Moscow, Russia – August 31, 1991, 8th Soviet Republic declares independence from USSR : Breakup, oil-rich Azerbaijan joins exodus. Russia and Kazakhstan agree on need for an interim management structure to supplant the disintegrating union.
The vanishing Soviet Union was wrenched by conflicting pressures Friday as another republic, oil-rich Azerbaijan, declared its independence, while two others, Russia and Kazakhstan, agreed on the urgent need to join forces to avert catastrophe.
With Azerbaijan’s decision, eight of the republics-a majority of the 15 ethnic homelands in the Soviet Union-have now demanded a severing of ties with Moscow and the end of the centralized state founded 69 years ago on the wreckage of the Russian empire.
In Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, 30,000 people were bused in by authorities to stand under a hot sun near the shores of the Caspian Sea and cheer the unanimous vote by Parliament. Nationalist activists condemned the proceedings as a show staged by President Ayaz Mutalibov and conservative Communist leaders to pander to local patriotism.
“This declaration is nonsense-dust thrown in people’s eyes,” said a disgusted Elshad Salayev, of the Azerbaijani People’s Front, a grass-roots pro-independence group in the predominantly Shiite Muslim republic. “It’s supposed to show that Azerbaijan is no worse than other places and can also declare that it’s sovereign.”
Meantime, building on talks Thursday between Russia and the Ukraine, Russian officials flew to meet with leaders of Kazakhstan, the country’s second-largest republic. Their talks led to an accord in principle on the need for “provisional interstate management structures” to supplant the Soviet state, a need that Russia and the Ukraine recognized in their bilateral agreement reached on Thursday.
The Russian-Kazakh agreement specified two areas where coordination is critical: in the economy, where atrophy of the central supply-and-distribution system is playing havoc, to the point where the possibility of wide famine and coal shortages this winter is being discussed; and in military affairs, a domain in which no republic’s leadership can claim expertise.
Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin has emerged as the champion of a new kind of relationship, in which Russia and other republics would solve common problems without any real say by the Kremlin or Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Indeed, envoys from all 15 republics, including those that have refused to be part of the Soviet Union or Gorbachev’s plans to reshape it, gathered in Moscow Friday to plan how to create a new type of economic union.
In other developments:
- Former Supreme Soviet Chairman Anatoly I. Lukyanov, stripped of his office and charged with treason for his alleged role in last week’s failed coup against Gorbachev, was arrested and his Kremlin office searched. He has denied any involvement, but Gorbachev, his friend for 40 years, called Lukyanov’s complicity “particularly bitter” for him.
- Gorbachev ordered the dissolution of “military-political organs” in the armed forces; they were the latter-day descendants of the Communist commissars who long exercised the real command over generals and admirals. Communist Party cells in the armed forces had already been ordered to disband.
- Soviet lawmakers protested that the parliamentary immunity of some deputies was being violated in the hunt for co-conspirators in last week’s putsch. The home and dacha of Valentin Falin, head of the Communist Party’s International Department, were searched, and Alfreds Rubiks, first secretary of the Latvian party, was arrested.
- In a bid to cement his support in the Soviet military and win over hostile conservatives, Yeltsin ordered improved housing for officers stationed in Russia and even cut their taxes. He was touring the Baltic republics Friday in a bid to define their post-independence relations with Russia.
Prominent reformers, including Moscow Mayor Gavriil K. Popov and Gorbachev’s former adviser Alexander N. Yakovlev, turned down Gorbachev’s invitation to serve on the president’s Security Council, giving vivid proof of how politically isolated Gorbachev now is. His former foreign minister, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, also refused to serve.
Azerbaijan was the sixth of the Soviet republics to proclaim its independence since the August 19-21, 1991 coup, an event that its hard-line president, Mutalibov, welcomed at first. He said later he had been misquoted.
In what looked like a tableau from neighboring Iran, demonstrators brought into Baku to fete the vote carried black-and-white portraits of their leader, Mutalibov, and hoisted their republic’s flag, marked with the crescent and star of Islam.
Although Mutalibov resigned his Soviet Communist Party posts in the wake of the coup, the Azerbaijani parliament, where Communists hold 90% of the seats, did not vote a ban on party activity, as the national Supreme Soviet had a day earlier.
Progressives said the independence vote was a ploy to remove Azerbaijan from Soviet jurisdiction and allow its party apparatus to rule unimpeded. “Azerbaijan is supposed to become a world center of communism, according to their scenario,” activist Salayev asserted.
Boasting oil fields, which at the turn of the century produced almost half of the world’s petroleum, Azerbaijan was briefly independent, from 1918 until 1920, when the 11th Red Army entered Baku and claimed it for the Communists.
But nationalist feelings in the republic of 7 million people soared recently because of a bitter territorial dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave awarded to Azerbaijan by dictator Josef Stalin, who once was Soviet commissar for nationality affairs.
