37.2.5: Dissolution of the USSR
An unintended consequence of the expanding reform within the USSR was the destruction of the very system it was designed to save.
Summarize the chain of events that resulted in the dissolution of the USSR
- Since 1985, General Secretary Gorbachev instituted liberalizing policies broadly referred to as glasnost and perestroika. As a result of his push towards liberalization, dissidents were welcomed back in the USSR and pro-independence movements became more vocal in the regional republics.
- Gorbachev continued to radically expand the scope of glasnost during the late 1980s, stating that no subject was off limits for open discussion in the media.
- On March 17, 1991, in a Union-wide referendum, 76.4% of voters endorsed retention of a reformed Soviet Union.
- On June 12, 1991, Boris Yeltsin won 57% of the popular vote in democratic elections for the newly created post of President of the Russian SFSR, defeating Gorbachev’s preferred candidate. In his election campaign, Yeltsin criticized the “dictatorship of the center”.
- Faced with growing separatism, Gorbachev sought to restructure the Soviet Union into a less-centralized state. On August 20, 1991, the Russian SFSR was scheduled to sign a New Union Treaty that would have converted the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy, and military. But more radical reformists were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required.
- On August 19, 1991, Gorbachev’s vice president, Gennady Yanayev, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other senior officials acted to prevent the union treaty from being signed by forming the “General Committee on the State Emergency”, which put Gorbachev under house arrest and cut off his communications.
- After three days, the coup collapsed. The organizers were detained and Gorbachev returned as president, albeit with his power depleted.
- On August 24, 1991, Gorbachev dissolved the Central Committee of the CPSU, resigned as the party’s general secretary, and dissolved all party units in the government. Five days later, the Supreme Soviet indefinitely suspended all CPSU activity on Soviet territory, effectively ending Communist rule in the Soviet Union and dissolving the only remaining unifying force in the country. The Soviet Union collapsed with dramatic speed in the last quarter of 1991.
- Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia underwent a radical transformation, moving from a centrally planned economy to a globally integrated market economy. Corrupt and haphazard privatization processes turned major state-owned firms over to politically connected “oligarchs,” which left equity ownership highly concentrated.
- Literally “restructuring” in Russian, a political movement for reform within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the 1980s, widely associated with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
- Roughly translating to “openness,” the reforms to the political and judicial system in the 1980s that ensured greater freedoms for the public and the press as well as increased government transparency.
The Soviet Union was dissolved on December 26, 1991, as a result of declaration no. 142-Н of the Supreme Soviet. The declaration acknowledged the independence of the former Soviet republics and created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), although five of the signatories ratified it much later or not at all. On the previous day, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, resigned, declared his office extinct, and handed over its powers – including control of the Soviet nuclear missile launching codes – to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. That evening at 7:32, the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time and replaced with the pre-revolutionary Russian flag. From August to December of 1991, all individual republics, including Russia itself, seceded from the union. The week before the union’s formal dissolution, 11 republics signed the Alma-Ata Protocol formally establishing the CIS and declaring that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. The Revolutions of 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR signaled the end of the Cold War and left the United States as the world’s only superpower.
Since 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the USSR, instituted liberalizing policies broadly referred to as glasnost and perestroika. As a result of his push towards liberalization, dissidents were welcomed back in the USSR following prolonged exile and pro-independence movements were becoming more vocal in the regional republics. At the January 28–30, 1987, Central Committee plenum, Gorbachev suggested a new policy of “Demokratizatsiya” throughout Soviet society. He proposed that future Communist Party elections should offer a choice between multiple candidates, elected by secret ballot. However, the CPSU delegates at the Plenum watered down Gorbachev’s proposal, and democratic choice within the Communist Party was never significantly implemented.
Gorbachev continued to radically expand the scope of glasnost during the late 1980s, stating that no subject was off limits for open discussion in the media. Even so, the cautious Soviet intelligentsia took almost a year to begin pushing the boundaries to see if he meant what he said. For the first time, the Communist Party leader appealed over the heads of Central Committee members for the people’s support in exchange for expansion of liberties. The tactic proved successful – within two years political reform could no longer be sidetracked by Party conservatives. An unintended consequence was that expanding the scope of reform would ultimately destroy the very system it was designed to save.
