Ending an Empire Over a Few Drinks

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Sixteen years ago Saturday, the leaders of the three Slavic republics of the Soviet Union gathered at a hunting lodge in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha nature reserve near Minsk and signed an agreement that spelled the end of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus signed the Belovezh Agreement, which created the Commonwealth of Independent States, on Dec. 8, 1991.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev maintained that the agreement was illegal, since it had been signed by only three of the 15 republics, and for four days after the Belovezh Agreement was signed, he continued to hold control over the Kremlin as president of the Soviet Union. But in the end, Gorbachev accepted the dissolution of the Soviet Union when he resigned on Dec. 25, transferring control of the Kremlin to Yeltsin.

The seeds of the Belovezh Agreement were planted several months earlier, during the failed putsch of Aug. 19 to 21. The State Committee for a State of Emergency issued a statement saying Gorbachev had become ill while on vacation at his Crimean dacha in Foros, and it dispatched tanks into Moscow to enforce its authority.

Badly planned and with little public support, the putsch failed ignominiously. But it led to a transfer of power in the capital from the Soviet president to Yeltsin, the newly elected president of the Russian Republic. Yeltsin took control over military forces on Russian territory. In addition, Moscow began to take away control of valuable assets and resources from the already depleted Soviet coffers, and the country quickly tumbled into a state of bankruptcy.

A few years ago in Minsk, I asked Shushkevich about Belovezh. Originally he had wanted to invite Gorbachev to the Belovezh summit, I was told, but Yeltsin insisted that the Soviet leader should not be present. As Yeltsin was the chief power broker by this time, Shushkevich could hardly decline his request. Yeltsin's goal was simple: He wanted to remove Gorbachev from power. It was preferable for Yeltsin to render the Soviet leader's position null and void behind the scenes.

Why did Ukraine attend the summit? The answer, Shushkevich said, was quite simple. For the first time in history, a Russian leader would be signing an agreement recognizing the independence of Ukraine and Belarus. Therefore, for Shushkevich and Kravchuk, the benefits were enormous.

Why were leaders of the other republics not invited? The official version was that Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev was on a flight to Moscow and could not be reached. Subsequently, Yeltsin claimed, Gorbachev dissuaded Nazarbayev from attending. The Kazakh leader later contradicted this version, claiming that he was excluded from the gathering because he was viewed as being too close to Gorbachev. As for the other Central Asian leaders, perhaps the Soviet tradition of presenting them with a fait accompli explained their absence. They duly joined the CIS later in the month.

As for the Belovezh meeting itself, according to an account by British political analyst Taras Kuzio, it took place over several rounds of vodka, which was to be expected in a hunting lodge once patronized by Brezhnev and his cronies. Yeltsin reportedly passed out at some point during the talks and had to be carried from the room by several bodyguards. Kravchuk and Shushkevich continued the negotiations late into the night.

It seems a fitting and even symbolic farewell to the Soviet Union where Gorbachev's failed anti-alcohol campaign was still a recent memory. The CIS had no form and very little substance, but that was not the goal of the three leaders. Whatever the legality of the occasion, they had successfully deprived Gorbachev of his raison d'etre and destroyed what was left of his cherished Soviet empire.

David Marples, a professor of Russian history at the University of Alberta, Canada, is the author of "The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991."