Stanislav Shushkevich, former chairman of the Supreme Council of Belarus, tells Postimees about the background of the Belovezh Accords and how he found respect for Boriss Yeltsin’s adviser Gennady Burbulis whom he had until then considered unpleasant.
The Belovezh Accords from December of 1991 that drove the final nail into the coffin of the Soviet Union could just as easily not have been signed had Russian President Boriss Yeltsin not demonstrated statesmanlike conduct and risen above the umbrage of Belarusian delegates, then President of Belarus Stanislav Shushkevich, who will soon celebrate his 87th birthday, tells Postimees in an interview.
How was the meeting in Viskuli that led to the Belovezh Accords agreed?
We intended to discuss other matters in Viskuli. I invited Boriss Yeltsin on October 20  when we were in Novo-Ogaryovo together (Russian presidential residence – J. P.). I invited him for a hunt at the former CPSU Central Committee hunting lodge in Viskuli that Belarus had recently taken over. It used to be managed straight from Moscow.
It was a brilliant dacha (residence in this context – J. P.). I wanted to discuss with Yeltsin how to supply Belarus with oil and gas, which is why I wanted to invite him and a major delegation to Viskuli. The Ukrainians were included because we were gentlemen and did not want to appear self-serving. We told Ukraine that we would be having a hunt with Yeltsin in the Belovezhskaya Forest that immediately prompted [President of Ukraine] Kravchuk to say he wants in. That is how we ended up with three delegations.
Did the meeting take place at Viskuli because it was the best place for creating an informal atmosphere in Belarus?
Yes, it had everything one needed for a good hunt. Buildings, hunters, a hotel 300 meters from the complex. The center consisted of a main lodge with three residences for the delegations and three two-story wooden cabins for the hunters and other staff. I stayed in one of the wooden cabins, while Kravchuk and Yeltsin were set up in the main building. I decided not to take a residence for myself as we had the idea to invite [Kazakhstan leader Nursultan] Nazarbayev and were saving the prestigious spot for him.
How well do you remember the events of December 7-8 from 30 years ago?
I remember them perfectly!
Did you have time to go hunting during those momentous days?
No, that is not why we came. No, wait. Kravchuk and [then PM of Ukraine Vitold] Fokin found the time to go hunting on the morning of the 8th. I recall Fokin bagging a wild boar.
How did you arrive in Viskuli? Did you all come together? It is quite a drive from Minsk, nearly 350 kilometers right up to the Polish border. (The Polish border lies just 10 kilometers from the lodge – J. P.)
We came separately. Yeltsin first flew to Minsk where he appeared in front of the [Belarusian] Supreme Council. It was a difficult performance. Yeltsin had brought a rather inappropriate present that resulted in shouts of “shame!” from the delegates. I was afraid Yeltsin would take offense and fly back, but he was above such minor details and flew on to Viskuli.
Kravchuk picked me up in his plane in Minsk and we got to discuss various matters during the half-hour flight. But nothing was said on the plane about the decision that was to come. (The planes of Yeltsin and Kravchuk landed at the major Pruzhany military airfield located 50 kilometers from Viskuli – J. P.)
What was the present that so angered Belarusian delegates?
He brought with him a historical document signifying Moscow’s dominion over the Principality of Polotsk (today the northern part of Belarus – J. P.). He did not know it was an oppressor’s treaty and believed he was making a nice gesture. He was let down by his uneducated circle. Luckily, we managed to defuse the conflict and make sure it had no effect on the final decision.
What happened after you had gathered at Viskuli? Did you start by talking about oil and gas or did much bigger things come up straight away?
We talked about whether Yeltsin could help us for quite some time. He wanted to help us. We considered Yeltsin to be a higher authority than Gorbachev as he had been elected by the people, while Gorbachev had been chosen by the Congress of People’s Deputies. We discussed what should be the legal format so that Gorbachev could not interfere.
[Gennady] Burbulis (then Russian secretary of state and Yeltsin’s closest associate – ed.) right away offered the famous phrasing that the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence. I immediately agreed to sign. It went into the preamble of the document that formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in precisely this form. Yeltsin described it as the bone around which the rest of the agreement would be fleshed out. Experts were given the night to draw up a full text of the regulation that we could discuss in the morning. This resulted in a 14-point regulation that later became known as the Belovezh Accords.
Then PM of Belarus Vyacheslav Kebich has said that the Belovezh Accords were initiated by the Russian delegation and that its signing was spontaneous. Therefore, there were no prior agreements to discuss such an agreement?
There were not.
But who really initiated the accords? Could representatives of Russia be dubbed the initiators?
Absolutely not. It was proposed by Burbulis alone. No one spoke in the name of the Russian delegation.
I suppose it came as a surprise to everyone when Burbulis came up with the rather polished phrasing?
You know, I thought very little of him until then as I had always considered him to be Marxist-Leninist. But it came to me in Viskuli that a philosophical education can allow one to find good and elegant solutions sometimes. That was his grand achievement. I have the deepest respect for people with a philosophical education ever since, even one obtained during the Soviet period.
Was Yeltsin aware that Burbulis was planning to make such a statement?
Of course not. But he liked the phrase. I also think that as a highly educated philosopher and lawyer, Burbulis knew Yeltsin would like it. We did not know their personal relationship at the time. But Burbulis was clearly a Yeltsin man.
However, it did take you and Kravchuk by surprise?
Look, it was to be anticipated. It was in the air so to speak. It’s simply that Burbulis’ phrasing turned out marvelous. It was ready to go and just needed to be fixed, which we did.
Kebich also claims that getting Kravchuk to agree was the most critical moment for Russia as Yeltsin did not have such a brilliant rapport with Kravchuk as he did with you. Is that true?
