MOSCOW -- Leaders of seven of the 12 remaining republics of what used to be the Soviet Union decided yesterday to try to keep some sort of a nation together. Among those missing, at least for now, was the second-richest, the Ukraine.
Those attending agreed in principle to a vastly decentralized charter, creating something called the Union of Sovereign States.
They also agreed to name Ivan S. Silayev, who has been running the central government through his job as head of the economic council, to the post of prime minister.
"This is an immense redistribution of powers," said President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, although in fact the central government has lost most of its powers since the attempted coup in August.
The republics, he said, "are categorically and firmly against reanimating the old center, even somewhat. And I share this stand."
Most of the central ministries have already been taken over by the Russian government, transformed into quasi-public enterprises or told that they are going to get the ax -- apparently as of today.
But the seven participating republics have decided that there are political benefits to keeping some form of association going. The economy, for one thing, is such a tangled mess that for some republics, at least, trying to strike out on their own might simply mean sinking like a rock.
As the leaders of Russia, Byelarus (formerly Byelorussia), Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kirghizia, Tadzhikistan and Turkmenia gathered to begin their eight-hour bargaining session with Mr. Gorbachev, it was reported that the country was $5 billion short of the $7 billion it needs to pay off foreign debt this month and next.
An economic pact among the republics was signed last month, although the commitment of the Ukraine is in some doubt. Moldova has made it clear that it wants no part of a parallel political treaty, and the Ukraine is likely to go the same way after a referendum on independence Dec. 1.
But the seven participants are looking for comfort in having some company.
A central government would conduct foreign affairs, control nuclear weapons (those on its territory, anyway) and run the state railroad. It would also provide a counterweight to Russia, which through its sheer size would otherwise be likely to overwhelm its smaller neighbors.
The draft treaty agreed to yesterday must now be "elaborated" -- that is, the details must be worked out. If that can happen, it has to be ratified by the republics and then submitted again to the republics' leaders in their role as members of the Council of State.