Former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, one-time Kremlin adviser Alexander Yakovlev and Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov all have refused to join the national security council President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is forming. Not only is this a slap at Mr. Gorbachev -- who used to be their close friend -- but their action illustrates how some of the best brains in the land now are rejecting all attempts to establish a federation from above to replace the crumbling Soviet Union. Instead, they think various republics should come together in a loose, voluntary commonwealth.
Boris Yeltsin's Russia has already signed temporary cooperation pacts with such major republics as Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and with Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Similar agreements are in the offing with other separatist republics. Once enough of these bilateral agreements are concluded, talks about a voluntary superstructure should be easier.
This approach is totally different from top-down efforts of Mr. Gorbachev over the past couple of years. The Soviet president tried to draft a new union treaty that would bind the 15 republics in a looser federation. But because he was doing it from above -- and presumed that the colossal all-union bureaucracy in Moscow would be left pretty much intact -- his latest draft always lagged behind fast-moving political developments in independence-minded republics. Those republics are now saying they want to scrap the whole centralized all-union bureaucracy and create a skeleton superstructure to coordinate policies and responsibilities in economic and military spheres.
The United States and other industrialized giants should encourage this kind of realistic coming-together, even if it means that Mr. Gorbachev's presidency becomes less and less meaningful. Voluntary unions of sovereign equals, built on shared self-interest, can thrive and survive under conditions in which forced federations cannot. Past Soviet experience amply demonstrates that.
None of this will come easy. For months, a consensus has been growing in republics that a future Soviet Union should be a coalition of sovereign states along the lines of the European Community. All kinds of names have been proposed, ranging from the Commonwealth of Sovereign States of Europe and Asia to the joking "Russia and the 14 dwarfs." Name is not important, communality of purpose is. The history of the European Community shows how difficult such union-building is even in conditions in which the participants are culturally close and motivated by similar goals.
Yet nothing will argue more powerfully for unity and cooperation than the example of the European common market. When it comes into being in the next year or two, it will show Soviet states what good can be achieved if sovereign republics forget past injustices and concentrate on the future.