On January 14, 1991, Nikolai Ryzhkov resigned from his post as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or premier of the Soviet Union, and was succeeded by Valentin Pavlov in the newly-established post of Prime Minister of the Soviet Union. On March 17, 1991, in a Union-wide referendum, 76.4% of voters endorsed retention of a reformed Soviet Union. The Baltic republics, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova, boycotted the referendum, as did Checheno-Ingushetia (an autonomous republic within Russia that had a strong desire for independence, and by now referred to itself as Ichkeria). In each of the other nine republics, a majority of the voters supported the retention of a reformed Soviet Union. On June 12, 1991, Boris Yeltsin won 57% of the popular vote in democratic elections for the newly-created post of President of the Russian SFSR, defeating Gorbachev’s preferred candidate, Ryzhkov, who won 16% of the vote. In his election campaign, Yeltsin criticized the “dictatorship of the center,” but did not yet suggest that he would introduce a market economy.
Faced with growing separatism, Gorbachev sought to restructure the Soviet Union into a less centralized state. On August 20, 1991, the Russian SFSR was scheduled to sign a New Union Treaty that would have converted the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy, and military. It was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, which needed the economic advantages of a common market to prosper. However, it would have meant some degree of continued Communist Party control over economic and social life.
More radical reformists were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required, even if the eventual outcome meant the disintegration of the Soviet Union into several independent states. Independence also accorded with Yeltsin’s desires as president of the Russian Federation, as well as those of regional and local authorities to get rid of Moscow’s pervasive control. In contrast to the reformers’ lukewarm response to the treaty, the conservatives and Russian nationalists of the USSR – still strong within the CPSU and the military – were opposed to weakening the Soviet state and its centralized power structure.
On August 19, 1991, Gorbachev’s vice president, Gennady Yanayev, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other senior officials acted to prevent the union treaty from being signed by forming the “General Committee on the State Emergency”, which put Gorbachev – on holiday in Foros, Crimea – under house arrest and cut off his communications. The coup leaders issued an emergency decree suspending political activity and banning most newspapers. Coup organizers expected some popular support but found that public sympathy in large cities and in the republics was largely against them, manifested by public demonstrations, especially in Moscow. Russian SFSR President Yeltsin condemned the coup and garnered popular support.
Thousands of Muscovites came out to defend the White House (the Russian Federation’s parliament and Yeltsin’s office), the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty at the time. The organizers tried but ultimately failed to arrest Yeltsin, who rallied opposition to the coup with speech-making atop a tank. The special forces dispatched by the coup leaders took up positions near the White House, but members refused to storm the barricaded building. The coup leaders also neglected to jam foreign news broadcasts, so many Muscovites watched it unfold live on CNN. Even the isolated Gorbachev was able to stay abreast of developments by tuning into BBC World Service on a small transistor radio.
After three days, on August 21, 1991, the coup collapsed. The organizers were detained and Gorbachev returned as president, albeit with his power much depleted.
The Fall: August – December 1991
On August 24, 1991, Gorbachev dissolved the Central Committee of the CPSU, resigned as the party’s general secretary, and dissolved all party units in the government. Five days later, the Supreme Soviet indefinitely suspended all CPSU activity on Soviet territory, effectively ending Communist rule in the Soviet Union and dissolving the only remaining unifying force in the country. The Soviet Union collapsed with dramatic speed in the last quarter of 1991. Between August and December, ten republics declared their independence, largely out of fear of another coup. By the end of September, Gorbachev no longer had the authority to influence events outside of Moscow. He was challenged even there by Yeltsin, who had begun taking over what remained of the Soviet government, including the Kremlin.
