MOSCOW -- The Soviet Union, in any form, was declared dead yesterday by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Mikhail S. Gorbachev's efforts to mold a new central government have come to nothing, Mr. Yeltsin said, and now the republics will go their own way as independent states.
The Russian leader, the most powerful politician here, had supported Mr. Gorbachev's plan for a union treaty. But yesterday, after meeting with the leaders of Byelarus (formerly Byelorussia) and Ukraine, he bowed to the new reality created by Ukraine's overwhelming vote for independence a week ago.
Without Ukraine, he said, there can be no union.
But Mr. Gorbachev, whose string has just about run out, vowed to press on. The Soviet president said he would go over the heads of the politicians if need be "and reach out to the masses."
But the Ukrainian masses cast more than 90 percent of their votes for independence, and it is unlikely that they will be stirred by Mr. Gorbachev's appeal.
In the past six months the Soviet president has threatened on several occasions to resign if he can't get a union treaty -- but with the loss of Mr. Yeltsin's support, he now may have no post from which to resign.
PTC Mr. Yeltsin and Leonid M. Kravchuk, the Ukrainian president, proposed a "commonwealth" along the lines of the European Community yesterday. After meeting with Thomas Niles, a U.S. envoy who arrived Friday in Kiev, Mr. Kravchuk said he could envision the creation of a "coordinating body" for the commonwealth but not one that would have any central authority.
Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich, chairman of the Byelarus parliament, met yesterday in Minsk.
Although Mr. Gorbachev, back in Moscow, said he eagerly awaited the results of the weekend meeting, Mr. Yeltsin was declaring that the time for a central government had passed.
In the 3 1/2 months since the August coup, Mr. Gorbachev has put forward increasingly watered-down versions of a union treaty, each proposal giving more authority to the republics than the last, but none of them quite getting accepted.
"Today," Mr. Yeltsin said in an address to the Byelarus parliament, "we see the failure of the idea of a half-federation, half-confederation that would implicitly bind each state under a system of dual power."
Instead, he and the other leaders may go home today with a three-way compact that effectively bypasses Mr. Gorbachev. Mr. Yeltsin is due to meet with Mr. Gorbachev and Nursultan Nazerbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, the fourth-largest Soviet republic, tomorrow.
Mr. Yeltsin has announced that as of Dec. 16 prices of most goods in Russia will be freed of government control. On Friday, six other republics, including Ukraine, agreed among themselves follow Russia's lead as long as the prices of certain items are capped.
Thus the most important question facing people here -- where to turn amid economic collapse -- is in the hands of Mr. Kravchuk, Mr. Yeltsin and the other republic leaders.
Ivan Silayev, the head of the economic coordinating committee set up by Mr. Gorbachev to run what's left of the central government, kept up the pressure for some form of union.
Mr. Gorbachev, who ceded much of his political power to Mr. Yeltsin in the wake of the failed coup in August, has spent the fall cajoling, bargaining and threatening in his attempt to keep the country together. He has increasingly warned of hunger, economic catastrophe, bloodshed and dictatorship.
Yesterday, for instance, he said Ukrainian independence would inevitably lead to ethnic repression of non-Ukrainians living in the republic. Up to now, though, Ukraine has been virtually free of the sort of nasty territorial battling that has occurred in Russia, Moldova and the Caucasus. Even heavily Russian areas of Ukraine voted overwhelmingly for independence.
And, like Ukraine, the other republics are all learning that life goes on without Moscow. The idea behind the original union treaty was to take some of the power away from the Kremlin; now, after the most tumultuous season in Soviet history, when the republics -- through necessity -- took responsibility for their own affairs, no one wants to give any of that power back.