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Three Men in a Forest: Shushkevich Remembers the Meeting that Ended the Soviet Union

Three Men in a Forest: Shushkevich Remembers the Meeting that Ended the Soviet Union
BELOVEZH FOREST, BELARUS—December 8, 1991. Signing the Agreement to eliminate the USSR and establish the Commonwealth of Independent States. Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk (second from left seated), Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Belarus Stanislav Shushkevich (third from left seated) and Russian President Boris Yeltsin (second from right seated) during the signing ceremony to eliminate the USSR and establish the Commonwealth of Independent States.

“The USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing to exist," was the language of the agreement signed in the Belarusian woods 25 years ago. The document, at the time accepted with quiet resignation, is a matter of bewilderment and anger in today's Russia. The host of that meeting and one of the signatories, Stanislav Shushkevich, who chaired the berussian Supreme Soviet until 1994, gives his current perspective on the events of that momentous day in a recent interview excerpted here. The interviewer, scholar and journalist Arkady Dubnov, talked to Shushkevich last summer as part of a series of interviews organized by the Gaidar Foundation, Moscow - Maxim Trudolyubov

Q. Dr. Shushkevich, you are one of the three signatories to the the Belavezha Accords, which denounced the 1922 Treaty on the Creation of the USSR, which makes you a historical figure. When did the idea—a crazy one at the time—that the Soviet Union could cease to exist come to you for the first time?

I didn’t think about that. I wasn’t thinking about that when I was on my way to the Belavezha Forest, and I was still afraid of thinking about that just two hours before we agreed to the formula suggested by [then Russian State Secretary] Gennady Burbulis, that “the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing to exist.” Because I remembered the Soviet myth that Lenin, in response to the question, “Why are you rioting, when you are facing a wall?” allegedly said: “It is a wall, but a rotten one, one single jab—and it will collapse.”

I understood very well that we were dealing with a nuclear monster, nuclear weapons in the hands of a nuclear power. And I couldn’t even allow such a thought. We, the physicists, used to joke that a cyclotron isotope “ussrium” had been produced with a half-life of 50 years. That’s it! That was the harshest joke about the USSR. And suddenly we all came to the conclusion that we could support Burbulis’s proposal. For me, he is above all the person who found such an accurate formula [for dissolving the Soviet Union]… I don’t know whether I would have had the smarts to formulate it in such a way, and damn right that I liked it back then. I couldn’t hold back and was the first to shout that I would sign. That’s how it all unfolded.

Q. So one could say that you were the one to pull the trigger, because it was only after you that Yeltsin started speaking out.

I’d like to clarify another reason why I was so enthusiastic in the Belavezha Forest: it was me who had invited [then the newly elected President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic] Boris Yeltsin. It happened six weeks earlier, on October 20, 1991, when I was in [suburban government residence] Novo-Ogaryovo I had wanted to invite him for a long time but was waiting for a one-on-one meeting to do so. However, such an opportunity didn’t present itself for quite some time! And here in Novo-Ogaryovo I was walking with Yeltsin and looking for Mikhail Gorbachev [then President of the Soviet Union] among those beautiful landscapes, amid what we call the golden fall. And I said: “It’s marvelous here. Where I come from, the beauty of nature is different, more austere, but also nice. You’re a hunter. Come visit us!” He answered, “Sure, with great pleasure. Have our staff coordinate the dates.” I invited him to try and wheedle some oil and gas out of him. I wanted to ask [then Russian Minister of Economy and Finance]: Yegor Gaidar “I am your avid follower, I support a market economy, but could you please slow down with that “market business” a bit, because we have no money, no credit, and no trust from the citizens. Give us a bit of oil and gas so that our people don’t freeze.” In the end, this also came to fruition in the Belavezha Forest.

Q. One gets the impression that an incredible confluence of random factors led to the Belavezha Accords. You recall that on October 20, you managed to finally have a one-on-one meeting with Yeltsin. But what if it had never happened? The fate of the country, it seems, was already within a hair’s breadth of collapse, it would have been enough to cut a single thread, and it would…

You know, I feel that the situation was paving the way for that. I read all sorts of books about what the USSR was. I learned a lot of unpublished information about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, the deportation of the Chechens. And, you see, it required a radical solution, and not just conversations about how we shall smooth the shortcomings and so on. By the way, this process is still under way. I think that those politicians who claim to have had a creative approach to the process are mistaken in most cases. One must master the political craft really well. Genius politicians, such as Bismarck, Churchill, and many others I could name, found such correct solutions, and, naturally, those were the solutions in the interests of their countries.

