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. Viskuly Government Retreat in the Belarusian National Park "Belovezhskaya Pushcha". (Image: U. Ivanov, RIAN archives via Wikipedia)
Twenty-four years ago today at the Belarusian resort of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, the presidents of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine signed the document annulling the 1922 union treaty and thus marking the end of the USSR, an event that continues to be a source of debate in both the successor states and more generally.
Like many Russians, Vladimir Putin continues to insist that this was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” in the 20th century and to pursue a policy designed to reverse some if not all the consequences of the disintegration of the USSR, including military aggression, subversion, and economic pressure.
Most non-Russians, however, see this as the confirmation of the birth or rebirth of their statehood, and thus today as on all anniversaries of this event in the past, they commemorate it while the Russian government has not, even though this event was as much a birth certificate of the Russian Federation as for any of the other 11 former Soviet republics.
And in the West, this date also continues to spark controversy because it highlights some fundamental divisions about what the West hoped to achieve in the Cold War. Despite the fact that Ronald Reagan labelled the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” many Western leaders, including those in the US, wanted Mikhail Gorbachev to survive and a liberal, free-market USSR emerge.
That such an entity was a contradiction in terms is not something many Western leaders have been willing to acknowledge even in their memoirs. There was no possibility that the USSR could have been a liberal state: it was a repressive empire that could exist only in that way. The fact that many of the post-Soviet countries have not become liberal states does not contradict that reality.
One of the reasons that the presidents of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine acted as they did was that they, unlike the president of the USSR, had been elected by a vote of their own peoples and thus had a legitimacy that Gorbachev lacked, however much he was beloved by some in the West.
But there is a more fundamental reason why many in the West do not want to face up to the fact that the only way forward, albeit one that has been marked by fits and starts and now by retrenchment, was the end of empire is that the Belavezha Accords have a meaning not just for the past but for the future.
And that is this: the Russian Empire has been dying for more than a century. It didn’t die once and for all in 1991. Indeed, one can argue that it began its death agonies began in 1905 when in pursuit of “a good little war” to boost popular support at home, the tsarist regime lost the battle to Japan abroad and then began to lose territory.
Those “losses” continued in World War I and during the Russian civil war that followed; they only accelerated in 1991. But there is no reason to think that this process of imperial devolution is over, however much some would like. Indeed, Putin’s authoritarian efforts to expand the empire almost certainly will lead to the breaking away of more parts of the empire.
Indeed, it is worth remembering in the current context that the USSR dissolved not because Gorbachev liberalized but rather because beginning in 1990 he turned to the right, a turn that prompted then-Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze to resign with a warning of disasters ahead.
This week, several Russian commentators have drawn parallels between the Ottoman Empire as the nineteenth century’s “sick man of Europe” and Russia today. The Ottoman Empire dissolved and was reduced to the size of Turkey, and there are some who argue that it may lose even more territory, including areas populated by the Kurds.
But those making this argument in general are not willing to take the next step: Russia genuinely is “the sick man of Europe” now, and it has far more possessions to lose than does Turkey. That is what Russians, non-Russians and the West should be thinking about lest the next wave of disintegration prove more explosive than the last.
The anniversary of the Belavezha Accords is an appropriate occasion to do just that.