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Soviet Union ceased to exist 30 years ago today

On December 8, 1991 Russia’s President, Ukraine’s President, and Belarusian Parliamentary Speaker put their signatures to an agreement on establishing the CIS
Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, Belarusian Parliamentary Speaker Stanislav Shushkevich and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, December 8, 1991 Dmitry Sokolov/TASS
Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, Belarusian Parliamentary Speaker Stanislav Shushkevich and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, December 8, 1991
© Dmitry Sokolov/TASS

MOSCOW, December 8. /TASS/. Thirty years ago today, on December 8, 1991 Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin, Ukraine’s President Leonid Kravchuk and Belarusian Parliamentary Speaker Stanislav Shushkevich put their signatures to an agreement on establishing a Commonwealth of Independent States, the CIS. The agreement stated that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist as "a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality."


The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was founded in 1922 by the leaders of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) as the basis of a future world revolution. In order to attract into the USSR as many socialist republics as possible the first (and all subsequent) Soviet constitutions proclaimed their right to free secession from the Soviet Union. Starting from 1956 the Soviet Union consisted of fifteen union republics.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was the political force that cemented the Soviet state system. It had a strict hierarchy and in fact was a governing structure parallel to all of the Soviet Union’s executive bodies of power. In the Soviet Constitution the Communist Party was described as "the leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the backbone of its political system and governmental and non-governmental organizations."

By the 1980s, the Soviet Union had entered a systemic crisis. A large share of the population became disillusioned with the dogmas of the officially professed Communist ideology. The Soviet Union was lagging behind the Western countries economically and technologically. As a result of the Soviet nationalities policy independent national elites took shape in both union and autonomous republics.

Attempts at reforming the political system during the years of perestroika in 1985-1991 merely exacerbated the existing contradictions. In 1988-1990 the role of the Communist Party was considerably eased at the initiative of its leader, General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Mikhail Gorbachev. At the same time, inter-republican relations underwent no revision, which amid the waning influence of the Communist Party sparked an upsurge of separatism in the union republics.

Inter-ethnic clashes

The perestroika years in the Soviet Union saw soaring nationalist sentiment. Anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan’s city of Sumgait in 1988 were the first case of ethnic violence since the launch of perestroika policies. The Sumgait events aggravated the situation in the whole of Transcaucasia. The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region with its mostly Armenian population declared secession from the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic, which resulted in a prolonged Armenian-Azerbaijani armed conflict. In 1989, unrest followed in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Moldova, South Ossetia and other regions. By the middle of 1990 inter-ethnic tensions turned more than 600,000 Soviet citizens into refugees or forced migrants.

"Parade of sovereignties"

In the Baltic republics, the movement for independence began in 1988. In November 1988, the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic adopted a declaration of state sovereignty. In 1989, similar acts were passed by the Lithuanian and Latvian soviet socialist republics. In the spring of 1990 Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia enacted laws on the restoration of independent statehood.

Among other republics, the first one to proclaim state sovereignty was Azerbaijan (September 23, 1989). During 1990 all other union republics passed similar legal acts.

The declaration proclaiming the RSFSR’s state sovereignty was adopted at the first congress of people’s deputies on June 12, 1990. In the second half of 1990, the RSFSR leadership under Supreme Soviet Speaker Boris Yeltsin considerably expanded the powers of the Russian government and its ministries and agencies.

Referendum on preserving the USSR

At the last, 28th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on July 2-13, 1990 the Soviet Union’s first president, Mikhail Gorbachev stated that a new Union Treaty should be signed. On December 3, 1990 the USSR Supreme Soviet supported Gorbachev’s draft, which proposed a new concept of the Union: each constituent republic was to be granted the status of a sovereign country. The Union’s bodies of power were to retain a very limited range of powers, such as those concerning national defense and state security, foreign policy and economic development strategies.

At the 4th Congress of the USSR People’s Deputies (the supreme body of power at that moment) on December 17, 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev suggested holding a referendum to let each citizen vote for or against the Union of Sovereign States on a federative basis."

In the March 17, 1991 referendum the voters were asked to answer the question: "Do you believe it is necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal and sovereign republics where the rights and freedoms of the individual of any nationality will be guaranteed to the full extent?" Of the 15 union republics nine participated in the voting: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Armenia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Estonia refused. On the whole, 80% of Soviet citizens eligible to vote went to the polling stations in the referendum and 76.4% of them said they wished to preserve the Union, while 21.7% opposed the idea.

Alongside the all-union referendum the RSFSR put to the vote the question of establishing the post of the republic’s president (69.85% voted for it). On June 12, 1991 Boris Yeltsin was elected the RSFSR’s president.