I felt no such thing. Unfortunately, we can no longer ask Kebich to clarify. It seemed to me that Kravchuk was very happy with the phrasing and said on December 7 that he would be signing the document.
Who wrote the body of the accords?
Burbulis’ part was done. The rest of the agreement was written by experts. They included Yegor Gaidar (who later became PM of Russia and launched economic reforms – ed.) and Sergei Shakhrai (one of the authors of the Russian Constitution, deputy prime minister in the Gaidar administration – ed.), our countries’ foreign ministers and our best legal experts. They worked through the night.
What happened on the morning of December 8 when the experts presented you with the text?
First, we once more coordinated the preamble (the famous sentence that the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence – J. P.). The experts laid before us 18 chapters and we were left with 14 after throwing some things out and merging others. We approved every chapter unanimously. It was excellent work. I know that the Swedes later described the regulation as a masterpiece of public diplomacy in their in-house correspondence.
How long did it take to draw up the historic accord?
Four hours – from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
What happened next?
We decided that we would sign in front of television cameras. While we were waiting for the camera crews, I phoned Gorbachev and explained to him what it was we were looking to sign. Yeltsin took the time to call [U.S. President George H. W.] Bush.
What did Gorbachev tell you?
Gorbachev started by lecturing me. He wanted me to prove that I was not a camel so to speak. I could have but decided not to. However, he did start to address me formally after that, having previously adopted a more familiar tone, which was, of course, demeaning.
Was Gorbachev unaware of what you were doing there? Was his intelligence or the KGB (officially known as the Interrepublican Security Service or MSB during the period – J. P.) not working?
Not to my knowledge. He did not know what we were up to. I explained it to him.
Still, what was Gorbachev’s initial reaction when you told him what you were about to sign?
His attitude was that we were young whippersnappers who had not the first idea about what an international agreement means. In short, that we were in over our heads. It was a magistral reaction. But once I told him that [Andrei] Kozyrev (then foreign minister of Russia – ed.) had already translated everything to Bush who was up to speed and deeply satisfied, he started to address me formally.
What happened once you had signed the document? Did you have a drink together or did you leave straight away?
There was no drinking. We had the chance on the first evening but instead we went to the sauna and had massages. We placed a bottle of good Armenian brandy and six glasses on the table once the regulation was approved. The brandy was poured, we clinked glasses and took a sip. A hundred grams at most was drunk. Yeltsin and Kravchuk flew off and I sent for a ZIL-117 (the main vehicle used by top leaders in the Soviet Union at the time – J. P.) and went back to Minsk. I listened to news of the signing of the document in the car and was frankly shocked to learn that it was all the world was talking about.
Yeltsin also invited Nazarbayev to Minsk, while he got cold feet at the last minute.
We realized that we were about to approve something of great political significance when we were discussing the first chapters and that it would be good to have a leader of a non-Slavic Soviet republic present. We wanted to take advantage of the fact Nazarbayev was on his plane to Moscow at the time. We called him on his plane, the call was put on loudspeaker and we all heard him promise to fly in. I even organized for a ZIL to pick him up at the airport for a sufficiently prestigious reception.
As it later turned out, he went to Gorbachev when he arrived in Moscow and was advised not to join us. Nazarbayev never turned us down, we simply lost contact with him. We could not get hold of him again as there were no cell phones at the time.
Can we speculate that Nazarbayev lost his nerve and stayed away just in case?
He did. He said the next day that he would not have signed the accord. That would have been terrible as we approved everything [every chapter] unanimously. He would have foiled the agreement by refusing to sign. Whereas three days later, he convened all Central Asian leaders [of Soviet republics] and enthusiastically told them about the agreement. He signed then and convinced everyone else to do the same. He even asked to be named as a founding signatory. So, it was a case of oriental cunning as opposed to wisdom.
Therefore, it was a good thing he failed to show up?
Perhaps he would have acted differently had he been there. He had to make things look original to be paid attention. It is customary for dictators, which is what Nazarbayev (who formally resigned as president of Kazakhstan in March of 2019 – ed.) remains to this day. It is also the way of Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko.
Did Gorbachev try to stop your meeting or at the very least the signing of the document? The KGB made no attempt to stop you?
He could not do anything as he did not know the purpose of the meeting. We initially agreed to meet more for entertainment purposes. He never learned of it as no one openly discussed the agreement over the phone.
Is that to say that rumors according to which the Belarusian KGB sent a special unit to Viskuli to surround the entire complex and was only waiting for the order to detain all of you are just rumors?
Pure fiction. The Belarusian KGB was in charge of security for the meeting and heads of state. The head of the Belarusian KGB reported to me on preparations progress every day for two weeks leading up to the meeting.
How much longer would the agony of the collapse of the Soviet Union have continued without the accords?
The agony still continues! Despite the accords. Because there are those who are communist at heart or those like them who love to rule but take no responsibility, including Putin and Lukashenko. Power is like a drug to them. They just cannot give it up.
But the agreement did speed up the process of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, did it not?
What is the attitude toward the Belovezh Accords in Belarus today? It is rather difficult to believe, in light of recent news, that the Belarusian parliament, then the Supreme Council, was the first to ratify the Belovezh Accords before Ukraine and two days before Russia. You were the avant-garde that officially dismantled the Soviet Union.
Our illegal and illegitimate president (Lukashenko – J. P.) tells us that it was unfortunate and claims he voted against the ratification of the accords (as a delegate of the Supreme Council – J. P.). In truth, he never took part in the vote. There are precise records to show who voted. But he can lie to his heart’s content as he is not one for taking responsibility for his words.
What will become of Belarus under Lukashenko?
It is difficult for me to make predictions. I am not a part of any political movement and would therefore refrain from forecasts. I’m 86 years old that further complicates matters. My health is also far from ideal.