When the leaders of the three Slavic republics of the Soviet Union gathered in a secluded hunting lodge in early December 1991, the fate of the empire was still unclear. But with a stroke of a pen later, a fatal blow was dealt.
The leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine have caused a political earthquake, as tremors are still visible 30 years later in the war zones of eastern Ukraine.
The agreement, signed by the three on December 8 at the hunting fortress of Visculi in the Bjelavice Forest near the border with Poland, declared that the Soviet Union ceased to exist as an internationally recognized legal entity and as a geopolitical entity.
At the same time, the three independent states of the Commonwealth of Nations (CIS) created a loose alliance of the countries of the former Soviet Union that still exists in name, but does not have much political significance.
The flag has been raised
Two weeks later, eight former Soviet countries joined the alliance and effectively ended Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule. He resigned on December 25, 1991, and raised the Soviet flag with a hammer and sickle for the last time at the flagpole of the Kremlin.
The then leader of Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, described the signing with great pride. He said the agreement with Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine was a diplomatic masterpiece.
A large empire, a nuclear superpower, has been divided into independent states that can cooperate with each other as closely as they like, and not a single drop of blood has fallen, 86-year-old Shushkevich said in an interview with the Associated Press.
But the bloodshed was to come much later, in a series of conflicts in many states that for years were under the strict rule of Moscow.
One of the bloodiest events in eastern Ukraine began shortly after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014. Soldiers in uniform backed by Russia joined separatists in attacking Ukrainian government forces in the country’s eastern provinces.
Low-intensity war is still raging in this part of greater Ukraine, and an estimated 14,000 people have been killed since 2014.
Russian power-building, which lasted for a few weeks, increased fears in the West that an invasion was imminent. During a video conference with President Vladimir Putin on December 14, US President Joe Biden made it very clear that a potential Russian invasion would face massive economic sanctions.
In his memoirs, Gorbachev expressed his bitterness over the deal reached in 1991. He felt that he had virtually paused during all his months-long attempts to save the Soviet Union from collapsing through a new negotiated union agreement between the republics.
– What they did secretly and in a hurry in Bellavizia, was a plot to kill a person still alive, by tearing off his arms and legs, wrote Gorbachev, now in his ninetieth year.
Legal arguments and potential doubts were overshadowed by the struggle for power and personal ambitions, as the old Soviet leader’s account of what happened in these dramatic months.
Shushkevich is completely different and believes that there was no tragedy at all.
– We decided to close the prison in which countries live, there is no need to regret.
The former leader of Belarus says that he and the remaining Soviet heads of state saw no point in Gorbachev’s efforts to preserve the union of the 12 Soviet states.
The three Baltic states had already declared their independence, and the failed August coup against Gorbachev of concrete communists in their ranks weakened his power and encouraged individual states to break free.
“Every version of the new treaty of the union boils down to either keeping the old treaty together, or Gorbachev is the president, 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 knew what was at stake, and they were in danger of being arrested for treason.
There was the head of the KGB, Eduard Cherkovsky. He stressed that there is no danger to the participants. Later, a regime supporter lamented that he had not ordered the arrest of the three.
Shushkevich says in an interview with the Associated Press that he was not afraid Gorbachev would arrest him. He believes that Gorbachev’s power is waning rapidly and that the head of state was too cowardly to do such a thing.
Gorbachev himself says that he chose not to arrest commanders for fear of provoking a bloodbath at a time when there was great uncertainty about the loyalty of the police and 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 was defending his actions by saying that the Soviet Union was doomed and suffered its last bouts.
He described the Belavizia Agreement as the only way to avoid conflict between the central government in Moscow and the freedom-seeking republics.
An important role
Many 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 country after the attempted coup against Gorbachev in August, and just a week before the agreement was signed in the woods, Kravchuk was elected president with an overwhelming majority supporting secession.
In the discussions in the hunting lodge, Kravchuk took a very hard line against any attempt to further the Soviet Union in one form or another.
Kravtsjok had his head filled with the independence of Ukraine. He was proud that it had happened through a referendum and that he was elected president on December 1, 1991, says Shushkevich.
As Sergei Shakhraj, Yeltsin’s closest aide, says, Ukraine’s position played a decisive role. He says that Yeltsin and Shushkevich first tried to persuade Kravchuk to join some form of unionization, but the leader of Ukraine after the referendum did not act.
It was the leader of Belarus who was given the task of calling Gorbachev to talk about the agreement. Yeltsin called the defense minister to ask him to keep the troops quiet no matter what Gorbachev asked.
Yeltsin also called President George HW Bush to inform the United States of what had happened. He said Bush responded positively.
While the leaders of the three Slavic republics were busy dealing with Gorbachev and liquidating the Soviet Union, they shelved their contentious issues. And now they’re back on the agenda in full force.
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