MOSCOW -- Apparently worried about the impact of independence referendums set by Lithuania and Estonia, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev went on national television last night to attack the Baltic polls and urge voters to support preservation of the Soviet Union in a nationwide referendum March 17.
But allies of Russian Federation leader Boris N. Yeltsin said they may add a question to the Soviet referendum to measure public confidence in the policies of Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet parliament.
Mr. Gorbachev's unusual address at the beginning of the evening television news broadcast appealed to superpower pride, suggesting that a secession by a Soviet republic would erase the nation's influence on world politics.
"By its political weight and credit of trust, the Soviet Union acts today in the international arena as a mighty state that is not without reason called a superpower," he said. "It took enormous effort to achieve such influence. To squander it, cast it to the winds, can be done very quickly."
He played down the seven decades of Soviet rule to emphasize the far older history of smaller nations, by conquest or by choice, joining the Russian sphere of influence.
"On solid grounds it can be said that in the country there has been formed a unique civilization, the result of the efforts over many centuries of all our peoples," he said.
The timing of the speech apparently was prompted by the Lithuanian vote set for Saturday on whether residents want Lithuania to be a "democratic, independent republic."
In a decree Tuesday, Mr. Gorbachev declared the Lithuanian independence plebiscite "legally invalid," and last night he indicated that the Estonian referendum set for March 3 would meet the same fate.
He said the union government, which controls virtually all troops
and police in the country, would see to it that the March 17 referendum is conducted throughout the Soviet Union. It asks whether the voter backs "preservation of a renewed U.S.S.R. as a renewed federation of equal, sovereign republics."
Mr. Gorbachev accused the Baltic leaders of rejecting the Soviet referendum because they fear the people's will -- but denounced their plans to hold their own referendums. Baltic officials say that since they do not consider their republics to be in the union now, it would be irrelevant to ask Baltic citizens whether they favor preservation of the union.
While insisting on the crucial importance of the March 17 vote, Mr. Gorbachev nonetheless said its outcome was already clear.
"One can say with all certitude already now: Soviet people are for preservation of the union," he said.
Allies of Mr. Yeltsin said the Russian Federation parliament would add one or two questions to the Soviet poll. In this way, Mr. Gorbachev's referendum could be turned into a political weapon against his increasingly hard-line leadership.
Yuri Y. Boldyrev, a radical deputy from Leningrad, said Russian voters may be asked whether they support the policy of the union leadership and parliament. The precise wording has not been decided, he said.
Mr. Boldyrev spoke at the first public presentation of Mr. Yeltsin's 25-member advisory council of prominent scholars and economic and political experts. It includes such top names as Americanologist Georgy A. Arbatov, economists Nikolai P. Shmelyov and Oleg T. Bogomolov, Moscow Mayor Gavriil K. Popov, law professor and Leningrad Mayor Anatoly A. Sobchak, and sociologist and pollster Tatiana I. Zaslavskaya.
The formation of the Yeltsin "brain trust" underscores the almost complete defection of the Russian intelligentsia from Mr. Gorbachev to Mr. Yeltsin.
Beginning from Mr. Gorbachev's first steps toward reform after coming to power in 1985, leading members of the intelligentsia ++ were among his most fervent supporters. Prominent cultural figures regularly accompanied him on trips abroad, and such people as Ms. Zaslavskaya and Mr. Shmelyov appeared at news conferences to explain his reform plans.
But with Mr. Gorbachev's shift from democratic reform and reliance on the army and KGB, the intellectuals have jumped ship. Once suspicious of Mr. Yeltsin's populism, many now have come to respect him as a politician willing to listen to expert advice and not be locked in by Communist ideology.
Mr. Gorbachev got some support from his own general prosecutor's office, which announced that it would bring charges against Russian deputy and businessman Artyom M. Tarasov for violating the "honor and dignity of the president."
Mr. Tarasov told reporters last week that in his opinion, Mr. Gorbachev was planning to sacrifice democratic reforms and Western ties and reorient Soviet foreign policy toward Japan. He said he thought the president might have a secret agreement to turn over the disputed Kurile Islands to the Japanese in return for massive investment in the Soviet economy.
The Soviet and Japanese foreign ministries denied that there was any secret deal on the Kuriles.