The March 17 referendum in nine of the USSR's 15 republics was billed as decisive for the country's future. From Moscow, RENFREY CLARKE sent this dispatch just before the polls opened.
The poll will cost 120 million roubles. The formal result is largely a foregone conclusion, and the long-term impact will probably be slight.
Why, then, is the referendum being held? Soviet citizens are asking themselves this as they queue for basic foodstuffs or wonder which of the necessities of their daily life will be next to triple in price.
Voters will be asked whether they want to retain the USSR as a "renewed federation" of sovereign states with equal rights, guaranteeing the freedoms of people of all nationalities. This is a little like voting on motherhood; it's hard to argue that such a thing shouldn't exist.
This has not been enough, however, to prevent six republics of the Soviet Union opting out of the poll. The three Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, together with Moldavia and the Transcaucasian republics of Georgia and Armenia, have already held, or are about to hold, their own referendums.
The questions posed in these republican polls are much more specific. In Estonia on March 3, for example, 78% of voters answered yes to the proposition: "Do you want the national independence and self-determination of the Republic of Estonia to be restored?"
The thrust of such questions provides a clue to the reasons why the all-union referendum is being held. In the six republics, and possibly in others as well, mass sentiment is clearly on the side of total separation from the Soviet Union, despite the various advantages for these republics of being part of a renegotiated federal structure.
Leaders of the boycotting republics are anxious to avoid giving legitimacy to the March 17 referendum since a heavy vote in favour of the union in the Slavic majority regions of the USSR could be used by as a pretext for denying smaller republics the right to secede. Small nationalities would be kept within the USSR against their will; the Russians, Byelorussians and Ukrainians would have "democratically" decided on it.
A big positive vote is also likely to be claimed by President Gorbachev as evidence of his popularity. The all-union government badly needs some such grounds on which it can claim legitimacy for its actions.
The government and the Communist Party have gone all out to achieve a favourable result. Every television news bulletin for weeks has included clips of workers, peasants and members of national minorities speaking out rousingly "for the union".
Despite the heavy campaigning, the referendum has not aroused a great deal of popular interest. The sense that it is all a trick ong the young. According to a recent survey, 44% of voters aged between 18 and 21 had decided not to take part.
In planning the referendum, the government sought to manoeuvre its opponents into the position of having to choose between urging a yes vote and appearing unpatriotic. Nevertheless, few of the opposition groups came out in favour.
The largest opposition formation, the far-right Democratic Party, urged a no vote, claiming that "the socialist union will always be a totalitarian state".
For leftists, the choice was more complex. The Moscow organisation of the Green Party urged a boycott, arguing that the referendum evades the real issues.
The Socialist Party urged people to record a no vote as a sign of opposition to the use the government is likely to make of the result. At the same time, the Socialist Party stressed that it supports the union — for those peoples who want to be part of it.