MOSCOW — Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev lashed back at the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus on Monday, declaring that they have no right to take it on themselves to dissolve the Soviet Union and denouncing their decision to terminate its laws as "illegal and dangerous."
"Without a doubt, each republic has the right to leave the union, but the fate of a multinational state cannot be determined by the will of the leaders of three republics," Gorbachev said in a statement on the Slavic commonwealth, the creation of which was announced Sunday by Slavic leaders. "This question can be decided only through constitutional means with the participation of all sovereign states and taking into account the will of the people."
He called for a meeting of the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies--which most people thought had voted itself out of existence--to debate the issue of the commonwealth and said he did not rule out a nationwide referendum.
But Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk declared that he, Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin and Belarussian leader Stanislav Shushkevich are legally entitled to declare that the Soviet Union "is ceasing its existence" and to establish a "Commonwealth of Independent States."
"The heads of the three independent republics have acted in accordance with the constitutions of our states and within our power," Kravchuk said at an afternoon press conference in Kiev, Ukraine's capital.
Kravchuk and Shushkevich were expected in Moscow on Monday. But Yeltsin acted as their representative in meetings with Gorbachev, with one session between the two lasting for almost 90 minutes in the Kremlin.
In that session, Yeltsin and Gorbachev agreed to send the text of the Slavic pact to the legislatures of the republics for consideration, said Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was also present at the talks.
While Gorbachev criticized the Slavic leaders' decision to pronounce the Soviet Union dead and to forge a commonwealth, leaders of some of the non-Slavic republics applauded the attempt to set up a community of truly independent states. There were seemingly favorable responses to the commonwealth from Armenia, Georgia and even Tadzhikstan, although Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev appeared to oppose it.
Like most other political leaders in the vast country, Gorbachev was caught by surprise by the announcement by the three Slavic leaders, which was made after they emerged from a private two-day meeting in a hunting lodge near the Polish border in Belarus, formerly called Byelorussia. Nazarbayev told reporters that he believes that the Soviet president was also "distressed" by the news.
But Gorbachev struck back, saying in the statement published by the Tass news agency: "To assert that all-union legal norms are terminated is illegal and dangerous. This can only amplify the chaos and anarchy in society."
Gorbachev, who has been the Soviet leader since 1985 and is the author of the dramatic reform plan that brought democracy to the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War, stressed that he has not given up on his concept of a union of sovereign republics joined together in a democratic confederative state.
His full-scale offensive quickly silenced rumors that Gorbachev would quietly resign and let the leaders of the three Slavic republics have their way. When asked if Gorbachev was ready to resign, his spokesman, Alexander A. Likhotal, said: "No, absolutely, not."
Nazarbayev agreed that Gorbachev's days as a leader of the country are not over, saying, "Gorbachev has not yet exhausted his potential and is needed by the nation at this crucial moment."
But Likhotal made it clear that Gorbachev's political future now depends on his preventing the creation of the commonwealth. "I don't think he could become the president of a very liquid structure like this commonwealth," he said.
Gorbachev harshly criticized the Slavic leaders for presuming that they could make a decision for their republics, which account for 73% of the population and 80% of the territory of the old Soviet Union, without consulting anyone else first. "The speed in which the document appeared is baffling," Gorbachev said. "It was not discussed either by the citizens or the parliaments of the republics on behalf of which it was signed."
But as Gorbachev criticized the action of the three Slavic leaders, leaders of some of the non-Slavic republics of the former Soviet Union said they heartily support the commonwealth and will likely be joining it.
"We consider the agreement signed by the three Slavic republics . . . a historic move toward the profound renewal of relations between the former union republics based on the principles of international law," Levon Ter-Petrosyan, president of the southern republic of Armenia, said in a statement.