Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 6

The Fortnight in Review


Events throughout the region were dominated by the decision of the Russian State Duma on March 15 to denounce the Belovezhye accords of December 1991, thereby attempting to invalidate both the dissolution of the USSR and the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Reverberations. With only three months left before Russians go to the polls to elect a new president, and with Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov so far the only officially registered candidate, the Communist-dominated Duma seems to have been motivated by a desire to score an early electoral goal and define the main issue of the campaign. In the event, the Communists and their agrarian and nationalist allies scored something of a goal for the other side. The vote sent shock waves throughout the Russian political edifice and through the countries on Russia’s borders, the governments of all but two of which issued immediate protests.

Impact at Home. The Duma’s vote provoked a profound shift in the balance of power in the Russian political establishment. The Communists, who pleaded that they had merely been carrying out one of the election promises made during last December’s parliamentary campaign, asserted that the move was a "civil-political act" of only moral significance, "devoid of legal consequences." But the hornets’ nest they had stirred up left the Communists looking naive at best. At worst, they shattered the image of moderate social democrats they had been cultivating so carefully over recent months. As Yeltsin loudly and tirelessly pointed out, the logic of the March 15 vote was not only to restore the Soviet Union, but also to undermine Russia’s sovereign statehood, cancel its constitution, delegitimize the Duma elected in accordance with that constitution, and leave as legitimate rulers only himself, as Russia’s first democratically elected president, and Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the USSR and perhaps the only person the Communists despise more than they do Yeltsin himself.

A fortnight is a long time in politics. At the beginning of the period in review the presidential race appeared relatively open, with a number of possible candidates vying for support. By the end of the period Zyuganov and Yeltsin were seen as the only credible candidates. Moreover, Yeltsin’s popularity underwent a sudden surge and, for the first time in months, pollsters began to say it was too soon to write him off against Zyuganov. The vote even gave Yeltsin a welcome breathing space from the war in Chechnya, though that raged on with undiminished ferocity. Writing in Nezavisimaya gazeta on March 20, Vitaly Tretyakov pointed out that the March 15 vote had distracted public attention from the Russian Security Council meeting on Chechnya held that same day, "which produced no results that could be communicated to the attention of the public." "Such coincidences," Tretyakov commented, "can occur only in plays by very good playwrights."

Consternation Among the Neighbors: The Duma vote provoked a storm of protest from the governments of all but two of the former Soviet republics. The outcry demonstrated two often overlooked facts about relations between Russia and the other former Soviet republics. First, that most governing elites in the CIS have developed a stake in independent statehood irrespective of their communist origins, past cultural russification, or current interest in economic and in some cases security cooperation with Russia. And second, that membership in the CIS is perceived by most of these leaders as a shield against any attempt on Moscow’s part to reconstitute a supranational political and military entity. All the CIS leaders pay lip service to CIS "integration" but all use it as a rhetorical device for rejecting a return to the Soviet type of integration they experienced and, in some cases, even enforced in the days before their countries became independent.

Baltic Realism. Baltic Foreign Ministry spokesmen stated that the Duma’s action was irrelevant to their countries because they had been incorporated in the USSR unlawfully, never ceased to be independent de jure, and were not party to the Belovezhye accords. But the governments of the Baltic States saw more clearly than most others that the Duma vote presented a potential threat not just to the former Soviet republics but to the international system as a whole. Latvian president Guntis Ulmanis told his compatriots that the call to revive the Soviet Union represented "a dangerous attempt to shake the foundations of peace that have formed in Europe." Ulmanis called for coordinated international action to forestall any subsequent moves by the Duma. Estonian foreign minister Siim Kallas warned that an "intention to recreate the USSR would threaten the entire world. The whole world should be concerned, not just us." Kallas argued that the Duma was "reflecting Russia’s prevailing political trends, regardless of the government’s attempts to present it as a propaganda stunt. The idea of restoring the Soviet Union has until now been seen as irrelevant and confined to nostalgic extremists. But once the Duma passed these resolutions, sectarianism was elevated into policy."

