoption of the documents." Foreign partners have not failed to notice this, Gorbachev added. The Soviet leader was followed by economist Grigory Yavlinsky, deputy head of the Committee on Economic Management, the interim body running what remains of the Soviet central government. He assailed republican isolationism, saying it would bring deeper economic recession, the collapse of the monetary system, and a sharp rise in unemployment. Mr. Yavlinsky, who headed the delegation in talks with Western financiers, argued for adoption of the draft economic treaty of which he is the principal author. It is unlikely that Gorbachev and Yavlinsky's appeals would have been enough to sway the meeting. The more crucial voice was that of Mr. Yeltsin whose attitude toward the economic treaty had been in question. Russian deputy premier Yevgeny Saburov had signed a draft version of the treaty earlier in the month at a meeting of the remaining 12 republics in the Kazakh capital of Alma Ata. But his signature had been repudiated by the Russian cabinet and Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi. Last Thursday the Russian government issued a document severely criticizing the treaty for infringing on Russian interests and preserving too much central control. They specifically called for dropping proposals to form a new central bank to control the money supply, for ensuring that Russia would not finance the bulk of common expenditures, and for clearly distributing the Soviet debt among the republics. Mr. Saburov attacked the Russian cabinet in a letter of resignation and interviews with Soviet newspapers. "Russia can survive alone but only through hunger, famine and decades of deprivation," he told the independent Nezavisimaya Gazeta. He insisted that without a strong central banking system, the economy would deteriorate, and ties with the West would be totally disrupted. He claimed his signature on the treaty was given with Yeltsin's knowledge and support. Yeltsin was silent until the Friday meeting when he backed the treaty. Russian Premier Ivan Silayev, who now heads the Inter-Republican Economic Committee, told Russian television on Saturday that Yeltsin had refused to accept Saburov's resignation and that Saburov "had the authority for the talks in Alma Ata and the initialling." Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev praised Yeltsin after the accord last week. "I can tell you that he is a man who sticks to his word," he said of the Russian leader. But Yeltsin was ambiguous on the crucial banking issue. According to a Tass account of his speech in the State Council meeting, he called for a revision of the document to allow for a more flexible link between republican banks and a central bank. Even if the treaty is signed on Oct. 15 as planned, 17 separate agreements will need to be reached to detail its implementation - including the creation of a new banking structure. This could take until the end of the year, many observers say. Prospects for a political union seem even more distant. Gorbachev, speaking on Soviet television in an interview aired Saturday, expressed hope that the republics would back a revised union treaty. He argued that a solely economic union, without political ties, would not work. "That means that someone [a republic] who wants access to the resources of Russia, Kazakhstan, or the Ukraine would be totally free, with no political obligations," he said.
Ukraine's reservations Mr. Nazarbayev said that the proposed political pact had the backing of Russia, Byelorussia, Kazakhstan, and the four Central Asian republics. But as Gorbachev himself acknowledged, "I cannot think of a union without the Ukraine; I cannot imagine it." He indirectly appealed for a vote against independence but most observers foresee approval in the December referendum. Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk, who is the leading candidate to become President in an election to be held simultaneously with the referendum, has repeatedly opposed political union. But last Thursday his premier, Vitold Fokin, did back the need for an economic treaty, a stance he reiterated the following day at the State Council meeting. The Ukrainians also agreed to coordinate food policy.