Monday, December 8, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Shakhray Describes How and Why the Soviet Union Died

Paul Goble

Tallinn, December 8 – On this, the 17th anniversary of the Beloveshchaya Pushcha meeting at which the Soviet Union was dissolved, one of the participants in the Russian delegation that meeting, Sergey Shakhray talks about what he calls “the myths and facts” of the disintegration of the USSR.
In an article in the current “Argumenty nedeli,” Shakhray argues that many people in thinking about the end of the Soviet Union ignore three important factors, preferring instead to suggest that what happened was somehow the product of behind the scenes conspiracies hatched either in the Kremlin or abroad (
The first factor that contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union was the provision in the Soviet constitution giving republics the right to leave. The second was what he calls “the information virus” in which one part of the USSR saw what was happening elsewhere and decided it could achieve the same but only on its own.
And the third was “the process of the so-called autonomization,” a series of events that really did reflect some behind the scenes activities. Mikhail Gorbachev and the CPSU Central Committee launched these declarations by the autonomous units within the Russian Federation to weaken Russian leader Boris Yeltsin.
Gorbachev and the party’s plan was to raise those autonomies to the status of union republics and thus deprive Russia of 51 percent of its territory, most of its strategic resources, and some 20 million of its population, a move that would have left the largest republic looking like Swiss cheese and incapable of acting as a counterweight to the center.
Recognizing this danger, the Russian Federation Congress of People’s Deputies adopted on June 12, 1990, a declaration on the state sovereignty of the RSFSR and the inviolability of its borders. But despite what many believe to this day, Shakhray continues, there was no mention in this document “about the departure of Russia from the USSR.”
“On the contrary,” he points out, “the RSFSSR specifically declared that it intends in the future to remain a constituent part of a renewed Union.”
Why then did things get out of hand? The answer, he says, is the actions of Ivan Polozkov and Gennady Zyuganov, who created something that had never existed before, a Communist Party of the RSFSR, a group that had its roots in “the reactionary wing of the
CPSU” and very much wanted to remove Gorbachev.
Gorbachev then appealed to the leaders of the union republics, Shakhray says, “promising them to radically broaden their authority and … to sign a new union treaty.” In order to block the Soviet president, the reactionaries launched the August coup, something that prompted Gorbachev on August 25 to resign as general secretary and call for the CPSU to dissolve itself.
As a result, “from August 22 through November 6, 1991, the communist parties of all the union republics and consequently the CSU as an all-union organization ceased to exist.” And when they disappeared, so too and “at practically the same time” did the institutions of the USSR as a single state.
In August largely because of the coup, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and Estonia declared their independence. Earlier, Lithuania, Latvia and Georgia had done so. And thus by December, “all the union republics had departed with the exception of Russia and Kazakhstan.”
Consequently, the Beloveshchaya accords between the presidents of the three Slavic republics in effect did little more than formalize something that had already taken place, the end of the Soviet Union. But why he asks did this meeting take in Belarus and why was its outcome so unexpected and so fateful?
Initially, Shakhray says, Yeltsin and Belarusian President Stanislav Shushkevich hoped to convince Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk to agree to the preservation of some sort of a union, but the latter, in the wake of the vote in his republic for independence a week earlier, would not discuss any grouping with the word “union” in it.
Finally, the three agreed on the term “commonwealth,” and they decided to approach Kazakhstan leader Nursultan Nazarbayev to join them. But despite that invitation, Nazarbayev did not come, according to some reports because Gorbachev was in the process of offering him the post of USSR prime minister.
So the three went ahead, and then Yeltsin telephoned US President George H.W. Bush and Shushkevich phoned Gorbachev to tell the two leaders what they had done. When he learned of the Beloveshchaya discussions, Gorbachev “immediately turned to the army,” something Shakhray says he continued to do until his “voluntary retirement” on December 26.
“But the military commanders did not respond” to Gorbachev’s call, Shakhray says, thus “very closely recalling the history of Nicholas II in 1917 when the tsar from the staff of the Supreme Command Headquarters appealed to the forces, and the military unanimously called for his abdication from the throne.”
In looking back “as an immediate participate of those events,” Shakhray says that he and other members of the Russian delegation returned from Beloveshchaya with “contradictory” feelings: On the one hand, they had prevented the Yugoslav scenario; but on the other, they had the sense of terrible loss and concern.”

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