Q. There is another legend about the Belavezha: that Mikhail Gorbachev was allegedly mad at Boris Yeltsin because Yeltsin first called [then U.S. president] George H. W. Bush to tell him about the concluded agreement, and only then did he inform Gorbachev. 

I think Gorbachev knows that is not the case. In fact, it all happened practically at the same time. Yeltsin and [then President of Ukraine] Leonid Makarovich Kravchuk told me: “You have a good relationship with Gorbachev, so you should call him and tell him that we have prepared the agreement for signing” (we hadn’t signed it yet then, because we signed it in front of the TV cameras). I said, “Very well, Boris Nikolaevich. And Kravchuk and I decided (though, frankly, I didn’t even ask him) that since you know Bush very well, you should be the one to call him. So I’ll be calling Gorbachev and you will then call President Bush.” And that was the deal. I used the [Belarussian government communication line known as] “troika,” the most reliable means of communication, to contact Gorbachev. Well, it took some time for me to talk to the person who picked up the phone and explain who I was, as there were all sorts of questions.…

Q. So people in Moscow didn’t believe that you were you?

They knew well enough who I was, but that was necessary! No one else could call from the Belavezha Forest because I was the boss there, you see. And in the end, it took some time to reach Gorbachev, and Yeltsin could see that I was talking. And I was sitting far from him, so Yeltsin, who also had [then Russian Foreign Minister] Andrei Kozyrev on the phone, started dialing Bush. And while I was still providing explanations to Gorbachev’s assistants, I could already hear that Yeltsin was talking to Bush. Gorbachev asked me in a very didactic tone: “And have you thought about how the international community will react?” And I responded: “You know, Mikhail Sergeevich, it has reacted nicely. Boris Nikolaevich [Yeltsin] has called Bush, and Bush is treating the news positively, you see?” Then—silence! And since then he has always addressed me in a very formal fashion.…

Q. How bad was the economic situation in Belarus before the collapse of the Soviet Union? You said then that it was necessary to preserve the common state, common borders, common structures ensuring the functioning of that state, while the rest should be autonomous and independent. Did you have an idea then about how it could be accomplished?

What was my motivation? I used to work—for just a little longer than a year—at a radio factory and could already see how absurd some of our standards were. I saw that nearby, in, say, Poland or Germany, factories produced certain components. We, on the other hand, got only a sad excuse of such components from [the Far East Russian city of] Komsomolsk-on-Amur (condensers, for instance), while the best and the cheapest ones were available nearby. I saw that it was illogical, that our organization of production and development was absurd. That is why I was not afraid of disrupting the economic ties between us and Komsomolsk-on-Amur, because they were absurd.… The issue had to be resolved. And I was in favor of the initiative. Let me tell you, I sometimes think that if I had lived according to those wolfish capitalist laws, I would have succeeded. And back then, I was convinced that I was the kind of person who could work honestly and succeed. It was later that I realized how wrong I was. Because there are enough wolves out there without people like me.

Q. Speaking about dangers: As the leader of post-Soviet Belarus, you strongly advocated the withdrawal of the Soviet nuclear arsenal that was stationed on Belarusian territory. Was it the approach of a physicist who understood the danger of nuclear weapons? Or was it the approach of a politician who understood the need to ensure the security of his country and not let it become hostage to a potential nuclear conflict? You wrote, citing the former prime minister of Belarus, Mikhail Chigir, that [then deputy to the Supreme Council of the Republic of Belarus and future President of Belarus]Alexander Lukashenko advocated keeping the nuclear weapons on the country’s territory.

