Union Treaty

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The Union Treaty, often referred to as the new Union Treaty, represented an attempt by Soviet party leader and president Mikhail Gorbachev to renegotiate the terms of the original treaty that established the USSR in December 1922 in the hope of precluding the disintegration of the country. The first of several drafts of the new treaty was made public in November 1990, but it was never signed.

The notion that a new Union Treaty was necessary to redress the balance between the central authorities in Moscow and the fifteen constituent republics of the USSR was first advanced in the Baltic republics in 1988. By early 1990 even the conservative party leadership in Ukraine recognized that a new Union treaty would be required. Initially Gorbachev and his team resisted demands for a new basic document that would give the republics more rights and prerogatives within the Soviet federation. At the long awaited plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU, convened in September 1989 to discuss interethnic relations, the platform adopted by the party on nationalities policy specifically rejected the need for a new Union treaty, arguing that the Soviet constitution itself was a treaty document and that it was sufficient to guarantee the rights of the republics.

Secessionist pressures in the republics, however, particularly in the Baltic states, forced Gorbachev to change his course. In February 1990 both Estonia and Lithuania demanded that bilateral negotiations begin to restore their independence. In March Lithuania declared outright that it had reestablished independence.

The first indication that Moscow was prepared to consider a new federative arrangement came at the February 1990 plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU. In his report to the plenum, Gorbachev, although not conceding that a new document should be drawn up, referred to the need for a further development of the treaty principle and suggested that different constitutional arrangements were possible with individual republics. But it was not until mid-June of that year that the USSR Council of the Federationa body created the previous March and initially composed of the presidents or parliamentary chairmen of the fifteen Union republicsdecided to set up a working group of representatives from the Union republics to draft the treaty. Toward the end of the month the working group held its first session.

The decision to begin work on a new Union Treaty was prompted by the belated realization that the relatively democratic parliamentary elections held in the republics in the spring would result in legislative bodies that would be much more forceful in defending their national rights and much less willing to compromise with Moscow than their predecessors. Interestingly the Council of the Federation acted on the same day (June 12) that the Russian republic proclaimed its sovereignty. In the meantime, pressure had been building in the republics, most of which were no longer satisfied with a looser federation and were now insisting on confederation. The Baltic representatives, for their part, refused to even participate in the working group.

The first draft of the new Union Treaty was made public at the end of November 1990. It consisted of a brief introduction and three sections devoted to (1) fundamental principles, (2) the structure of the Union, and (3) the organs of power and administration. The draft omitted references to socialism and proposed that the country be renamed the Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics. It enhanced the role of the Council of the Federation, which was upgraded from a consultative body to a policymaking organ with the power to make decisions, and abolished the USSR Congress of People's Deputies. Although the document contained some concessions to the republics that had been legislated earlier in the year, it fell far short of the expectations that had already been voiced by almost all of the republics. Most importantly the draft was completely out of step with the sovereignty declarations of the republics and it continued to retain the federative principle. It also upgraded the status of the autonomous units, most of which were in the Russian republic. This was seen as a calculated step directed against the Union republics. In sum, the new draft treaty was very much a product of decisions made by the central leadership rather than an agreement between the republics and the center.

By the end of 1990 the three Baltic republics, Armenia, and Georgia had either declared their independence or stated that they would regain independence after a transitional periodthat is, they were not prepared to sign the new Union Treaty under any circumstances. Most of the autonomous formations had declared sovereignty. In Ukraine student demonstrations in October brought down the government and resulted in a parliamentary decision not to sign a new Union treaty until the political and economic situation in the republic was stabilized and a new constitution was adopted. In practice this meant indefinite postponement. Once again Gorbachev was offering too little, too late. Gorbachev seems not to have understood the nature of the national mobilization that was rapidly gaining momentum throughout the Soviet Union, confidently predicting that the new Union Treaty would be signed by the end of the year. In December he gained approval from the Congress of People's Deputies to hold a referendum on a renewed federation on March 17, 1991, the results of which he hoped would pressure the republics into signing a new treaty.

A second draft of the treaty, which gave more rights to the republics but still retained the federal structure, was published in early March and sent to the republics for approval. It was the product of negotiations among eight Union republics (the RSFSR, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan), over a dozen autonomous units, and representatives of the center; Azerbaijan participated as an observer. The document was immediately dismissed by the Russian and Ukrainian leaders, Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk. Although the referendum yielded a 76 percent majority in favor of a renewed federation (the Baltic states, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova boycotted the vote), negotiations on the new Union Treaty remained stalled. In response Gorbachev convened a meeting in Novo-Ogarevo outside of Moscow on April 23 with representatives of the nine Union republics that took part in the referendum. The result, a five-point statement known as the 9+1 agreement, was considered to be a major breakthrough to the extent that it recognized the sovereignty of the republics and recognized the need for a cardinal increase in their role. In the final analysis, however, it was nothing more than an agreement about the need for an agreement. In June the Ukrainian parliament ruled that it would postpone negotiations until after mid-September. The ensuing negotiations throughout the summer in Novo-Ogarevo, commonly referred to as the Novo-Ogarevo process, were difficult and contradictory, but an agreement was finally reached that five republics (the RSFSR, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) would initial the draft treaty on August 20; Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan said they would sign in September. The abortive coup in Moscow on August 19, whose organizers wanted to forestall the signing of the treaty, effectively brought the Novo-Ogarevo process to an end.

In the radically transformed political situation after the attempted coup, with Gorbachev's standing severely diminished and one after another of the republics declaring their full independence, prospects for a new Union Treaty seemed remote. In particular, Ukraine's declaration of independence on August 24 stunned observers both within and outside the USSR. Thereafter, Ukraine refused to partake in any discussions about the future of the country until after its referendum on independence scheduled for December 1. Nevertheless, Gorbachev pressed ahead, threatening to resign and predicting global catastrophe if a new treaty was not signed. In October he and the leaders of eight republics, including Yeltsin, issued an appeal to the Ukrainian parliament to reconsider. Ukrainian lawmakers responded that they would not entertain the prospect of being included in another country. By November Kravchuk was saying that a new Union Treaty was nonsense.

Russia, in contrast, continued to support the idea of some kind of union until the very end. In mid-November it agreed in principle (along with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan) to sign the latest version of the treaty, which now foresaw a confederation called the Union of Sovereign States. The text was published by Izvestia on November 25. On the same day, seven republics met again with Gorbachevthis time Azerbaijan was absent but Uzbekistan was presentwho expected the draft to be signed by those attending. Instead the session broke up in rancor and the representatives of the republics revised the text once again, without Gorbachev.

After December 1, 1991, when more than 90 percent of Ukraine's voters endorsed their parliament's independence declaration, discussion about a new Union treaty became irrelevant. The following week the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

See also: august 1991 putsch; union of sovereign states


Beissinger, Mark R. (2002). Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hahn, Gordon M. (2002). Russia's Revolution from Above, 19852000: Reform, Transition, and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime. New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Transaction Publishers.

Solchanyk, Roman. (2001). Ukraine and Russia: The Post Soviet Transition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Little-field.

Roman Solchanyk

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Union Treaty

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