LONDON — As power grabs go, Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin's proposal for a Slavic commonwealth to replace the Soviet Union was characteristically bold--an ultimatum to the other Soviet republics to accept Russian leadership or make their own way in the world.
Yeltsin was equally tough Monday with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, telling him to abandon his dreams of creating a new union out of the ruins of the Soviet Union, a union that Gorbachev sought to lead. Gorbachev might stay as commonwealth president, but on Yeltsin's terms.
And only somewhat more politely was the West assured by Yeltsin that this new creature, the "Commonwealth of Independent States," would assume all the international obligations of the old Soviet Union, including responsible control of its huge nuclear arsenal.
If Yeltsin has his way, this new commonwealth should quickly grow into a brash Goliath, determined to correct the errors of seven decades of socialism, giving expression to resurgent Russian nationalism, accustomed to swinging its weight and demanding respect from all quarters.
A state, in other words, that would be led by the Russian Federation and be much like Yeltsin himself.
Yeltsin's bid for power is perhaps as breathtaking as any modern leader has attempted, short of going to war. The drama is heightened both by what is at stake in the disintegration and restructuring of the Soviet Union and by the uncertainty that Yeltsin will succeed where Gorbachev failed.
The basis of Yeltsin's proposed commonwealth is a broadly worded affirmation of each member's right to do as it wishes within its borders and an obligation only to coordinate defense and foreign policies.
Nothing is clear beyond that.
As other republics bid to join this commonwealth, its three Slavic founders--Russia, Ukraine and Belarus--will likely try to accommodate their concerns and aspirations; with those negotiations, the new state will begin to take shape.
But Yeltsin's Russian Federation, the largest of the Soviet republics, controls most of the Soviet Union's wealth--its natural resources, its industry, its scientific and technical talent. And that puts it in effective control of the commonwealth.
Other republics may have ideas on government policies, economic development or other programs. But without money from Russia, they have limited prospects of success.
This is what Yeltsin has wanted through the long negotiations on whether the Soviet republics would form a "federal state," a "confederative state" or perhaps a "confederation." Again and again, Yeltsin objected to constitutional formulas creating a strong central government or taxing Russia to finance benefits for poorer republics.
Yeltsin's approach unexpectedly also suited Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk, elected Dec. 1 during a referendum in which Ukrainians voted, 9-1, for independence. The commonwealth outlined at weekend talks with Yeltsin assures Ukraine of its political freedom but retains for it vital economic links with Russia.
Kravchuk even won Yeltsin's agreement for his suggestion that the new union be called a "commonwealth," a concept Kravchuk had put forward during his election campaign and raised again last week.
That the Soviet Union was dying as a state has been clear for months; political cohesion was disappearing day by day, and the economy was simply disintegrating. With declarations of independence from all but two of its 15 former republics, the Soviet Union had become a geopolitical fiction. Much of the political struggle in the Soviet Union in recent months, consequently, has been over the shape of the successor state. This is a turning point in modern history, for this is the Soviet Union, the first Communist state and a fashioner of the 20th Century, that is now in transition.
The stakes, moreover, are huge, since the Soviet Union spans a sixth of the Earth's land mass, stretching from the Baltic and Black Seas to the Pacific Ocean, with a population approaching 300 million. Its natural resources are unrivaled, its potential as a free-market economy immense. Even diminished internationally, it will remain a great power with the world's largest nuclear arsenal.
Gorbachev wanted a strong central government to remain at the head of a new federation, even as the republics gained in autonomy; the Soviet Union's integrated economy and its world position required this, he had argued with great passion through the spring and summer.
The Soviet president, in fact, had won his way and was about to lead most of the republic presidents in signing a new Union Treaty, replacing the 1922 accord that formed the Soviet Union, when Communist Party hard-liners, as afraid of Gorbachev's abandonment of communism and their loss of power as political and economic decentralization, mounted a coup on Aug. 18.