MOSCOW — President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, struggling to hold his crisis-torn country together, appealed Wednesday for popular support in a national referendum on reconstituting the Soviet Union as a federal state and warned that its breakup would bring unimagined grief to all its people.
Criticizing the Baltic republics of Lithuania and Estonia for their plans to hold separate plebiscites on independence, Gorbachev reaffirmed his intention to use all his power and authority to preserve the Soviet Union.
"All my convictions are based on preservation of the union," Gorbachev declared, opening the government's pre-referendum campaign with a speech on prime-time television.
Gorbachev said the secession of the Baltic and other separatist republics would cause the virtual disintegration of the country, economic destruction and collapse as a world superpower.
"Refugees have appeared in our country in peacetime," Gorbachev continued, raising the specter of civil war, "and there have been not tens, not hundreds, but thousands of innocent victims, casualties of ethnic conflicts, political passions and uncontrolled outbursts of emotions.
"Separatism threatens to condemn millions of people to be torn away from their historical homelands, from the land where their forefathers lie, to destroy their accustomed way of life."
The conflicts the country has experienced in the last three years were only a start, he said, and as many as a quarter of the population, nearly 75 million people, might be forced from their homes by the unrestrained nationalism.
Concerned that he will not receive the mandate he wants for a new "union treaty," Gorbachev warned that resolution of the country's political and economic crises depends, first of all, on ensuring that the Soviet Union survives as an integral state--an issue that is increasingly in doubt.
"Each of us must understand that this is really the question of the country's fate, the fate of the people, our common fate," Gorbachev said.
Six of the Soviet Union's 15 constituent republics have declared their intentions to hold their own referendums, at different times with different questions, or have expressed strong reservations about participating in the March 17 national vote on preserving the Soviet Union as "a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics."
Although the overall results would remain unaffected, the refusal of a number of republics to participate could deny Gorbachev the support he needs for the "union treaty" that he envisions as laying a new political and economic foundation for the country.
Lithuanians will go to the polls Saturday to vote on independence for their small republic of 3.7 million, although their government is still far from that goal.
Estonians have scheduled a similar vote for March 3. The southern republic of Georgia will put a question on its future on the ballot March 31, when local elections will be held. The Armenian Parliament has declared the Soviet referendum unacceptable but has not decided what it will do. And Latvia and Moldova are still debating their course of action.
Gorbachev, as he had in a formal decree earlier this week, declared that the results of the Lithuanian and Estonian plebiscites would have no legal standing, constituting mere opinion polls but intended to thwart his referendum.
He challenged the Baltic republics to hold the Soviet referendum as scheduled. "Why do the leaders of these republics, acting under the banner of freedom and democracy and continually referring to the people's opinion, try . . . to avoid a referendum that would clarify the real will of the people on a cardinal issue in the country's life?" Gorbachev asked.
Andrei N. Girenko, a secretary of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee, had told a press conference earlier Wednesday that an opinion survey for the party showed that about 80% of voters would participate in the referendum if it was held countrywide and that about 75% of them would endorse plans to draft a new union treaty.
But the question on the ballot is broadly worded: "Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal, sovereign republics in which human rights and freedoms will be fully guaranteed for an individual of any nationality?"
In the Baltic republics, the widely held conviction is that the real issue is their independence, not renewal of the Soviet federation. In Georgia, there is also a strong push for independence, and in other republics, including Armenia, Moldova and the Ukraine, nationalists believe that the shape of the federation should be agreed upon before they vote to join.
Among Russian radicals, the basic issue is the political character of the reconstituted federation, particularly the powers of the central government, and many have declared that they will vote against the proposal in the hope that its defeat would produce a more liberal, less centralized form of government.
Gorbachev said that a consensus is beginning to emerge among the republics and with the central government on key issues in the treaty, including the division of powers, and that the draft agreement is being reworked to meet most of the republics' demands.
Girenko said the Communist Party, still the Soviet Union's largest political force despite the defection of hundreds of thousands of members, will undertake a major political campaign to ensure maximum participation in the referendum.