Yes. The thing is, the withdrawal was approaching completion under Lukashenko, and he tried opposing it. The Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin came to Belarus to address that situation and said that this was not the time to listen to Lukashenko. But you haven’t presented the whole picture. It is true that Belarus would have become a hostage and would have been destroyed in case of a nuclear conflict. But I would also add that maintaining those weapons in working condition was above the country’s capabilities. I mean, there are parts that need to be replaced; there is software that needs to be updated and adapted. I understood that but didn’t talk about it because there would have been know-it-alls who would have told me that they were so smart, they could do it all. 

Q. Was it different in Ukraine?

Yes, and it was one of Ukraine’s main arguments against the weapons withdrawal, as there would have been no need to destroy Ukraine in case of a nuclear conflict. They had strategic weapons and their missiles were in the launch silos.

Q. What does it mean that there would have been no need to destroy Ukraine?

Unlike in Ukraine, in Belarus the nuclear weapons were not in silos; they were on the surface. So by targeting them with nuclear strikes, one would effectively destroy Belarus. And in Ukraine you could pummel the surface all you wanted, it would still be difficult to hit the silos; those structures are resilient. But I can tell you that control over nuclear weapons was fortunately very good. And its withdrawal was very expensive. The U.S. senators Nunn and Lugar oversaw the program under which the United States allocated $400 million for the safe expansion of the nuclear weapons–free area, and I had to make them change their minds. Our lawyers who studied the Nunn-Lugar Act told me, “Stanislav Stanislavovich, it is impossible to provide assistance to you, the Belarusians, under this law. Assistance is meant for those who resist, and you didn’t, so they won’t be able to assist.” Then I told the senators that if we agreed without preconditions and compensation, they at least ought to help us with the weapons withdrawal and ensure the security and safety of that process.

Q. There is another story from that time associated with the Belarusian foreign policy, in which you played an extraordinary role. On May 15, 1992, the first treaty on collective security was signed by several CIS countries in Tashkent. It wasn’t yet today’s Collective Security Treaty. Then it was a reaction to the situation in Tajikistan, where a violent civil war was spiking that threatened security in all of Central Asia. The president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, came up with this idea.

Well, there was a threat to him as well.... 

Q. This is exactly what I am talking about. He was practically an insider in that situation. And Belarusians——you were the leader of the country at the time—categorically refused to sign that treaty, as far as I know. Could you please comment on why it happened? Today it is hard to imagine Belarus finding itself outside the first security system in the region.

It is very simple. It was a combination of conscience and lack thereof, so to say. Our constitution declares the neutrality of Belarus. Our legislation also stipulates that citizens of Belarus are not to be sent to participate in military operations abroad. By signing such a treaty, we would have violated the constitution.

Q. Are these provisions still part of the constitution?

Yes, they are, and this part should still work.

Q. And you didn’t sign the treaty in Tashkent.

I didn’t.

Q. How did you explain that?

In the same way: the Supreme Council of Belarus had to make the corresponding decision and I needed to consult with it on that matter.

Q. And then you put the issue to a vote.…

I wouldn’t have, but it was done without me.… I thought that I was acting in accordance with the constitution—I didn’t sign the treaty, and that was that. What more was there to explain?

And then, a little over a year later, the Supreme Council started trying to remove me from my position and the question was raised of why we had not signed the Tashkent Treaty. My former close associate, Myechyslaw Hryb, police general, firefighter, chairman of the State Security Commission of the Supreme Council, suddenly went to the podium and stated that he supported the signing of the treaty. Essentially, he used to be on my side, and now he betrayed me. They made me sign. They also tried to force me to resign in the summer of 1993. But I learned from [then Chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet ] Anatoly Lukyanov how to manipulate the voting process, and they fell six votes short. In 1991 those deputies were the ones who elected me, fearing for their prosperity after Yeltsin defeated the August coup attempt.

Q. When you signed the Belavezha Accords 25 years ago, how did you see the future of Belarus? Similar to what the country is like today?

I believe that the Belavezha Accords were to a large extent made obsolete by two actions—the signing of the Collective Security Treaty [the Tashkent Treaty] and the decision to move the CIS Economic Committee from Minsk to Moscow. Only the secretariat tasked with organizing CIS summits physically remains here, even though it is called the CIS headquarters—something no one needs, by the way.

About the Author

Arkady Dubnov

Russian journalist and political analyst
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Kennan Institute

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