Soviet Breakup and the Ongoing Fight for Belarusian Identity

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 194

The signing of the Belovezh Accords - from left to right: Vitold Fokin, Leonid Kravchuk, Stanislav Shushkevich, Boris Yeltsin, and Vyacheslav Kebich (source:

December 8 marked the 25th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The document that did away with the USSR was signed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in Viskuli, at a hunting lodge belonging to the Communist Party leaders, in the westernmost part of Belarus. The locality is integral to the Belovezh Natural Reserve, the last and largest remaining part of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across lowland Europe. The border between Poland and Belarus cuts across Belovezh.


In mid-November, the surviving signatories of the historic Belovezh Accords, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislaw Shushkevich of Belarus, together with Gennady Burbulis, Boris Yeltsin’s sidekick and state secretary of Russia, visited Washington and gave two talks about the event. It has been long noticed that those signatories alter their narrative, depending on the current situation. Thus, in Washington, Kravchuk maintained that in Viskuli there was no talk between him and Yeltsin about the “return” of Crimea, whereas a couple of years ago he described that very talk in detail, claiming the opposite (Komsomolskaya Pravda, March 18, 2014). Bickering between Kravchuk and Shushkevich captured the attention of the audience in Washington. It was about the circumstances under which Kravchuk received the invitation to Viskuli from Shushkevich (the meeting’s host) and about heavy drinking that reportedly accompanied the event. Shushkevich maintained that drinking is a myth invented by journalists and that the agreement was signed after careful deliberations. “Those who wanted, did have a drink,” replied Kravchuk compromising the aura of seriousness let in by Shushkevich.


In conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the Belovezh Accord, Belarus’s privately-owned news portal, published the reminiscences of three members of the hunting lodge’s personnel (now all retired), including its director and one of its forest rangers (, December 8). They were at work on December 7 and 8, 1991 and observed the two-day gathering up-close. According to Yevgenii Luksha, a forest ranger, only Kravchuk hunted for wild boars before the meeting, other guests did not. “But it would have been better if they had hunted [instead of breaking up the Soviet Union]” instead of breaking up the Soviet Union, opined Luksha, who is still bemoaning the USSR. According to Stepan Martysyuk, the former lodge director, Yeltsin was tipsy upon arrival in the early afternoon of December 7; he then slept for several hours before the banquet with viands and liquor delivered from Minsk. The official members of the three delegations went to bed around 11 pm; and immediately thereafter, their bodyguards started a feast of their own, during which some pieces of furniture were broken.


In the morning of December 8, the meeting’s participants locked themselves in the billiard room.  What they were discussing there the lodge director did not know at the time, but it soon became clear that there was no typewriter to type the documents they compiled. Evgeniya Pateichuk, secretary of the director of the entire Belovezh Reserve, was then summoned pronto. It was she who first typed the legendary “The USSR as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality is ceasing its existence.” Looking over her shoulder, the personnel learned about the breakup of the Soviet Union. “It was a weird feeling. I did not like this accord,” reminisces Martysyuk. After all, a referendum took place, and 76 percent voted for the union…Still, we thought that the CIS would simply replace the USSR, but nothing would change” (, December 8).


Yet, the Belovezh Accord turned out to be far-reaching. It elicited a wide range of reactions, from self-congratulatory assurances of winning the cold war to “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of our time.”


Economically, Belarus was one of the ex-Soviet states better suited for independence, provided that economic exchange with Russia was retained. Mentally, however, Belarusians were least ready for statehood in view of their blurred identity, the issue that has been taken up by virtually all scholars focused on Belarus.


Today, 25 years after obtaining independence, it is clear that Westernizing ethnic nationalism of Eastern European style (Belarus is a heir to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a “European” entity, whereas Russia is “Asiatic” and barbaric; Belarusian is the language to use; and one should undo the effects of Russification) has little traction among the general population. Whereas civic nationalism propagated by the Belarusian state (common life experience of people with various backgrounds creates Belarusians; the formative experience of that kind was the Great Patriotic War; and both Russian and Belarusian are legitimate) has been at least modestly successful. But almost equally successful is ethnic nationalism of Great Russian variety denying Belarus’s legitimacy anywhere outside the “Russian world.”


Because the primary political division line in Belarus has been between the Westernizing nationalists and the state that claims the Soviet legacy as its own, the “sword of justice” has so far only hit Westernizing nationalists. On multiple occasions, they have been persecuted for criminal offences, mostly in association with elections and electoral campaigns. Recently, however, several formal accusations have been leveled against individuals for allegedly inciting inter-ethnic enmity. The first target of such accusations was, once again, a Westernizing nationalist (see EDM, November 2).


The bombshell of the week has been the apprehension of three alleged Russophile agitators, Yuri Pavlovets, Dmitry Alimkin (, December 8), and Sergei Shiptenko (Regnum, December 9). All three are Belarusian citizens residing in Belarus, but publishing on the Russian national-patriotic portal All three published under pseudonyms and one of them, Pavlovets, until 2012, used to have a blog on the site of a major Belarusian daily. All three authors harshly criticized every attempt on the part of Belarus to improve relations with the West and described Belarus as a freeloader and a congenital dependent of Russia, to which it singularly owes every positive achievement, but is still willing to perfidiously betray Mother Russia if and when offered a Western buyout.


The potential trials and their public resonance are going to be of great interest for all Belarus watchers. In any case, while accepting and glorifying its formative Soviet experiences, Belarus has already distanced itself from them quite a bit.