The Western Region. Ukraine’s president Leonid Kuchma observed that the Duma vote "clearly shows how Russia’s supreme legislature sees the future." Kuchma cabled Yeltsin to decry the "serious threat to relations between CIS countries in general and to Russian-Ukrainian relations in particular." Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry condemned the "threat to the peace and stability, not only of the newly independent countries of the former USSR but of the entire international community." Foreign minister Hennady Udovenko endorsed Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze’s call for an emergency CIS summit, adding that such a meeting should "once again and more emphatically affirm the position expressed by a number of CIS leaders." Kiev evidently wanted to avoid offering Belarus and Tajikistan an opportunity to dilute a collective condemnation of the Duma’s action.

Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk, who signed the Belovezhye documents on Ukraine’s behalf in 1991, warned the country that it might face a domestic backlash following the Duma’s vote. Rallies averaging 1,000 to 2,000 participants, most of them ethnic Russian Communists, were indeed held in Kiev, Donetsk, Crimea’s capital Simferopol, and other Ukrainian cities to mark the fifth anniversary of the March 17, 1991, referendum on preserving the USSR. The rallies endorsed the Duma’s action and called for Ukraine to return to the "socialist path of development."

Belarus president Aleksandr Lukashenko was moved to "regret that the former union cannot be again" and to call for the construction of a "union state with those [ex-Soviet republics] who desire it… That new union may even be closer than the former one." Proudly recalling his lone vote against the Belovezhye agreements in the Belarus parliament, Lukashenko nonetheless absolved Yeltsin of his 1991 "errors." The two men are now leading the movement toward Russia-Belarus "unification" (yedinenie), Lukashenko said, and he urged political forces in Russia and Belarus to support the two presidents’ effort at "remedying past errors." An estimated 1,500 Communists rallied in Minsk to endorse the Duma’s action and call on Belarus’ parliament also to denounce the Belovezhye accords. Supporters of independence also began organizing. An estimated 1,000 rallied in Minsk to defend the constitution against amendments being drafted by Lukashenko which are expected to attempt to dilute national sovereignty in preparation for "integration" with Russia. Former parliament chairmen Myacheslau Hryb (who led the resistance to Lukashenko’s authoritarian ambitions in the preceding parliament) and Stanislau Shushkevich, the reformist vice-chairman of the current parliament, Henadz Karpienka, and Civic Action parliamentary leader Stanislau Bahdankevich announced their intention of resisting such amendments.

In a statement authorized by parliament, Moldova’s Foreign Ministry rejected the Duma’s "direct encroachment on Moldova’s independence and sovereignty" and pointed to the "risk of new tensions and hotbeds of conflict" implicit in the Duma’s action. Moldova seeks economic cooperation within the CIS but rules out political-military cooperation, the ministry reaffirmed. President Mircea Snegur said he saw the Duma’s action as "an attempt to torpedo our many-sided economic cooperation." He cabled Yeltsin to urge joint efforts in "resisting any return to the communist past, into which the reactionary forces are trying to push us."

Even the leaders of secessionist Transdniester, political allies of Russia’s Communists, echoed some of the criticisms of the Duma. As Transdniester Supreme Soviet chairman Grigory Marakutsa explained, "our long -standing position in favor of preserving the USSR is universally known" but the Duma was "scaring away supporters of [CIS] integration" and "even causing some countries to distance themselves from Russia." Marakutsa recalled that a regional referendum last December approved the petition of the "Dniester republic" to be allowed to accede to the CIS in its own right. Tiraspol would not lightly part with the CIS because it considers it a valuable mechanism for gradually reconstituting a Union state.

