31 years ago, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus signed accords that put an end to Soviet Union

8 December 2022, 01:27 PM
Leonid Kravchuk, Stanislav Shushkevich and Boris Yeltsin in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. December 8, 1991 (Photo:AP)

Leonid Kravchuk, Stanislav Shushkevich and Boris Yeltsin in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. December 8, 1991 (Photo:AP)

Thirty-one years ago, on Dec. 8, 1991, representatives of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus signed the Belovezh Accords, which declared that the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist.

NV journalist Oleh Shama recalls the historic day.

“The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence.” This was the main thesis that the participants of the meeting at the state dacha near Viskuli in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha biosphere reserve, Belarus, managed to achieve. It was formulated by Gennady Burbulis, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s deputy as head of the Russian government. The thesis “floated in the air” throughout 1991 and was obvious when half a million supporters of Lithuania’s withdrawal from the Soviet Union came to Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square on Jan. 14.

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Moreover, six republics – the three Baltic republics, along with Georgia, Armenia and Moldova – did not take part in the March 17 referendum on the expediency of preserving the Soviet Union.

However, 80% of the population with the right to vote in the rest of the Soviet Union’s territory came to the polls of that plebiscite, and more than76% spoke in favor of its continuing. At that time, Mikhail Gorbachev had already been the Soviet Union’s president for a year, moreover, he was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The result of the referendum gave him and his entourage the illusion that the Soviet empire could still be saved.

Thus, negotiations between the leaders of the Union republics began in Gorbachev’s residence in Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow in April 1991. The central leadership tried to prescribe how the sovereignty of the union’s members would operate within its borders.

However, the six republics that had refused to take part in the referendum also shunned the Novo-Ogaryovo process. However, this was not the only thing that led it to a dead end. The country watched the sparring of Yeltsin and Gorbachev with irony. The Russians elected the first of them as their president in June 1991, while the popularity of the second one after the rioters’ attempt to remove him from power during the August putsch completely came to naught.

Stanislav Shushkevich, the then head of the Belarusian parliament, spoke of the reason for the meeting in Viskuli.

“Winter was coming, there was nothing for (Belarus) to buy gas and oil, and technology in the country was expensive, and we had to heat ourselves with Russian oil and gas. And something had to be done.”

Belarusian Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich encouraged him.

“Find a way, call Yeltsin to us, call him for hunting, he’s a hunter! We’ll persuade him here, he’s a normal man!” he said.

“(But) we decided this way: if he (Yeltsin) gives us oil and gas at the expense of Ukraine, we ourselves will feel like bastards, because we’ll offend a friendly republic next to us,” Shushkevich said.

“So, let’s be open and call (Leonid) Kravchuk. And we decided to call him. Maybe we would have met earlier, but Kravchuk was elected President of Ukraine on Dec. 1, and the referendum there showed that almost 92% were in favor of the independence of Ukraine, so we met already after these elections.”

The participants of the meeting went to Viskuli, which is 8 kilometers from the Polish border, as if informally, but each of them was accompanied by the head of the government as well. Vitold Fokin was the then Prime Minister of Ukraine, while Yeltsin as Russian President also managed the Council of Ministers.

The Russian delegation came with the draft agreement. And since everyone agreed that the negotiations in Novo-Ogaryovo were as useless as an udder on a bull, the thesis about the death of the Soviet Union was announced at the meeting.

The fact that the arsenal of nuclear weapons was deployed on the territory of the republics added confidence to the participants of the meeting. Kazakhstan, the fourth member of the Soviet Union with the same status, should also have been represented at the meeting. Its leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was already on his way to Belarus, but decided to play it safe and flew to Moscow, where Gorbachev persuaded him not to take part in the talks of three countries.

Therefore, overnight on Dec. 8, only Yeltsin, Kravchuk and Shushkevich agreed on the treaty on the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

“We brought each article to such a state that all six (heads of state and their deputies) voted,” Shushkevich recalled.

“That’s why it went back and forth many times, to experts, to us. And we had been working for four hours to work out the kinks of this treaty.”

It was clearly read between the lines that the Soviet Union, and therefore its president, were already redundant.

The signatories decided to immediately inform the presidents of the Soviet Union and the United States about the results of the meeting. However, as Kravchuk said, it was night at that time and Gorbachev was sleeping, but it was daytime in Washington, so the then U.S. President George Bush was the first to hear about the news and he approved the idea of the CIS. And later Shushkevich managed to call Moscow.

Gorbachev had reprimanded three leaders for a long time, but his most compelling argument was the phrase: “Can you imagine what the international reaction will be?” And later on Dec. 25, he himself resigned as the president.

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