MOSCOW -- The Soviet Union published last night the latest version of the proposed Union Treaty, which significantly expands republican rights but has so far been signed by only eight of the 15 republics.
President Mikhail S. Gorbachev ordered the draft to appear today in Soviet newspapers in the hope that it will boost support for the March 17 referendum on whether the union should be preserved. Critics of the referendum have complained that voters are being asked to approve in advance a "renewed" union whose characteristics are still uncertain.
The original draft, published in November, has been revised in a number of negotiating sessions between representatives of the republics. Nearly all the changes are in favor of the powers and rights of the republics at the expense of those of the union.
Nonetheless, the changes are unlikely to be sufficient to persuade Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Georgia to reverse their decisions not to sign any Union Treaty. The changes could influence the decisions of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, the other three republics that have not yet signed the draft treaty.
Among other significant amendments, the new draft treaty:
* Explicitly recognizes the declarations of state sovereignty passed by all 15 republics.
* Recognizes the right of the republics to full diplomatic relations with other countries, including the exchange of ambassadors and signing of treaties.
* Restores the right of the republics to secede from the union, which is in the existing Soviet Constitution but was not mentioned in the November draft. Secession can take place only according to a procedure to be set by the republics in the future.
* Gives the republics a share in control over the defense industry and the energy system, which in the earlier draft were controlled by the union alone.
* Gives the republics a role in the writing and adoption of a new Soviet Constitution, and says the Union Treaty itself will be the basis for the new constitution.
* Guarantees all the republics a share in foreign currency earnings and in Soviet diamond and gold reserves.
Despite these concessions, the proposed union remains a federation with a powerful central government that retains control over the armed forces and can impose unionwide taxes. Democratic activists have proposed a far more loose-knit "Commonwealth of Sovereign States" that would resemble the 12-nation European Community.
The Union Treaty makes no mention of what traditionalists here like to call "the people's socialist choice" in the 1917 revolution. The omission of a state ideology came under fire
from parliamentary conservatives Thursday, but Mr. Gorbachev defended it, saying the "socialist choice" is included explicitly in other documents.
The latest draft is entitled "Treaty on the Union of Sovereign Republics," but it refers in the text to "U.S.S.R.," thus appearing to leave open the ultimate name of the union. Some republican leaders insist on dropping "Soviet" and "Socialist" from the name and already have dropped those words from the names of their own republics.
Grigory I. Revenko, an adviser to Mr. Gorbachev on the union treaty, told reporters Thursday that he believed Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova are certain to sign it eventually. He said he would not rule out even Lithuania signing, suggesting that a carrot-and-stick package of economic privileges for union members and sanctions against non-union members could change the views of opposing republics.
According to the treaty, republics that don't sign it remain subject to Soviet law -- including the law on secession rushed through parliament last year. That law sets such stringent conditions for secession that many of the republics' officials say it would block independence completely.
Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis, who generally speaks of the Soviet Union as "a neighboring country," was nonetheless provoked enough by the draft Union Treaty to issue a scathing commentary.
He pointed out that the last article of the draft treaty says it will be implemented according to a protocol whose text has not yet been written. If a republic doesn't like what's in the protocol, it will be stuck, because the protocol and treaty can be changed only if all republics agree.
Mr. Landsbergis also questioned why the procedure for secession is not elaborated in the treaty itself. "When will this procedure be determined and by what majority of votes?" Mr. Landsbergis asked.