New Union Treaty

In the wake of the referendum a new draft of the Union Treaty was developed. On its basis Mikhail Gorbachev and the leaders of nine republics - the RSFSR and the Ukrainian, Kazakh, Uzbek, Azerbaijani, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Turkmen Soviet socialist republics conducted negotiations at the presidential residence Novo-Ogaryovo from April 23 to July 23, 1991 on creating a Union of Sovereign States. Under the treaty's draft the acronym USSR was to be preserved to stand for the Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics. In July 1991, the negotiators approved the draft treaty on the whole.

On August 2, Gorbachev appeared on television to declare that a new union treaty would be signed by the RSFSR, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, while the other republics would do so "at certain intervals." The text of the treaty was made public for nation-wide discussion on August 15, 1991.

"August coup"

A government coup attempt upset the signing of the Union Treaty. On August 18 and 19 a group of senior Communist Party and government officials under Vice-President Gennady Yanayev formed a so-called State Committee for the State of Emergency. With the aim of preventing the signing of the treaty, which, they argued, would have resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the committee’s members ousted Gorbachev from power and declared a state of emergency. RSFSR President Boris Yeltsin refused to obey and slammed the plotters’ actions as an "anti-constitutional coup." The plotters’ passiveness, firm resistance from the Russian authorities and a number of union republics and mass protests resulted in the coup’s failure. The August events provoked the potential signatories to the Novo-Ogaryovo treaty to rescind their commitments. On August 24, the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet voted for an independence act, saying that "creation of an independent Ukrainian state" was caused by what it described as a "deadly threat to Ukraine in connection with the government coup in the Soviet Union." Azerbaijan proclaimed independence on August 30, and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, on the 31st. All other republics followed suit by the end of the year, Kazakhstan being the last one. Its Supreme Soviet voted for a state independence act on December 16, 1991.

Ban on Communist Party

On August 23, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree to suspend the RSFSR Communist Party due to its support for the coup. On August 24, Mikhail Gorbachev made a statement to urge the party’s Central Committee to "make a difficult but honest decision in favor of self-dissolution." Gorbachev declared that he was stepping down as the party’s General Secretary. On August 29, the USSR Supreme Soviet suspended the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the whole territory of the country and instructed the prosecutor’s office to probe into the role of the party’s leadership bodies in the government coup attempt.

Further Union Treaty talks

On November 14, the Soviet Union’s President Mikhail Gorbachev and the leaders of the RSFSR, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan made a decision to meet on December 9 for concluding a new treaty on the establishment of a Union of Sovereign States in the form of a "confederation of democratic states" with its capital in Minsk.

However, by the beginning of December most union republics had already proclaimed independence. Ukraine and Azerbaijan opposed the idea of a confederation.

Creation of the CIS

On December 8, 1991 the leaders of the RSFSR, Ukraine and Belarus: Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich met at the Viskuli countryside retreat (the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park in Belarus) to sign an agreement to establish a Commonwealth of Independent States. The preamble said that the Soviet Union as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality had ceased to exist. On December 10, the Supreme Soviets of Ukraine and Belarus denounced the Treaty on the Establishment of the USSR, approved by the 1st congress of the USSR Soviets on December 30, 1922.

On December 12, the RSFSR Supreme Soviet ratified the agreement to establish the CIS and denounced the Treaty on the Establishment of the USSR.

The leaders of eleven former union republics gathered in Almaty (Kazakhstan) on December 21 to put their signatures to a declaration on the CIS goals and principles and confirm the Belovezh agreements and the termination of the USSR’s existence. The process of creating the CIS was completed. In 1993, a 12th member, Georgia, joined the CIS (its walkout followed in 2009).

Abolition of the USSR

On December 17, the building of the USSR Supreme Soviet was taken over by the RSFSR Supreme Soviet. The activity of the USSR Foreign Ministry was terminated on December 19. The State Bank was abolished in its previous capacity on December 20. At a meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin it was agreed to end the activity of the USSR Inter-State Economic Committee and other Union structures starting from December 30.

On December 25, the RSFSR Supreme Soviet voted to rename the country to Russian Federation. On the same day, Mikhail Gorbachev appeared on television live to say he was ending his activity as the Soviet Union’s president. After that the Soviet state flag was removed from the flag post over the Kremlin and the state flag of the Russian Federation hoisted instead.

On December 26, the Soviet of Republics (one of the two chambers) of the USSR Supreme Soviet adopted a declaration saying that in the wake of the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States the USSR ceased to exist as a state and a subject of international law.

The Russian Federation’s Constitution was adopted on December 12, 1993 in a nation-wide vote.