When the leaders of the three Slavic republics of the Soviet Union met in a secluded hunting lodge in early December 1991, the fate of the empire was still unclear. But a stroke of the pen later, the death blow was given.
The leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine triggered a political earthquake, where the tremors are still visible 30 years later in the war zones of eastern Ukraine.
The agreement, which the three signed on December 8 in the hunting castle of Viskuli in the Belavezja forest near the border with Poland, declared that the Soviet Union ceases to exist as an internationally recognized legal entity and as a geopolitical entity.
At the same time, the three Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) created a loose alliance of former Soviet states that still exists in the name, but which has little political significance.
The flag was flown
Two weeks later, eight former Soviet states joined the alliance and effectively ended Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule. He resigned on December 25, 1991, and the Soviet flag with hammer and sickle was flown for the last time on the flagpole of the Kremlin.
The then leader of Belarus, Stanislaw Shushkevich, described the signing with considerable pride. The agreement with Boris Yeltsin from Russia and Leonid Kravchuk from Ukraine was a diplomatic masterpiece, he said.
– A large empire, a nuclear superpower, was split into independent states that could cooperate with each other as closely as they wanted, and not a single drop of blood was spilled, said the 86-year-old Shushkevich in an interview with AP.
But the bloodshed was to come much later, in a series of conflicts in many of the states that for years had been under Moscow’s ironclad rule.
One of the deadliest began in eastern Ukraine shortly after Russia annexed the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula in 2014. Russian-backed uniformed soldiers joined separatists in attacking Ukrainian government forces in the country’s eastern provinces.
A low-intensity war is still raging in this part of Greater Ukraine, and an estimated 14,000 people have been killed since 2014.
The Russian force building that has been going on for a few weeks has sharpened fears in the West that an invasion is imminent. During a video conference with President Vladimir Putin on December 14, US President Joe Biden made it abundantly clear that a possible Russian invasion would be met with massive economic sanctions.
In his memoirs, Gorbachev expresses bitterness over the agreement reached in 1991. He felt that it effectively stalled during all his months-long attempts to save the Soviet Union from collapse through a new negotiated union agreement among the republics.
– What they did in secret and in a hurry in Belavezja, was a conspiracy to kill a person who was still alive, by tearing off his arms and legs, writes Gorbachev, now in his 90th year.
– The struggle for power and personal ambitions overshadowed legal arguments and possible doubts, it says in the old Soviet leader’s version of what happened in these dramatic months.
Shushkevich completely disagrees and believes that there was no tragedy at all.
– We decided to close the prison in which the states lived. There is nothing to regret.
The former leader of Belarus says he and the remaining leaders of the Soviet states saw no point in Gorbachev’s efforts to keep the twelve Soviet states together.
The three Baltic states had already declared themselves independent, and the failed August coup against Gorbachev from the concrete communists in their own ranks had weakened his authority and encouraged the individual states to break free.
“Every version of the new union treaty boiled down to either the old one being kept together, or Gorbachev being the boss, no matter what,” Shushkevich said.
Yeltsin, Kravchuk and Shushkevich arrived at the hunting lodge near the Polish border with their closest associates. They later described the atmosphere as very tense. Everyone was aware of what was at stake, and that they risked being arrested for treason.
The head of the KGB was there, Eduard Shirkovsky. He assured that there was no danger to the participants. Later, the regime supporter expressed regret that he had not ordered the arrest of all three.
Shushkevich says in the interview with the AP that he did not feel afraid of being arrested by Gorbachev. He believes Gorbachev’s power was rapidly being diluted and that the head of state was too cowardly to do such a thing.
Gorbachev himself says he chose not to arrest the leaders for fear of triggering a bloodbath at a time when there was great uncertainty about the loyalty of the police and the armed forces.
The last leader of the Soviet Union blames Boris Yeltsin for the collapse of the Commonwealth. Yeltsin died in 2007 at the age of 76. Until recently, he defended his action by saying that the Soviet Union was doomed and experienced its last convulsions.
He described the Belavez agreement as the only way to avoid conflict between the central government of Moscow and the freedom-seeking republics.
Several of the participants in the meeting in the hunting lodge say that Ukrainian President Kravchuk played an important role in the liquidation of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine had declared itself an independent state after the coup attempt against Gorbachev in August, and just a week before the agreement was signed in the forest, Kravchuk had been elected president by an overwhelming majority supporting the secession.
In the discussions in the hunting lodge, Kravchuk took a very hard line against any attempt to continue the Soviet Union in one form or another.
Kravtsjuk had his head full of Ukraine’s independence. He was proud that it had happened through a referendum and that he had been elected president on December 1, 1991, says Shushkevich.
Sergei Shakhraj, Yeltsin’s closest aide, also says that Ukraine’s attitude played a crucial role. He says that Yeltsin and Shushkevich first tried to persuade Kravchuk to join some form of union, but that Ukraine’s leader after the referendum was not to move.
It was the leader of Belarus who was given the task of calling Gorbachev to tell about the agreement. Yeltsin called the defense minister to ask him to keep the forces calm, no matter what Gorbachev would ask.
Yeltsin also called President George HW Bush to brief the United States on what happened. He said Bush responded positively.
While the leaders of the three Slavic republics had their hands full in dealing with Gorbachev and the liquidation of the Soviet Union, they put their own contentious issues on the shelf. Now they are back on the agenda in full force.