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Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union was no more…

Thirty years ago, on 25 December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev made public his resignation as Soviet President, marking the dissolution of the Soviet Union, together with the emergence of fifteen new independent states. Appointed General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, Gorbachev had tried to transform the Soviet Union through economic and social reforms (perestroika), together with greater transparency (glasnost). However, the soviet economic system proved unable to overcome stagnation, loss of productivity, and a deepening demographic crisis. The reforms thus introduced to save the entire system failed to produce meaningful results. To make matters worse, the Soviet Union was no longer in a position to cope with the elevated level of military spending required by the Afghan quagmire, not to mention the pressure coming from the Reagan administration.

Few in the West had anticipated the collapse of the Soviet Union. If the emancipation of Eastern European countries from the Soviet bloc had been encouraged, the dissolution of the last empire on the planet, and its potential consequences for global stability was another matter altogether. In October of 1991, French President Francois Mitterrand had declared to Gorbachev that the disintegration of the Soviet Union would be a “historic catastrophe, contrary to the interests of France.”

In the end, the collapse of the Soviet federal system was the result of a dual process: on the one hand, a movement of emancipation set in motion by the Baltic republics incorporated against their will in 1939, following the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact, and the implosion of the Russian center, promoted by Gorbachev’s main political opponent, Boris Yeltsin. In June 1990, Yeltsin had proclaimed Russia’s “sovereignty”, thus prompting a chain reaction amongst the other Soviet republics. In March 1991, the three Baltic republics and Georgia seceded.

Gorbachev and Yeltsin also disagreed on the pace of economic reforms. Yeltsin insisted on a swift transition to a market economy, whereas Gorbachev called for a lengthy transition period leading to a mixed economy (private and state ownership).

In the same month of March, to stop the process of dissolution, and at the initiative of Gorbachev, nine of the fifteen Soviet republics held a referendum on a new Treaty of Union and the creation of a federation of independent republics sharing a common president, foreign policy, and military. The preservation of the Union was approved by an average 77% of voters. A majority of Soviet citizens remained attached to a federal system. However, three months later, in June, Boris Yeltsin won the first Russian presidential election with over 57% of the votes, enhancing his political legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Horrified by the turn of events, a group of conservative conspirators led by Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, fomented a coup on August 18, 2021. Two days later, thanks in part to the vigorous reaction of Boris Yeltsin who had the support of the population of Moscow, the coup petered out. An increasingly powerless Gorbachev resigned from his position of General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Yeltsin then banned the Party altogether in Russia. The Ukrainian parliament decreed the independence of Ukraine, promptly ratified by referendum on December 1. Nothing could stop the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The Cold War finally over, relieved that Russia was to control the former Soviet nuclear arsenal, the West turned its attention to other mounting problems: the emergence of radical Islamism and an increasingly volatile Middle East. But not for long. The lasting geopolitical consequences of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which fostered separatist movements within Russia itself, could not be ignored: the Chechen Wars, which ended in 2005 with Moscow’s victory, the decades-old ethnic and territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, with the return of violence in the fall of 2020, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s unofficial, yet significant military involvement in Eastern Ukraine.

Communism may be a thing of the past, the reality is that Vladimir Putin,

a former KGB agent, never accepted the demise of the Soviet Union, which he called, in 2005, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” And he added: “As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory,” that is Russia’s “near abroad”, those former Soviet republics now independent. To this day, Putin continues to negate the emancipation of Ukraine, which, in his eyes, cannot and will not be considered a “nation”. The same can be said of Belarus. It does explain why Putin has made a point of supporting the dictatorial regime of Alexander Lukashenko, even when it deliberately chose to trigger and leverage a migrant crisis against the EU, a few weeks ago.

Thirty years on, the consequences of the Soviet Union’s demise continue to be felt. Tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine have risen to a dangerous level in recent weeks. As Putin made it very clear, NATO would be ill-advised to consider deploying troops in the former Soviet republic, a move that would certainly threaten Russia’s core security interests. “The emergence of such threats represents a ‘red line’ for us,” he declared barely three weeks ago.


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  • Olivier Courteaux Historian
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