MOSCOW -- After a tongue-lashing from President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's highest legislative body grudgingly handed its powers over to the republics yesterday, accepting the old empire's demise while laying in its ruins the foundation for a new, far-looser union of sovereign states.
The necessary two-thirds vote of the Congress of People's Deputies came only after Mr. Gorbachev made it clear that the republics in any case were in a position to seize the central parliament's power with or without its OK.
"If we can't agree on this, then the congress ceases its work . . . and we'll look for other solutions," he declared after deputies three times failed to vote to yield their powers to a new, temporary body appointed by the republics. On the fourth vote, they complied, 1,682-43.
"I'd say that reality won," reformist deputy Sergei B. Stankevich told reporters. "The congress, like the president, has accepted the reality that the power has shifted to the republics."
"The Soviet empire died of arteriosclerosis," Russian television commented acidly, reporting the congress' decision. "We are already living in a different country, and we all need time to take it in."
In the wake of last month's failed coup, the republics, led by Boris N. Yeltsin's Russian Federation, moved aggressively to assert control over their territories. After brief hesitation, Mr. Gorbachev accepted a sharply trimmed-back coordinating role, and yesterday he badgered the Soviet congress into accepting an even more drastic curtailment of its own power.
The congress approved a plan backed by Mr. Gorbachev and 10 of the 15 former Soviet republics for a transformed union in which each member could join the United Nations and decide which powers to delegate to a minimal central government.
The major role of that government appears likely to be coordinating the armed forces, including Soviet nuclear weapons. Marshal Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, the new Soviet defense minister, proposed yesterday that army draftees serve only in their own republics. Those soldiers who subsequently signed a contract to stay in service longer as paid professionals would serve wherever they were sent.
The congress agreed to "respect" the republics' declarations of sovereignty and independence, in effect not challenging the complete independence of the five republics not choosing to participate in the new union -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia and Moldova.
Deputies created an interim central government to coordinate republican policies until a formal union treaty can be signed. The interim bodies include a two-house union parliament, whose members will be approved by the republics; a State Council, consisting of the republican leaders and chaired by Mr. Gorbachev; and an Inter-Republican Economic Committee, to encourage free trade between republics and coordinate efforts to build a market economy.
The Congress of People's Deputies reserved the right to call itself back into session. But because its powers will be exercised already by the new, temporary parliament, the vote appeared to be mainly an attempt at face-saving.
When its 2,250 deputies were chosen a little more than two years ago, the congress was hailed at home and abroad as a breakthrough for fledgling Soviet democracy.
For the first time in Soviet history, most parliamentarians had won their seats in contested popular elections.
The congress' first session, televised live nationwide, so riveted workers' attention that manufacturing production dropped 20 percent.
But one-third of the deputies had been chosen not by the public but by "public organizations," including the Communist Party, which handed uncontested seats to Mr. Gorbachev and other party leaders. Moreover, local officials manipulated nominations for popular elections in much of the country, keeping radical candidates off the ballot.
As a result, the Communist-dominated congress gradually has come to be seen as a staid, unrepresentative body, lagging further and further behind both the public and the republican parliaments, which were elected in generally freer balloting a year later.
Only after the botched coup accelerated the political reform process was the congress forced to accept effective euthanasia less than halfway through its five-year term.
In a sign of the new political alignment, Mr. Gorbachev yesterday posed for the first time for a photograph with the Interregional Deputies' Group, the radical parliamentary faction that was long the target of his scorn and invective.
Also, the congress approved a declaration of human rights resembling the U.S. Bill of Rights. Instead of "glasnost," Mr. Gorbachev's ambiguous Russian word for the easing of censorship, the declaration adopts Western-style phrasing and grants "freedom of speech" and "freedom of the press."
Even as the congress gave its imprimatur to the proposed union of sovereign states, trouble has been brewing in two of the republics that don't intend to join it.
In Georgia this week, police attacked protesters demanding the resignation of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a fiery nationalist who has stirred ethnic unrest and closed opposition newspapers. Yesterday, Georgia was said to be massing armed men near Tskhinvali, capital of the disputed territory of South Ossetia, which has asserted its independence.
Russians in Moldova, meanwhile, rallied to protest Moldovan authorities' arrest of their leaders. The heavily Russian area around the city of Tiraspol, fearing that Moldova ultimately will unite with neighboring Romania, has been trying to break away from the little southwestern republic.
A political battle was shaping up as well in Azerbaijan, one of the 10 participants in the union negotiations, as democratic activists there sought to postpone hastily scheduled presidential elections.
In a slick political swivel, President Ayaz Mutalibov, until now a loyal Communist who even appeared to endorse the coup, now is proclaiming himself a secret anti-Communist and asking the people to give him their votes.
Because of his tough, nationalist stance against neighbor and rival Armenia, Mr. Mutalibov is believed to have a good chance of being elected.
But the Azerbaijani People's Front charges that Mr. Mutalibov is simply a classic example of a phenomenon appearing elsewhere in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union: authoritarian opportunists trading their communism for nationalism to preserve their power.