Europe

30 years ago the stroke of a pen in a snowy Belarussian forest changed the world

The old gentlemen who had come to Vienna were visibly emotional as they recounted the circumstances surrounding the signing of the treaty that officially dissolved the Soviet Union exactly 30 years ago, in December 1991.

Four of the living signatories to the “Agreement Establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States” met at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna on November 17 following an invitation from the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy and on the initiative of Martin Sajdik, a senior Austrian diplomat who played a key role in the OSCE peace initiative for Eastern Ukraine.

They recounted exactly what happened at Viskuli, a Soviet state-run dacha, or country house, three decades ago. The agreement that was signed by the Russian Federation, Belarus and Ukraine was not, according to those who participated in the historic event, initially planned by the signatories. There was, in fact, no major agenda at all.

The Belarussian contingent had come to the Belovezhskaya Forest to discuss energy supplies from Russia, according to Stanislav Shushkevich, independent Belarus’ first president.

The leaders – Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk from Ukraine and Shushkevich – had already agreed that the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a functioning entity shortly after the KGB and anti-reform hardliners in the Soviet leadership bungled through a failed coup against then-President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991.

What was still missing, however, was a de jure dissolution of the union treaty.

Just over three months after Yeltsin led the pushback against the coup leaders, he and his Ukrainian and Belarussian counterparts found themselves in a snowy forest without a clear set of talking points, recalled former Ukrainian Prime Minister Vitold Fokin.

“We went there thinking of our homeland and its welfare.”Shortly before that, however, there had been pressure from President Gorbachev to sign a new union alliance that would allow the Soviet Union to continue to exist under a new structure. It occurred to me that moment that Ukraine had a real chance of becoming an independent and sovereign state,” he described, but, of course, “the death of the Soviet Union saddened me”, Fokin added.

Fokin also denied a long-standing rumor that the three politicians decided the fate of a global superpower while highly intoxicated. “We were fully concentrated. Of course, after a hard day’s work, we also drank a little whisky and vodka, but…we were 30 years younger then,” Fokin said. “In the morning, however, everyone was completely sober and focused again.“

The then-Russian Deputy Prime Minister Gennady Burbulis, who co-signed the agreement for Russia with Yeltsin, spoke of the central role that Ukraine played in ending the Soviet Union. In presidential elections and a referendum on December 1, 1991, in which 90 per cent of the Ukrainian population supported their country’s independence, Ukraine received a “resounding legitimacy for its centuries-long quest for sovereignty,” Burbulis stressed. 

Before the trip to Viskuli, Yeltsin, who at the time was the president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), had assured Soviet President Gorbachev that he was in favor of a renewed Soviet Union, but that the Ukrainians had publicly declared that this was not possible. “Ukrainian President Kravchuk said that he did not know where the Kremlin was and who Gorbachev was supposed to be.

By declaring independence, the Ukrainians had also ruled out any kind of confederation. Against this background, the three finally agreed to establish a commonwealth of ex-Soviet republics, Burbulis explained, who added that at that time the talk was of future cooperation without obligations, one that was based on friendship and trust.

Despite the Ukrainian position, Yeltsin was the driving force behind the agreement of December 8, as former Belarussian Foreign Minister Pyotr Kravchenko said. His Russian counterpart at the time, Andrey Kozyrev, a close comrade-in-arms of Yeltsin, had told him about the planned agreement on December 7 while on the plane to Belarus, which surprised him.

A text of the agreement was then drafted on the night of December 8. Kravchenko also noted that the Ukrainian delegation had only claimed one change in the agreement. The Ukrainians wanted the text to alter a reference to a “community of democratic states” in favor of “independent”, instead of “democratic”, in order to connect the soon-to-signed declaration with Ukraine’s independence referendum.

One participant was astonished to hear that the agreement had already provided for the transfer of nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation, which had already declared itself as the legal successor to the Soviet Union. At the time, the preamble also agreed on mutual respect for the territorial integrity of the new states. 

This had ensured a largely peaceful end to the Soviet state, a rare occurrence in the history of the disintegration of empires. Shortly after the Belovezh Accords were signed, the dissolution of Yugoslavia led to a series of bloody wars in the heart of Europe that left tens of thousands dead.

Certainly, the signers of the Belovezh Accords were not at first aware that a major event in world history was taking place. When they heard the Soviet anthem on the radio the next morning, tears were shed. For despite all its mistakes, the Soviet Union had been “a great state” for whose well-being Yeltsin, Kravchuk and Shushkevich had gladly worked.

The Soviet Union had also been a counterweight to the other world powers, above all the United States. Shortly after the meeting in the Belovezh Forest, the Soviet Union disappeared from the map and 15 new states emerged. 

Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk (second from left seated), Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Belarus Stanislav Shushkevich (third from left seated) and Russian President Boris Yeltsin (second from right seated) signing ceremony to dissolve the Soviet Union and establish the Commonwealth of Independent States, December 8, 1991, Viskuli, Belarus.

Gorbachev, who had tried desperately for months to save the Soviet Union in a renewed form, resigned on December 25, 1991, and the Soviet red flag, with the hammer and sickle over the Kremlin, was taken down.

The author of these lines was a correspondent in Brussels at the time. In mid-December 1991, a meeting of NATO foreign ministers took place in Brussels. As had been the case for some time, the representatives of the countries of the Partnership for Peace were invited, including the ambassador of the Soviet Union. He read out a letter from Yeltsin in which he held out the prospect of cooperation with the Western alliance, which could later even include membership for Russia.

Afterwards, the ambassador asked to remove all symbols of the faded Soviet Union and to hoist the new flag of the Russian Federation, for which he was now the ambassador. This was not entirely possible, however, but NATO officials hurriedly took down the red flag of the Soviet Union from its flagpole. 

In 2008, Vladimir Putin described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the “greatest catastrophe of the 20th century”. He later said his one political wish would be “to bring the Soviet Union back into existence if it were possible”. 

Three decades ago, Putin’s plan would have been the furthest from the minds of the three men who put the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet experiment. Because of this, it is truly incredible just how much things have changed in the last 30 years.


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