Moscow’s efforts to end the crisis also turned many Azerbaijanis into enemies of centralized Soviet rule, as did the Soviet army’s drive into Baku to fight armed nationalists in January, 1990, an onslaught that caused more than 100 deaths. At their session, Azerbaijani lawmakers also lifted the state of emergency imposed by Soviet authorities since then.
The other republics that have adopted independence declarations are Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Moldova. Armenia has announced its intention to secede, but plans a referendum on the issue next month, in line with the requirements for secession laid down by Soviet law.
A New Troika
As a result of the talks in the Kazakh capital of Alma Ata in Central Asia, Russia and Kazakhstan emphasized the need for an economic agreement encompassing all 15 republics that have belonged to the Soviet Union, and whose economies, interlinked for decades, are now highly interdependent.
The catalyst for the negotiations was a statement from Yeltsin’s spokesman Monday that Russia would reserve the right to present republics leaving the Soviet Union with territorial claims-a remark that touched off something akin to panic in Kazakhstan, where some northern regions are predominantly Russian.
Speaking at a news conference after the talks, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev said the comments from Yeltsin’s office had been “misinterpreted in places.” Friday’s talks, he said, were needed “to erase all suspicions.”
The chief of the visiting delegation, Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, stressed the need for cooperation to ensure that the republics are not annihilated when the institutions of the Soviet state come crashing down around them.
“Instead of dealing with the excessive politicization of society, we must start with creating an interstate administrative structure that will manage state affairs,” Rutskoi said. “Second, we must urgently start working and sign an economic treaty. On this basis, we will enter negotiations on creating a new union in the form of a community of sovereign states.”
The agreement achieved in Alma Ata would, for a time at least, place some limits on the actions of the individual republics, although it would greatly boost their decision-making powers in other areas. For example, the Russian-Kazakh accord puts police and the KGB under control of the republics, but stipulates that strategic matters, such as the deployment of nuclear weapons, must be decided “only on the basis of interstate consultations and accord.”
In a broadcast address, Yeltsin said, “There is a striving to found a new union of sovereign, equal states. The republics are founding their own center, administrations to coordinate economic reforms, military forces, nuclear potential and others. The union center must exist, but its personnel must be reduced.”
But Yeltsin also showed that he is firmly against partitioning the country’s nuclear arsenal, saying: “I resolutely exclude the division of strategic weapons between the republics. It could create an additional threat for the world.”
Yeltsin said that Russia and the other republics could form their own “national guards,” but they would be forces of only 3,000-4,000 men.
That stance on the imperative for a common approach to defense was buttressed by comments made by army Gen. Yuri Maximov, chief of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, who said, “Only a single, renovated union and the modern armed forces of our country will be able to ensure the true sovereignty, independence and security of each republic and the country as a whole.
“At present, our forces are capable of accomplishing this mission,” Maximov said. “If broken into parts, they will never be able to do so.”
For example, the general said, each Soviet missile contains components manufactured in factories spread around the country. No republic could build or maintain such missiles on its own.
The tremendous surge in the influence of Yeltsin and his Russian Federation has made many non-Russians in the country very uneasy, and the talk of creating a new type of alliance has been insufficient to assuage the fears of some.
Although Russian and Ukrainian leaders agreed Thursday on the need for institutionalized cooperation, Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk the next day was speaking to reporters about the potential danger of a “czarist empire” being reborn.
In a newspaper interview, the Russian prime minister, Ivan S. Silayev, said there is no good reason for the present wave of “anti-Russian agitation.”
“Many republics forget who saved them from dictatorship,” Silayev added, reminding inhabitants of the country’s other republics that it was Yeltsin, the president of Russia, who successfully led the popular opposition to last week’s coup.
Azerbaijan declared independence, the eighth of the 15 Soviet republics to announce it wants to secede:
The Independence Movement
- More than half the republics, about 80 million of the Soviet Union’s population of 287 million, are now seeking independence.
- Others declaring independence: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Moldova and Georgia.
- Land: 33,340 square miles. Mountains in the north and west with coast on the Caspian Sea.
- Capital: Baku.
- Population: 7 million, mostly Shiite Muslim Azerbaijanis.
- Economy: Oil, mining and agriculture.
- History: Azerbaijani nationalists long have agitated to unite with the Azerbaijani region across the border in northern Iran, something Iran vehemently opposes. Azerbaijan was recognized as a sovereign state from 1918 to 1920 before becoming a Soviet republic.
- Ethnicity: Azerbaijan is engaged in a bloody ethnic conflict with neighboring Armenia over the jurisdiction of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in Azerbaijan populated predominantly by Armenians. The strife reflects a struggle for jobs and housing as well.
