Mikhail Gorbachev on Friday softened his hard-line position on his Union Treaty to hold the country together, and he ordered Kremlin officials to start talks with the secessionist Baltic republics.

Meanwhile, joint police-military units started patrolling some major cities Friday, ostensibly to curb crime. At least six republics, several cities and reformers have denounced the patrols; some said Gorbachev was succumbing to pressure from those demanding stronger Kremlin control.Gorbachev's apparent concession during a meeting of his Federation Council indicated the embattled president was seeking a middle ground between secessionist republics and hard-liners. Gorbachev's position as Communist Party chief was even questioned during a Central Committee session Thursday.

One Baltic leader suspected Gorbachev was playing their conflict off an inner-Kremlin political battle. "We must know what is hiding behind it, what is the political situation in the Soviet Union's leadership" before agreeing to talks, Lithuania's president, Vytautas Landsbergis, told Lithuanian Radio, monitored in London.

The meeting of the Federation Council, which includes presidents of all 15 republics plus Gorbachev and other top Kremlin leaders, was Gorbachev's first meeting with republic leaders since the mid-January crackdown in the Baltics that has left 19 civilians and one soldier dead.

The new draft Union Treaty would allow the republics to limit the powers of the central government "based on the principle that republics, as sovereign states, are united in the union only on a voluntary central government as defined by the republics," Tass quoted Byelorussian President Nikolai Dementei, as saying.

Apparently in return, the republics would agree to recognize the superiority of national laws over republic laws, Tass said, effectively reversing the central issue in many of their sovereignty declarations.

In the past two years, all the republic parliaments have declared their own laws supersede Soviet ones. Gorbachev declared this unconstitutional, and the standoff has paralyzed government at all levels.

The only published draft of the new Union Treaty, which would replace the 1922 document that formed the Soviet Union, called for the central government to retain wide powers over defense, foreign policy, communications, energy, transport, space programs and social policy.

Tass did not say whether the new draft addressed those powers.

At the same council meeting, Gorbachev appointed three commissions to "discuss a package of political, social and economic issues" with the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Tass said.

The commissions included Army Chief of Staff Mikhail Moiseyev; presidential adviser Yuri Maslyukov; Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Varennikov; and Deputy Interior Minister Vasily Trushin.

Estonian President Edgar Savisaar blasted Gorbachev's order for talks as "rubbish" and not constructive, said his spokesman, Sergei Chernov.

"The aim of these commissions will be to prolong the center's control," Chernov said.

Landsbergis acknowledged Gorbachev's idea "is not a sign of goodwill from the Kremlin that was expected by us. But it seems some talks and discussions will take place. Maybe there will be some better prospects."

There was no immediate reaction from Latvia.