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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

5 Years Later Few Cheer Collapse of The USSR

Five years ago this weekend, six men met in a snowbound hunting lodge in the Belarussian nature reserve of Belovezhskaya Pushcha near the Polish border to sign a political death certificate.

"We ... state that the U.S.S.R., as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, ceases to exist," they declared in a three-page communique.

Within three weeks the once-mighty Soviet Union had vanished to be replaced by 15 separate states, plunged into an independence which some of them had barely imagined, let alone sought.

Russia's President Boris Yeltsin took over the nuclear button while Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, warning of chaos and anarchy, reluctantly accepted the inevitable and moved out of the Kremlin into early retirement.

Few toasts are likely to be drunk on Dec. 8 on the anniversary of the meeting in the hunting lodge, only one of whose signatories -- Yeltsin -- is still in office.

Yeltsin is still recovering from a serious heart operation and despite his re-election in July his political reputation has been deeply damaged by his disastrous war in Chechnya.

Ukraine's Leonid Kravchuk and Belarus' Stanislav Shushkevich are no longer in power in Kiev and Minsk. Nor are their prime ministers Vitold Fokin and Vyacheslav Kebich.

Yeltsin's former state secretary Gennady Burbulis, seen by many as the real architect of the agreement, is now a little-noticed deputy in the Russian parliament and no longer close to his former boss.

The pact to abolish the Soviet Union is still seen by its many opponents in Russia as the "Belovezh conspiracy" -- a coup d'etat by a small group of plotters in the pay of the West to destroy the historic Russian empire.

For Yeltsin, the agreement was his knockout blow against his political rival Gorbachev. As Shushkevich recalled this week in Ogonyok magazine: "Nobody there was being naive. It was clear that it was Gorbachev who more than anything was getting in Boris Nikolayevich's way."

For Kravchuk, the agreement meant Russia's priceless recognition of Ukraine's independence and territorial integrity, after more than three centuries of rule by Moscow.

Shushkevich, formally the host he and Shushkevich were deceived by the Russians who had concealed the full economic implications of the agreement.

But he confessed: "We were angry with the way Gorbachev was behaving and we would have signed God knows what just to get rid of him."

The communique's formulation that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist as a geopolitical reality came from Burbulis, and went much further than the Belarussians originally intended.

"It was invented at Belovezhskaya Pushcha," Shushkevich recalled.

To replace the Soviet Union, the three Slav leaders improvised a new body, the Commonwealth of Independent States, with a joint economic space, military command and foreign policy.

But within days sharp differences emerged. Kravchuk, bowing to domestic pressure, appointed himself commander of all Soviet forces in Ukraine.

And it soon became clear that each state would have its own foreign and economic policy, and its own currency. The logic of setting up 15 independent states had not been fully thought out, least of all by Russia.

The CIS remains a shadowy body with few powers, resembling the defunct Comecon which linked the Soviet Union and its old East European allies.

It was eventually joined by 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics, with only Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania staying out.

Though Russia's parliament voted by a big majority to ratify the Belovezh agreement, it soon came under attack from communists, nationalists and even liberal politicians who felt that Moscow lost far more than it gained.

By agreeing to independence for the other 14 republics, Yeltsin signed away territory which had been conquered by the tsars and had been part of the Russian empire for centuries.

The agreement also left 25 million Russian speakers living as minorities outside the borders of Russia. Ukraine and Russia are still arguing about the status and basing of the Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.

Defenders of the agreement argue that the Belovezh meeting merely recognized an accomplished fact: the collapse of the Soviet Union as a single state and of Gorbachev's efforts to turn it into a kind of confederation. They say it enabled Russia, which had long subsidized all the other republics' energy, to put its economic relations with the "near abroad" on a more commercial footing.

Five years on, the 15 independent states may be struggling economically but their existence is a political reality with which even nostalgic Russians have to come to terms.

Only Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who opposed the 1991 agreement, wants reunification with Russia.

Russia's Communists fought their last parliamentary election in December 1995 under the slogan "For Our Soviet Motherland," but when they persuaded the State Duma last March to vote to denounce the Belovezh agreement, the reaction from all the other former republics except Belarus was hostile.

Now even the Communists who set up the Soviet Union are soft-pedaling the idea of recreating it, saying reintegration will have to be achieved on a voluntary basis.

Even Gorbachev himself now acknowledges that five years later there can be no return to the Soviet Union.

"Today independent states really exist and they have developed in different ways over the past five years. You can't just glue them back together -- it won't work," he said this week.