The Caucasus. In Moscow for a prescheduled meeting with Yeltsin, Georgia’s president Eduard Shevardnadze called for an emergency CIS summit to deal with the Duma’s "attempt to return to a totalitarian regime and encroachment on the independence of the CIS countries." Shevardnadze demonstratively canceled a scheduled meeting with the Communist speaker of the Duma, Gennady Seleznev. Seleznev retaliated by attacking Georgia’s proposals for settling the Abkhazia conflict and warning that Shevardnadze’s gesture jeopardized ratification of the Russian-Georgian state treaty. In Tbilisi, parliament chairman Zurab Zhvania asserted in Russian media interviews that "independence is forever and not subject to revision by anyone;" he added that "the only result of the Duma’s action will be that we shall continue to regard CIS integration with suspicion."

Armenia’s leadership, one of the few untainted by communist origins but dependent on security ties with Russia, chose to emphasize anticommunism in its reaction. President Levon Ter-Petrosian accused the Duma of seeking to obscure the responsibility borne by the Soviet Communist party for the "seventy years of oppressive rule" that "preordained the breakup of the criminal empire." Ter-Petrosian said he expected CIS member countries to "rebuff this cynical communist provocation." A large majority of the Armenian parliament’s deputies signed a statement describing the Duma’s action as "cynical disregard for civilized inter-state relations" fraught with "perilous consequences and a potential for bloodshed." Armenian Communist party leader Sergei Badalian, opposing that statement, admonished the president and parliament, saying their reactions "jeopardized Armenian- Russian relations and Armenia’s national security." He was alluding to crucial Russian support for Armenians in the Karabakh conflict.

President Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan obliquely exculpated Yeltsin of the Communist accusation that he had scuttled the USSR at Belovezhye. Using the same argument that Yeltsin himself had made in a television interview on the eve of the Duma vote, Aliyev said it was wrong to seek culprits since "the Union fell apart through objective historical, social and political processes." Azerbaijan, he added, "will never deviate from the path of independence." Upping the ante in response to the Duma’s resolutions, the Azerbaijani parliament warned in a resolution of its own that it "reserves the right to reconsider the country’s membership in the CIS if Russia’s Duma continues on its course toward restoring the USSR and undermining the Belovezhye agreements." Azerbaijan’s participation in the CIS is already limited, ruling out political and military involvement.

Central Asia: The president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, said Turkmenistan’s independence was "irreversible and immutable." Since they are not subject to revision by any country or institution of another country, the Russian Duma’s resolutions are unenforceable as far as Turkmenistan is concerned.

Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov dismissed the Duma’s resolutions as "a display of populism" and pledged to "strengthen national independence which is supported by the entire people." Parliament chairman Erkin Halilov and foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov protested against the "gross violation of Uzbekistan’s sovereignty;" and the parliament’s presidium in an unanimous statement "ruled out any return to the past." The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, issued a solemn warning that "any actions seeking to restore the USSR can lead to great destabilization and bloodshed." While professing his conviction that "there is no alternative to developing CIS integration," Nazarbayev made clear that he saw integration as being mainly "economic, social and humanitarian" and "based on mutual advantage and respect for independence."

Kyrgyzstan’s president Askar Akayev decried the Russian Duma’s "hazardous step fraught with major international consequences" while hoping that bilateral Kyrgyz-Russian relations and his own upcoming visit to Moscow would not suffer. Akayev hopes to sign onto the CIS customs union during that visit in order to gain freer access to the Russian market for his country’s products. The Uzbek, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz presidents also cabled separate messages to Yeltsin condemning the Duma’s "call for the restoration of communist ideology" (Karimov) and asking the Russian president to inform the CIS leaders about measures taken to address their concerns (Nazarbayev).

Among the Central Asian leaderships, only that of Tajikistan appeared receptive to the Duma’s message. President Imomali Rakhmonov obliquely regretted in a statement that "the USSR’s full restoration is unrealistic and impossible." Describing state independence as "an illusion which has vanished," Rakhmonov urged "accelerating integration and forcing the merger of our efforts… into a new type of inter-state formation"–an apparent allusion to a federal or confederal structure.

