MOSCOW -- The parliaments of Ukraine and Byelarus ratified the creation of a new commonwealth yesterday, but their swift action did little to clarify who was in charge of the former Soviet Union.
Russian officials, speaking for President Boris N. Yeltsin, said the Commonwealth of Independent States -- formed Sunday by Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus -- was running its own affairs.
Soviet officials, speaking for President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, said the government of the Soviet Union was in charge and would remain so until all the republics made a decision about its future.
Mr. Gorbachev's side said the army was still the Soviet army. Mr. Yeltsin's side refused to concede this but wouldn't say to whom the army was reporting, other than the minister of defense -- who is Mr. Gorbachev's minister of defense.
Both Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin stayed out of sight yesterday as their emissaries politely jousted for public opinion. Each side claimed to be speaking for the people and protecting the people. Each raised the specter of devastating civil disturbances if the other did not back down.
And neither side issued any orders that the other would be forced to contest.
Mr. Gorbachev based his argument on the law, saying that all the republics must join in the decision. "It must be done according to the constitution," said Andrei Grachev, his chief spokesman.
Mr. Gorbachev wants the Congress of People's Deputies, the Soviet parliament, to take up the issue. His opponents say the parliament voted itself out of existence -- at his request -- and can't be recalled.
Mr. Gorbachev reminds that in a referendum in March, the nation favored a union. His opponents suggest that the question was written with such bias that no reasonable person could have voted differently.
Since then, they note, most republics have declared independence.
Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian foreign minister, accused the central government of perpetuating its own interests. "Attempts to protect one's own interests at any costs to others is very typical of this regime's 72 years of rule," he said.
Gennady Burbulis, Russian deputy prime minister, argued that there was no Soviet Union but conceded that it would not disappear overnight. "It is not a one-time event," he said. "It is a process. It will take place in the next few days or weeks."
But Mr. Burbulis said decisions were being made and structures would come.
An agreement has already been reached on food. "Ukraine and Byelarus will substantially increase food to Russia in the next few days andnext few hours," Mr. Burbulis said.
And Russia agreed to wait for its two partners to free prices. Instead of freeing prices Dec. 16, Mr. Yeltsin yesterday postponed the move to Jan. 2, when all three republics will act simultaneously.
Yesterday, the Ukrainian parliament voted 288-10 to ratify the commonwealth agreement and gave Ukraine permission to create an army. The Supreme Soviet of Byelarus voted 263-1 to approve it.
Armenia and Kirgizia expressed an interest in joining the commonwealth. Kazakhstan refused to rule it out. Still other republics might go along; a great deal of politicking lies ahead.
An image emerged of a deeply wounded and resentful Mr. Gorbachev. The agreement he sought so forcefully, bringing Ukraine into some kind of union, was concluded without him. The perestroika -- restructuring -- he began in 1985 was turning into a new structure without room for him.
Most humiliating of all, Mr. Yeltsin called President Bush before Mr. Gorbachev was informed. It was left to Stanislav Shushkevich, chairman of Byelarus' parliament, to call Mr. Gorbachev.
And while Mr. Gorbachev's opponents all contrived to praise him yesterday, they invoked the word "history" or spoke of "certain periods" when he was needed. Those times had passed, they implied.
Rumors circulated yesterday that Mr. Gorbachev was facing the inevitable and preparing to resign, but his spokesman said he had no intention of doing so.