The Soviet Union unveiled a draft treaty Friday that President Mikhail Gorbachev hopes will end ethnic strife and hold the country together in a looser federation of sovereign republics.
The Union Treaty, published by the official Soviet news agency, Tass, is designed to replace an agreement signed in 1922 formally founding the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.The draft stresses that each signatory will be a sovereign state and enjoy wide-ranging political and economic autonomy.
Four of the 15 Soviet republics have said they will not sign it. Others, including the giant Russian Federation, have expressed reservations during months of stormy negotiations with the Kremlin.
The proposed treaty, an updated version of a draft issued in November, outlines Gorbachev's vision of the Soviet Union as "a sovereign federative democratic state formed as a result of voluntary unification of equal republics."
The Baltic republics and Georgia did not cooperate in talks on the treaty and are pushing for outright independence.
"Constituent republics shall retain the right to independent action on all issues of their development," according to the draft.
But the Moscow-based Soviet government keeps responsibility for defense, borders and coordinating law enforcement and foreign policy. It also controls unspecified foreign economic activities and approves and executes the national budget.
The treaty says republics will be able to establish direct diplomatic and trade ties with foreign states. They can also sign international treaties and join international organizations.
"The republics participating in this treaty shall have the right to freely secede from the union in keeping with the order established by the parties to the treaty," it said.
The present Soviet constitution allows for republics to secede but sets restrictive conditions including a long transition period.
The draft treaty was basically approved by a top Kremlin body Wednesday. It has been submitted to parliaments in the 15 republics for further consideration.
The document is expected to be the foundation for a new constitution and could lead to a new name for the country.
Gorbachev hopes it will convince rebel republics not to push for total independence and break up the country. A referendum March 17 will ask people if they favor preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal, sovereign entities.
The leaders of several republics are declining to organize the referendum.
The draft treaty - consisting of a preamble and three main parts - places more emphasis on republics' sovereignty than the version proposed in November and gives them greater control over central decisionmaking.
One notable change concerns management of the country's gold, diamond and hard-currency reserves.
There will be a single customs regime and currency, and joint decisions on "realising the sovereign rights of the union and the republics to natural wealth of the economic zone and continental shelf."
The treaty calls for unified credit, monetary, tax and pricing policies.