The leaders of Belarus in Europe and Tajikistan in Central Asia singularized themselves among their CIS peers through their readiness to abdicate national independence in favor of a restored union under Russian leadership. Their ideological sympathies are with the Duma’s Communist majority, but they must for the time being work with the government of Boris Yeltsin if they are to advance toward their goal. All the other governments of CIS countries now have more reason than ever to support Yeltsin over the Communists in Russia’s upcoming presidential election.

Western Criticism. As for Western reactions, the Duma’s action was criticized with unusual vehemence by U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher, who called it a "highly irresponsible" act. Russia’s foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov scrambled to mitigate the impact of the vote, ordering ambassadors in foreign capitals to make clear to their host governments that it carried no legal force. Primakov described the vote as a foreign policy disaster that would "undermine the legal basis for the existence of the Russian state" and make "a legal mess" of Russia’s relations with other countries. It would "torpedo" CIS integration, drive the Baltic States to seek NATO membership with even greater fervor, and provide "additional arguments" for those in the West who favored the inclusion of Eastern European states in NATO, he added. Primakov and parliamentary moderates pointed out that the Duma’s action would likely harm Russian national interests by yielding results precisely opposite to those sought both by the government and even by those who supported the vote.

For all that, the Duma vote is likely to prove a boon for Yeltsin in his efforts to retain Western support for the duration of Russia’s presidential election campaign. By adopting a position so retrograde, the Communists undermined much of their positive public relations work in the West and allowed Yeltsin to portray himself as a statesman, a moderate, and a defender of the sovereignty of the other CIS states.


Accusations that the Duma vote would undermine Russia’s campaign to halt NATO enlargement, moreover, came amid a series of talks on that issue that failed to advance Moscow’s goals. Despite promulgation by the Foreign Ministry of a vaguely softer line on enlargement, Primakov was rebuffed in a Moscow meeting with Hungary’s foreign minister and during a visit to Warsaw. In both cases the two sides spoke amicably of improving general relations and increasing bilateral trade, but Hungarian and Polish leaders firmly reiterated their intention to pursue full NATO membership. NATO’s secretary-general, meanwhile, arrived in Moscow March 19 to continue the alliance’s efforts at easing Russian opposition to enlargement by simultaneously offering Moscow a special relationship with NATO. Perhaps not coincidentally , the presidents of Poland and the Czech Republic chose March 19 to admonish NATO jointly that enlargement should proceed regardless of opposition in Moscow.


Washington welcomed Boris Yeltsin to a peacemakers summit in Egypt March 13 . But Yeltsin’s denunciation of international terrorism and his willingness to work with the West in the battle against it included a strongly-implied quid pro quo requiring Western acquiescence to Russia’s brutal military operations in Chechnya. Indeed, a Chechnya-inspired anti-terrorism decree issued March 7 by Yeltsin represented a potential threat to civil liberties in Russia. And proclamations the same day in Moscow that Russia supported Iran’s efforts against terrorism suggested that Moscow and Washington might be operating on very different assumptions in that arena. Russia’s presence at the summit, in fact, appeared to be part of a broader strategy aimed at reasserting Moscow’s influence in the Middle East. Other irritants in the U.S.-Russia relationship included differences over the comprehensive test ban treaty, U.S. suspicions that Moscow had conducted a nuclear test explosion on Novaya Zemlya, and an ongoing flap over Russian threats to ban U.S. chicken imports.

Russia’s relations with Western Europe were also subject to strains. A series of trade disputes led the EU to dispatch its foreign affairs commissioner, Hans van den Broek, to Moscow. But the March 17-19 visit seemed unlikely to resolve fully a growing bellicosity in Moscow on such issues that is driven by the Russian presidential campaign. Finally, the enduring divide in Europe between those favoring engagement and those urging censure with regard to Russia was also evident as conservative European party chiefs condemned Moscow March 13 for striving to veto NATO enlargement and for continued human rights abuses in Chechnya.

"The Fortnight in Review" is prepared by Senior Analysts Elizabeth Teague

(Russia), Stephen Foye (Security and Foreign Policy), and Vladimir Socor

(Non-Russian republics).