ALMA-ATA, Kazakhstan -- Eleven former republics of the Soviet Union formally constituted themselves yesterday as the Commonwealth of Independent States, dedicated to reversing their slide toward economic and political chaos.
Putting aside seven decades of central dictatorship, the republic leaders meeting in the Kazakh capital, near the Chinese border, negotiated and signed a broad commonwealth agreement that guarantees their separate sovereignties.
But the agreement leaves unsettled such important issues as how to create an acceptable system of command to administer military policy and nuclear weapons control.
The top governmental body will be a council of heads of state and government, assisted by committees of republic ministers in key areas such as foreign affairs, defense and economics.
The leaders plan to begin full operations no later than Jan. 15 after ratification by the 11 parliaments.
The Baltic states, which regained independence in September, are not participating, nor is Georgia, which has pursued a fiercely independent policy since the August coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev that set off the union's final disintegration.
To emphasize their resolve to move beyond the Kremlin, the commonwealth leaders pre-emptively accepted the resignation of Mr. Gorbachev, even though it has not yet been submitted.
Their evident wish to see him leave was reflected in their decision to promise, "with respect," a generous pension once he is in retirement.
"We respect Gorbachev and want him to go gently into retirement in December, as he himself wants," said Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, head of the biggest and most powerful of the new commonwealth's constituent parts and the man who has been Mr. Gorbachev's chief antagonist through the past four turbulent years.
"We do not want to carry on the tradition since 1917 of burying our heads of state and having to rebury them later or having to pronounce them criminal," Mr. Yeltsin said. "A civilized state should end this practice."
There was no direct reaction from Mr. Gorbachev, who has suffered a breathtaking fall from power and grace since the failed coup. But in an interview with CBS News, he indicated that he would resign shortly after receiving official notification of the results of the Alma-Ata meeting.
"As soon as I receive official documents and see that the commonwealth is a reality, within a few days I will then take my decision," Mr. Gorbachev said. The Soviet leader said that in the meantime, he and his defense minister remained in control of the nuclear button."
Mr. Gorbachev, who initially denounced the commonwealth as illegal and dangerous, spoke of the new association yesterday as an accomplished fact.
He warned the United States that it too faced a difficult transition, saying: "I don't think the transformation will be easy and simple from one partner, the Soviet Union and its leadership. Now you have to deal with 10 new politicians."
The independent states making up the commonwealth were expected to win quick international recognition. The United States, NATO and the European Community have said recognition could come within days.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III, en route to Washington, was briefed by telephone by the Kazakh president on the results of the commonwealth conference, the Associated Press reported. "We're very satisfied," a senior U.S. official said.
Yesterday was the first full working session of the expanded commonwealth. It is designed to be the vehicle for the survivors of the fallen Soviet empire to head toward free-market prosperity and full democracy. It grew out of the founding body announced 13 days ago by Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus, the three Slavic republics, when they pronounced that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.
The meeting yesterday went a considerable step beyond, for not only was the new association enlarged and sealed with pledges of peaceful collaboration, but also the heads of state began settling some differences.
One issue agreed upon was Mr. Yeltsin's view that Russia should take over the Security Council seat in the United Nations held until now by the Soviet Union. Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev said later that this was critical for the general nuclear control strategy of eventually seeing Russia succeed the Soviet Union as the single guarantor of disarmament.
The broad-stroke agreements, however, left almost every difficult, concrete issue to be decided later, including such basic matters as the economy and government financing, the precise scope of the new coordinating agencies, and borders and citizenship.
The refining of the agreements was left to the uncertain hands of the republic parliaments and, after ratification, to further shaping.
But the four republics with long-range nuclear missiles on their soil -- Russia, Byelarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan -- again insisted that they were in agreement on joint weapons safeguards and issued a statement to this effect.
This issue is a central one being pressed by the Bush administration and other governments as one price for early recognition of commonwealth members.
The commonwealth members put off the issue of military command, scheduling it as the topic of a meeting Dec. 30 in Minsk, the Byelarussian capital, which is to be the commonwealth headquarters. As a temporary measure, the republics carried over until the end of the year the central remnant of the Soviet Defense Ministry, led by General Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov.
There are an estimated 27,000 nuclear warheads in Russia, Ukraine, Byelarus and Kazakhstan.
Asked by reporters how many nuclear "buttons" there would be under the new military command, the Kazakh spokesman replied: "There will be only one button."