Union of Sovereign States

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Gorbachev's last effort to reconfigure and maintain the territorial integrity of the USSR.

During 1990 and 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev led efforts to reconfigure center-periphery relations in the USSR. He sought a new Union Treaty that would give more autonomy to the union republics and make the Soviet Union an actual functioning federation. Working with the recently elected presidents of the union republics, Gorbachev fashioned a Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics. However, six republics (Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova) refused to participate in the treaty negotiations and announced that they were seeking outright independence.

The nine remaining union republics reached agreement on June 17, 1991. A Party plenum approved the new treaty and scheduled a signing ceremony for August 20. But on August 19, hard-liners staged a coup in order to prevent the imminent demise of the USSR. When the coup failed, Gorbachev attempted to save some semblance of union. As an interim solution, a State Council, consisting of Gorbachev and the presidents of the remaining republics, was announced on September 5. Ten republics attended the first State Council session on September 6 and voted to recognize the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Georgia and Moldova did not attend.

In mid-September, the USSR Congress of People's Deputies voted to work toward forming a Union of Sovereign States. The republics would receive much greater autonomy, while currency, defense, and foreign affairs would remain centrally controlled. There would be a USSR president and prime minister, but with fewer powers than under the Soviet system.

Gradually, Boris Yeltsin took the initiative away from Gorbachev. Yeltsin dissolved many USSR structures and reassigned others to Russian control. At a November 25 State Council meeting, he argued for a confederal structure in which the members conducted their own diplomacy and could form their own militaries. Outraged, Gorbachev stormed out of the room. Most republic leaders had been stalling until Ukraine's referendum on independence, scheduled for December 1. When Ukraine voted for independence, the union's fate was sealed.

Meeting in the Belovezh forest on December 8, Yeltsin, Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk, and Belarusian parliamentary chair Stanislav Shushkevich nullified the 1922 USSR Union Treaty. The remaining republics were caught by surprise, but they quickly signed onto the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) structure formed by the Belovezh Accords. Gorbachev was left out of the discussion and not invited to the first CIS meeting on December 21. Faced with the inevitable, Gorbachev resigned on December 25. Barely 40 of the 173 Council of Republic deputies reported to work on December 26, where they formally voted to dissolve the USSR. The Soviet Union was no more.

See also: august 1991 putsch; union treaty


Beissinger, Mark R. (1991). "The Deconstruction of the USSR and the Search for a Post-Soviet Community." Problems of Communism 40(6):2735.

Brown, Archie. (1996). The Gorbachev Factor. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dunlop, John B. (1993). The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Matlock, Jack F., Jr. (1995). Autopsy on an Empire. New York: Random House.

Ann E. Robertson

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Union of Sovereign States

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Union of Sovereign States