MOSCOW -- Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin said yesterday that the idea of preserving the Soviet Union was a "failure" and that the Soviet republics should move toward forming a commonwealth of independent states.
Mr. Yeltsin, speaking in Minsk, used the words "the former Soviet Union" for the first time as he dismissed Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's plan to ratify a union treaty.
Since the failed coup in August, Mr. Gorbachev has been ceding more and more power to the republics as an inducement to sign the treaty, which would give Moscow control of foreign and military affairs.
But Mr. Yeltsin told the parliament in Byelarus (formerly Byelorussia): "Today we see the failure of the idea of a half-federation, half-confederation, which would bind implicitly each state under a system of dual power."
The republics willing to discuss the treaty with Mr. Gorbachev "are becoming fewer and fewer. If it continues like this, there will be nobody around the table at all," he said.
Instead, Mr. Yeltsin said, the former Soviet republics, as independent nations, had enough common interests to serve as "a sufficient basis for a commonwealth of our states."
With his comments, he also set the stage for the end of Mr. Gorbachev's tenure as Soviet leader. Mr. Gorbachev has said that he would resign if a new treaty wasn't signed by the end of the year.
After yesterday's speech, Mr. Yeltsin traveled to the border city of Brest, where he was to meet with Presidents Leonid M. Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shuskevich of Byelarus. The three leaders are expected to meet tomorrow in Moscow to present their agreement on new relations among the states to Mr. Gorbachev and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.
Mr. Gorbachev was not invited to the talks in Brest.
Both Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Kravchuk said they planned to debate many proposals during their secluded weekend. But there seemed little doubt that they would arrive in Moscow with a "done deal" to create something like a European Community in place of the Soviet Union.
In such a community, there would be no role for Mr. Gorbachev.
In fact, Mr. Kravchuk said pointedly, he would never agree to anything at the weekend talks that required a central government.
Mr. Gorbachev warned repeatedly last week that the country was about to erupt in social protest because the economic and political chaos was causing unprecedented food shortages. He said Friday that Moscow had only a few days' food left.
However, if the leaders at Brest work out bilateral agreements this weekend, their states might begin trading with one another again, which could help restock grocery shelves in Russia's big cities.
In recent weeks, Mr. Gorbachev has appeared to be losing touch with what has been happening politically. Despite Ukraine's 90 percent vote for independence this month, he still insisted that it didn't mean Ukraine would leave the Soviet Union.
Yesterday, even as Mr. Yeltsin was declaring the union dead, Mr. Gorbachev was telling visiting U.S. businessmen that he had "high hopes" that the Brest meeting would result in a union treaty.
In yet another sign of how quickly the remnants of the Soviet Union were evaporating, Mr. Gorbachev replaced the head of the army, Gen. Vladimir Lobov, with Gen. Viktor Samsonov, head of the St. Petersburg military district.
The appointment of General Samsonov, who kept his troops in their barracks during August's coup attempt, comes at a time that Mr. Gorbachev and others are warning that food shortages and political turmoil could spark a new attempt by conservatives to seize power.