MOSCOW -- The stage was set yesterday for a historic battle over the survival of the Soviet Union as President Mikhail S. Gorbachev delivered the draft of a new union treaty to the 15 republics and said their failure to sign it would be "a tragedy."
Mr. Gorbachev said the 11-page treaty to create a "union of sovereign states" offered the last hope of preserving the Soviet Union. The continued existence of the union is not only in the economic interests of the republics, he said, but is necessary for interethnic peace and even international military stability.
"We cannot split up," Mr. Gorbachev said. "Where such attempts have been made, it has had such consequences that blood has been shed. If someone tries to force people to accept a different policy, and there are such attempts, I think the people will not accept it. It would be simply a tragedy for our people, a civil conflict with the gravest consequences.
"And I think that it might put this country into such a state, with its responsible role, including its military role, that it would not be acceptable to the world community," he said at an evening news conference. He clearly had in mind the question of dividing up the huge Soviet stock of nuclear weapons.
If on other occasions the Soviet president had noted the voluntary nature of the proposed union, yesterday he took a harsher line. He suggested that if a republic chose not to sign the new union treaty, it would have to follow the lengthy procedure laid out in a law on secession earlier this year and denounced by several republics as making secession virtually impossible.
In addition, sharply criticizing a new Latvian law that cuts government services and supplies to Soviet troops, Mr. Gorbachev threatened to take unspecified severe retaliatory measures.
"As president, I have my limits," he said.
Baltic officials have expressed the fear that he may try to suspend the parliaments and impose direct presidential rule in Latvia and possibly Estonia and Lithuania as well.
Whether or not Mr. Gorbachev makes such a drastic move, a clash over the union treaty appears inevitable. Of the 15 Soviet republics, the three Baltic republics and Georgia have said they will not sign under any circumstances, and Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova have expressed serious reservations.
The three Slavic republics of the Russian Federation, the Ukraine and Byelorussia have indicated they will sign a union treaty, as have the five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kirgizia and Tadzhikistan.
But some of these eight have set certain conditions for signing. Most significantly, Russian Federation leader Boris N. Yeltsin has insisted that details of the division of powers and property be settled before a treaty is signed. He has also expressed skepticism that any union treaty that goes beyond a simple economic agreement can succeed at present.
The draft union treaty given to the republics yesterday, the result of months of discussions, preserves a strong central government. It incorporates the plan for a presidential system proposed by Mr. Gorbachev last week and given final approval by the Supreme Soviet yesterday, with detailed plans to be presented within two weeks.
It retains a federal government and parliament with control of the armed forces, foreign relations, energy, communications and transport. It keeps a national budget financed by direct taxes and a single currency.
It does not grant automatic priority to republican laws over union laws, as foreseen in the declarations of sovereignty passed by nearly all the republics over the past year. Instead, it refers disputes to a union-level court for settlement.
Many of these points are utterly unacceptable to some republics. Marju Lauristin, the deputy speaker of the Estonian parliament, said after seeing the draft that it was little more than an attempt to preserve the existing system. "It's a new package for the old structures. Nothing new, nothing," she said in an interview. "There are nice words, but then there were nice words in the constitution of Stalin's time."
But Arkady N. Murashyov, a popular Russian physicist and a leader of the radical faction in the Soviet parliament, said last night that he thought the draft treaty "surprisingly good." He said it was "de-ideologized, with no mention of such words as socialism," and was the best of several versions under consideration.
"Whether the republics will sign it is another question," he said. "It preserves a single state, and not independent states with a common economic market, as many of the republics imagine."
It is a sign of the times that Mr. Murashyov is planning to give up his seat in the union parliament if elected tomorrow to a seat in the Russian parliament. "I see the future in Russian statehood," he said.