“The system had to be broken”: The agreement that liquidated the USSR behind the backs of Gorbachev and the Soviet people turns 30 years

30 years ago, the Soviet Union was ‘sentenced to death’ in the Belarusian Belavézhskaya Pushcha Nature Reserve, near the border with Poland. Considered the last refuge of the European bison, that wooded hideout was the place chosen by the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, three of the republics that made up the USSR, to sign behind the back of the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Treaty of Belavezha, which ratified its independence and formally dismantled the Union founded by Lenin in 1922.

That December 8, 1991Seventeen days before the red hammer and sickle flag was finally lowered from the Kremlin, the presidents of the Soviet socialist republics of Russia (Boris Yeltsin), Ukraine (Leonid Kravchuk) and Belarus (Stanislav Shushkevich) met there forest located in the western confines of the Soviet Union, to sign the death certificate of the first socialist state in history.

On the occasion of the anniversary, the former leaders of the former Soviet republics who starred in that momentous episode have shared their opinions with a Russian television station. And, according to his comments, the disintegration of the USSR was the result of a predetermined action, but also of a series of circumstances that made it inevitable.

Thus, Leonid Kravchuk questions the negative perception of the break that that change brought about. “When we had signed the Belavezha treaty, [el presidente Borís] Yeltsin arrived in Moscow, “recalls the former Ukrainian president, who in turn returned safely to Kiev. “Why absolutely no one rebelled against that coup if we consider it a coup?”he wonders.

“Nothing of the sort happened and, therefore, people were prepared for it. The system had to be broken, “he adds.

For his part, the former Belarusian president, Stanislav Shushkévich, continues to be proud of having participated in the signing of the Belavezha Treaty. “Divide an empire without spilling a drop of blood It is, in general, a fabulous achievement “, assesses what happened.

A dead end?

The agreement was signed behind the back of Gorbachev (who was informed by Shushkevich a day later with a phone call), and without counting the majority of the population of the USSR, since in March of that same year 76.4% of the Soviets had spoken in a referendum in favor of keeping the Union. The agreement, which left the USSR without its three founding Slavic republics, gave rise to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which would be joined days later, on December 21, by eight other republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan).

In the opinion of some researchers, the choice of such an isolated location for the signing, in the Belarusian region of Brest, near the western border of the USSR, bordering Poland, was due to the risk that Gorbachev could order the arrest of Yeltsin and the rest of the signatories once the news of the agreement broke.

The historian and journalist Rafael Poch-de-Feliu, witness to the disintegration of the USSR, conjectures in his book ‘The Great Transition’ that the “scene worthy of Shakespeare” that starred those three leaders, “three heirs” eager to share the inheritance of the USSR “his old and sick mother”, required the “isolation and gloom” that that retreat in the forest afforded them.

The step taken by Yeltsin, Kravchuk and Sushkevich remains controversial. Was your decision legitimized by the Soviet constitution? “The fate of the multinational state cannot be determined by the will of the leaders of three republics”, argues Gorbachev himself in his book ‘Reflections on the past and the future’ (1999).

The signatories of the Treaty of Belavezha then justified the step taken by the deep economic and political crisis that the country was experiencing, social tensions, as well as the failure of negotiations to prepare a new Union Agreement.

The last blow

In 1991, the economic gear of the country suffered seriously, amid strikes and shortages in stores, while Moscow was unable to deal with strong territorial tensions (the Baltic countries had achieved their independence in September).

The former president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, highlights that the economic setbacks and lack of a firm will in the leadership of the country were the key factors of disintegration, which became effective on December 25, 1991 with the resignation of Gorbachev, which also marked the end of his perestroika, the ambitious attempt to open up the economic and political system of the USSR. When the transition from the planning economy to the market economy began (1990), the administrative and production links between the republics disappeared, Nazabayev explains. “130 companies stopped us. Two million people were unemployed, “recalls the ex-president.

The coup that the hard wing of the Communist Party of the USSR contrary to perestroika reforms in August 1991 against Gorbachev, he raised Yeltsin as a bastion of the liberals in the face of totalitarian temptations and placed him in an unbeatable position to challenge Gorbachev for the helm of the Kremlin, which, after all, was what the Treaty certified of Belavezha.

The USSR disintegrated, the last Soviet leader was left without a country to rule and resigned on December 25, 1991, shortly before the red flag flew down the Kremlin’s intramural pole, the starting gun of a chaotic decade marked by the traumatic transition to capitalism, the rise of the oligarchs and a profound social crisis that it drowned those who could not adapt to the new and unforgiving rules of the market.

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