The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was a federal socialist state in Northern Eurasia that existed from 1922 to 1991. Nominally a union of multiple national Soviet republics, it was a one-party state (until 1990) governed by the Communist Party, with Moscow as its capital in its largest republic, the Russian SFSR. Other major urban centers were Leningrad (Russian SFSR), Kiev (Ukrainian SSR), Minsk (Byelorussian SSR), Tashkent (Uzbek SSR), Alma-Ata (Kazakh SSR) and Novosibirsk (Russian SFSR). It was the largest country in the world by surface area, spanning over 10,000 kilometers (6,200 mi) east to west across 11 time zones and over 7,200 kilometers (4,500 mi) north to south. Its territory included much of Eastern Europe, parts of Northern Europe and Western Asia, and all of Northern and Central Asia. Its five climate zones were tundra, taiga, steppes, desert, and mountains. Its diverse population was collectively known as Soviet people.
The Soviet Union had its roots in the October Revolution of 1917 when the Bolsheviks, headed by Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the Provisional Government that had earlier replaced the monarchy of the Russian Empire. They established the Russian Soviet Republic, beginning a civil war between the Bolshevik Red Army and many anti-Bolshevik forces across the former Empire, among whom the largest faction was the White Guard, which engaged in violent anti-communist repression against the Bolsheviks and their worker and peasant supporters known as the White Terror. The Red Army expanded and helped local Bolsheviks take power, establishing soviets, repressing their political opponents and rebellious peasants through Red Terror. By 1922, the Bolsheviks had emerged victorious, forming the Soviet Union with the unification of the Russian, Transcaucasian, Ukrainian and Byelorussian republics. The New Economic Policy (NEP), which was introduced by Lenin, led to a partial return of a free market and private property; this resulted in a period of economic recovery.
Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Joseph Stalin came to power. Stalin suppressed all political opposition to his rule inside the Communist Party and initiated a centrally planned economy. As a result, the country underwent a period of rapid industrialization and forced collectivization, which led to significant economic growth, but also led to a man-made famine in 1932–1933 and expanded the Gulag labour camp system originally established in 1918. Stalin also fomented political paranoia and conducted the Great Purge to remove his actual and perceived opponents from the Party through mass arrests of military leaders, Communist Party members, and ordinary citizens alike, who were then sent to correctional labor camps or sentenced to death.
On 23 August 1939, after unsuccessful efforts to form an anti-fascist alliance with Western powers, the Soviets signed the non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany. After the start of World War II, the formally neutral Soviets invaded and annexed territories of several Eastern European states, including eastern Poland and the Baltic states. In June 1941 the Germans invaded, opening the largest and bloodiest theater of war in history. Soviet war casualties accounted for the highest proportion of the conflict in the cost of acquiring the upper hand over Axis forces at intense battles such as Stalingrad. Soviet forces eventually captured Berlin and won World War II in Europe on 9 May 1945. The territory overtaken by the Red Army became satellite states of the Eastern Bloc. The Cold War emerged in 1947 as a result of a post-war Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe, where the Eastern Bloc confronted the Western Bloc that united in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949.
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, a period known as de-Stalinization and the Khrushchev Thaw occurred under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. The country developed rapidly, as millions of peasants were moved into industrialized cities. The USSR took an early lead in the Space Race with the first ever satellite and the first human spaceflight. In the 1970s, there was a brief détente of relations with the United States, but tensions resumed when the Soviet Union deployed troops in Afghanistan in 1979. The war drained economic resources and was matched by an escalation of American military aid to Mujahideen fighters.
In the mid-1980s, the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, sought to further reform and liberalize the economy through his policies of glasnost and perestroika. The goal was to preserve the Communist Party while reversing economic stagnation. The Cold War ended during his tenure and in 1989, Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe overthrew their respective Marxist-Leninist regimes. In particular, the indecisive action of the Eastern European rulers after the Pan-European Picnic caused the fall of the Iron Curtain, which shattered the formerly powerful communist unity. This led to the rise of strong nationalist and separatist movements inside the USSR as well. Central authorities initiated a referendum—boycotted by the Baltic republics, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova—which resulted in the majority of participating citizens voting in favor of preserving the Union as a renewed federation. In August 1991, a coup d’état was attempted by Communist Party hardliners. It failed, with Russian President Boris Yeltsin playing a high-profile role in facing down the coup, resulting in the banning of the Communist Party. On 25 December 1991, Gorbachev resigned and the remaining twelve constituent republics emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet Union as independent post-Soviet states. The Russian Federation (formerly the Russian SFSR) assumed the Soviet Union’s rights and obligations and is recognized as its continued legal personality.
The USSR produced many significant social and technological achievements and innovations of the 20th century, including the world’s first ministry of health, first human-made satellite, the first humans in space and the first probe to land on another planet, Venus. The country had the world’s second-largest economy and the largest standing military in the world. The USSR was recognized as one of the five nuclear weapons states. It was a founding permanent member of the United Nations Security Council as well as a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the World Federation of Trade Unions and the leading member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Pact. Before the dissolution, the country had maintained its status as one of the world’s two superpowers for four decades after World War II through its hegemony in Eastern Europe, military strength, economic strength, aid to developing countries, and scientific research, especially in space technology and weaponry.