On September 17, 1991, General Assembly resolution numbers 46/4, 46/5, and 46/6 admitted Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the United Nations, conforming to Security Council resolution numbers 709, 710, and 711, passed on September 12 without a vote. The final round of the Soviet Union’s collapse began with a Ukrainian popular referendum on December 1, 1991, in which 90 percent of voters opted for independence. The secession of Ukraine, the second-most powerful republic, ended any realistic chance of Gorbachev keeping the Soviet Union together even on a limited scale. The leaders of the three principal Slavic republics, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (formerly Byelorussia), agreed to discuss possible alternatives to the union.
On December 8, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus secretly met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha, in western Belarus, and signed the Belavezha Accords, which proclaimed the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and announced formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a looser association to take its place. They also invited other republics to join the CIS. Gorbachev called it an unconstitutional coup. However, by this time there was no longer any reasonable doubt that, as the preamble of the Accords put it, “the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence.” On December 12, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR formally ratified the Belavezha Accords and renounced the 1922 Union Treaty. It also recalled the Russian deputies from the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. In effect, the largest and most powerful republic had seceded from the Union. Later that day, Gorbachev hinted for the first time that he was considering stepping down.
Doubts remained over whether the Belavezha Accords had legally dissolved the Soviet Union since they were signed by only three republics. However, on December 21, 1991, representatives of 11 of the 12 remaining republics – all except Georgia – signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, which confirmed the dissolution of the Union and formally established the CIS. They also recognized and accepted Gorbachev’s resignation. While Gorbachev hadn’t made any formal plans to leave his position yet, he did tell CBS News that he would resign as soon as he saw that the CIS was indeed a reality.
In a nationally televised speech early in the morning of December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR – or, as he put it, “I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” He declared the office extinct, and all of its powers, including control of the nuclear arsenal, were ceded to Yeltsin. A week earlier, Gorbachev met with Yeltsin and accepted the fait accompli of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. On the same day, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR adopted a statute to change Russia’s legal name from “Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic” to “Russian Federation,” showing that it was now a sovereign state. On the night of December 25, at 7:32 p.m. Moscow time, after Gorbachev left the Kremlin the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time and the Russian tricolor was raised in its place, symbolically marking the end of the Soviet Union. On that same day, the President of the United States George H.W. Bush held a brief televised speech officially recognizing the independence of the 11 remaining republics.
On December 26, the upper chamber of the Union’s Supreme Soviet voted both itself and the Soviet Union out of existence. The lower chamber, the Council of the Union, had been out of commission since December 12, when the recall of Russian deputies left it without a quorum. The following day Yeltsin moved into Gorbachev’s former office, though Russian authorities had taken over the suite two days earlier. By the end of 1991, the few remaining Soviet institutions that had not been taken over by Russia ceased operation, and individual republics assumed the central government’s role.
The Alma-Ata Protocol addressed issues such as UN membership following dissolution. Notably, Russia was authorized to assume the Soviet Union’s UN membership, including its permanent seat on the Security Council. The Soviet Ambassador to the UN delivered a letter signed by Russian President Yeltsin to the UN Secretary General dated December 24, 1991, informing him that by virtue of the Alma-Ata Protocol, Russia was the successor state to the USSR. After being circulated among the other UN member states and with no objections being raised, the statement was accepted on December 31, 1991.
The Transition to a Market Economy, 1991-1998
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia radically transformed from a centrally planned economy to a globally integrated market economy. Corrupt and haphazard privatization processes turned major state-owned firms over to politically connected “oligarchs”, which left equity ownership highly concentrated. Yeltsin’s program of radical, market-oriented reform came to be known as a “shock therapy.” It was based on the recommendations of the IMF and a group of top American economists, including Larry Summers. The result was disastrous, with real GDP falling by more than 40% by 1999, the occurrence of hyperinflation, which wiped out personal savings, and crime and destitution spreading rapidly. Difficulties in collecting government revenues amid the collapsing economy and a dependence on short-term borrowing to finance budget deficits led to the 1998 Russian financial crisis.
Also during this time, Russia became the largest borrower from the International Monetary Fund with loans totaling $20 billion. The IMF was the subject of criticism for lending so much as Russia introduced little of the reforms promised in exchange for money, especially as critics suspected a large part of these funds could have been diverted or even used to fund illegal enterprises.
- Dissolution of the USSR
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