MOSCOW -- Sticking to his new, tough line, a beleaguered President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said yesterday "restoring order" in the troubled Soviet Union is now his highest priority.
In a move to go over the heads of nationalist republican leaders to their people, he proposed referendums to decide the structure of the Soviet Union and to settle the controversy over private ownership of land.
But his largely lackluster state-of-the-union address to the fourth Congress of People's Deputies contained few new ideas and left both conservatives and radicals deeply dissatisfied.
"If we have strong government, tight discipline and control over the implementation of decisions, then we will be able to ensure normal food supplies, rein in crime and put a stop to interethnic strife," Mr. Gorbachev told the nearly 2,000 deputies gathered in the Kremlin.
"If we fail to achieve this, greater discord, the rampage of dark forces and the disintegration of our statehood will be inevitable," he said.
Apart from the referendums, which Mr. Gorbachev had mentioned in passing in earlier talks, the 45-minute speech trudged over familiar ground.
"I didn't expect anything new, and my expectations were fulfilled," Boris N. Yeltsin, reformist leader of the Russian Federation, told reporters as he left the Kremlin last night.
"Frankly speaking, we had expected something more from him," said Yuri M. Blokhin, a leader of the conservative parliamentary faction Soyuz (Union). Mr. Blokhin called yesterday's address a rehash of a speech Mr. Gorbachev gave a month earlier.
While the Soviet president stuck to the hard-line stance he has adopted during the last few weeks, he did not advance concrete plans for resolving the country's economic and political crisis.
He effectively dodged the central political question of the day: the declarations of sovereignty or independence adopted by all 15 Soviet republics. The declarations generally assert the supremacy of republican constitutions and laws over the Sovi
et Constitution and laws.
Conservatives want Mr. Gorbachev explicitly to denounce the declarations, using the KGB and army to crush any resulting unrest. Reformers want him explicitly to recognize the declarations, building a new union on the basis of the voluntary membership of those republics that choose to join and on the terms they propose.
Mr. Gorbachev did neither.
While calling the sovereignty declarations an "irreversible stage" in the development of the republics, Mr. Gorbachev insisted that the Soviet Constitution and laws nonetheless remain supreme. As usual, he neither acknowledged nor explained the apparent contradiction.
"Where can you see sovereignty for the republics in the speech of Mr. Gorbachev except in the words, 'sovereignty of republics'?" asked Yuri R. Boyars, a deputy from Latvia. "[Kremlin leaders] are driving for more centralized power, so there will be no space left for democracy in the republics."
Mr. Boyars was among several deputies who argued that the Congress should discuss and vote on recognition of the republican sovereignty declarations. But parliament Chairman Anatoly I. Lukyanov, a Gorbachev confidant, killed the idea by refusing to put it on the agenda, saying it would be covered when the congress discusses Mr. Gorbachev's proposed union treaty.
The crisis of the union was underscored by the fact that all but a handful of Lithuanian and Armenian deputies are boycotting the congress altogether, while Latvian and Estonian delegations intend to walk out when the proposed union treaty is discussed.
The draft union treaty proposed by Mr. Gorbachev to replace the 1922 treaty on which the Soviet Union is based appears to be losing, rather than gaining support.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, yesterday gave one of the day's most fiery speeches, rejecting charges that the republics were breaking up the union.
"I'm not inclined to panic when they say that our union is somehow disintegrating," Mr. Nazarbayev said. "Sooner or later, something like this had to happen. A building with a weak foundation can't remain standing forever."
A new union already is taking shape, he said, as republics sign treaties and trade agreements among themselves, bypassing Moscow. He called this process the brightest spot in a generally bleak political picture.
Mr. Gorbachev has done nothing to encourage direct republic-to-republic treaties, because while they preserve the union in some form, it is a union without a strong center -- or a strong president.
Hence his proposal for a referendum.
"Every people has the right to self-determination," Mr. Gorbachev said. "But only the whole people, whose will can best be expressed by . . . a nationwide referendum that will allow every citizen to say 'yes' or 'no' to a union of sovereign states built on federal lines."
Likewise, only by referendum can endless debates over private land ownership be concluded, he said, reiterating his own opposition to such private property.