Declaring Death of Soviet Union, Russia and 2 Republics Form New Commonwealth

By Serge Schmemann
The New York Times

Moscow, Dec. 8, 1991 -- The leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia declared today that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and proclaimed a new "Commonwealth of Independent States" open to all members of the former union.

In a series of statements issued after a two-day meeting at a Byelorussian government retreat, the leaders of the three Slavic republics declared void all efforts to create a new union on the ruins of the old one. But they called for the creation of new "coordinating bodies" for defense, foreign affairs and the economy that would have their seat in Minsk, the capital of Byelorussia, and decided to maintain the ruble as the common currency.

They declared that the "norms" and activities of the former union ceased as of the moment of signing, and that the new commonwealth assumed all international obligations of the Soviet Union, as well as control over its nuclear arsenal.

Gorbachev's Move

"The U.S.S.R., as a subject of international law and geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence," the leaders declared. [Text, page A8.]

The action essentially stripped President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of his office and authority, and the immediate question was whether the tough and tenacious Soviet leader would resist -- and if he did, whether the military or other levers of power would support him.

The three cofounders of the new commonwealth -- President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia, President Leonid M. Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich, Chairman of the Byelorussian Parliament -- were scheduled to meet on Monday with Mr. Gorbachev and with Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan and the unofficial spokesman for the Muslim republics of Central Asia.

Portents of Disaster

Mr. Gorbachev had no immediate reaction. But in a taped interview with French television broadcast today, he argued fervently that the consequences of dismantling the union would make the war in Yugoslavia "a simple joke by comparison."

The Central Asian republics had all indicated an interest in retaining some form of union, and it was not immediately clear why Mr. Nazarbayev was excluded from the Byelorussian declaration, or how he would respond. Arriving in Moscow today, he declared that he was still in favor of preserving an association, and at least in maintaining joint control over the nuclear arsenal.

The predominantly Slavic republics declared that they drew their authority to dissolve the union from the fact that they were its original cofounders. They and the Trans-Caucasus republic, later divided into Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, were cosigners of the original 1922 treaty that created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The "sphere of joint activity" assigned to the new commonwealth, however, resembled the functions that Mr. Gorbachev had sought for his new "union of sovereign states": responsibility for foreign policy, development of a "common economic space," "customs policies," transportation and communication systems, the environment and the battle against organized crime.

One major difference was that the three core Slavic republics, which together account for 73 percent of the population and 80 percent of the territory of the Soviet Union, were now inviting other republics to join, not to negotiate, a new association.

It was a stance certain to irritate the Muslim and Caucasian republics, but also one that stood to curtail the endless bickering that characterized inter-republican negotiations since the coup.

Clean But Dangerous Slate

Another major difference was that the move to Minsk and the formal disbanding of the old union cleared the slate of old structures and bureaucracies, freeing the participating republics of the need to haggle with Mr. Gorbachev and the old ministries over the new order they meant to shape.

But the approach had its own dangers. If Mr. Gorbachev was one potential source of resistance, others included the potent military-industrial complex and the trade unions, which could feel threatened by new masters dedicated to reducing the budget.

Resistance could also come from national parliaments and nationalist movements, especially in Ukraine, which could see in the agreement a trick to revive the old union under a new sauce.

Yet the commonwealth appeared to be the most practical compromise. It disassociated itself from Moscow, it created a core of the most important republics, and it blocked the disintegration that threatened to destroy critical intra-republican economic ties.

Ruble Coin of Realm

The agreements called for coordinated economic reforms, echoing fears in Ukraine and Byelorussia that the impending reforms in Russia would create havoc with their prices. They declared the ruble to be the currency of common commerce, and they called for mutual agreement before any new currency was introduced, responding to Russia's fear that a separate currency in Ukraine would flood Russia with excess rubles.

And they declared the Chernobyl disaster site a common responsibility, touching on the fears of all three republics that the damaged nuclear power plant would be left untended.

The leaders pledged that existing borders would remain open and unchanged, and they vowed to respect each other's sovereignty and "observe international norms of human and national rights."

On an issue that has raised considerable anxiety abroad, the leaders said they had decided "to preserve the joint command over the common military-strategic space and the single nuclear arms controlling body." There was no immediate indication, however, how the control would be shared.

Outlining the responsibilities of the central authority they proposed to form in Minsk, the agreement said: "The parties regard the following as the sphere of joint activity: the coordination of external political activity, the formation and the development of the common economic space, the European and Eurasian markets, the customs and migratory policy, the development of the transportation and communication systems, protection of the environment and ecological security, and the struggle against organized crime."

In a statement announcing the creation of the commonwealth, the leaders said that talks on forming a new union treaty had reached an impasse, while the withdrawal of republics from the Soviet Union had become a "fact of reality." The statement placed the full blame for the economic and political crisis at Mr. Gorbachev's feet, pointing out "the center's short-sighted policy."

The three leaders said the new commonwealth would be open to all members of the Soviet Union, "as well as other states sharing the aims and principles of this agreement."

A separate statement on joint economic policy declared that "preservation and development of close economic ties that have taken shape between our states is vitally important in order to stabilize the situation in the national economy and create preconditions for economic revival."

The key provision called on the three republics to coordinate their economic reforms, indicating that Ukraine and Byelorussia would follow Russia's lead in releasing prices and the ruble rate. The agreement, however, raised doubts that Mr. Yeltsin could follow his announced timetable, which called for prices to be freed on Dec. 16.

The proclamation appeared to culminate a process that began last spring, when Mr. Gorbachev finally abandoned efforts to control the union by force and opened negotiations with the republics on a new union treaty.

The Receding Center

Kremlin hardliners threatened by the new arrangement staged the ill-fated coup in August. Instead of blocking the treaty, as they had intended, they undermined central authority and sent republics scurrying to declare independence.

Efforts by Mr. Gorbachev to renegotiate a new union treaty were repeatedly stymied, usually by fears among republics enjoying the first tentative taste of real self-government that any new political or economic agreement would somehow encourage the restoration of the "center."

In the end, it was the strong vote for independence in Ukraine that finally drew the curtain on Mr. Gorbachev's quest. Without Ukraine, both Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin agreed, there could be no meaningful union.

All through the week, Mr. Gorbachev railed against the Ukrainian decision. And in a rambling taped interview with Ukrainian television, broadcast today, he warned that "we are close to the limit behind which anarchy and chaos begin." Today's agreement confirmed anew the growing stature of Mr. Yeltsin as the prime arbiter of the fate of the former Soviet empire. If the Ukrainian vote was the catalyst for his decision, it was his decision to choke off spending by the center and to proceed with radical reform, with or without other republics, that first signaled the end of the central government.

The pain to Mr. Gorbachev, who launched perestroika almost seven years ago and fought a long and bitter political battle with Mr. Yeltsin, was obvious. Associates said his appeals for union were not a struggle for personal power, but an expression of the faith in a renewed union that had guided him throughout his courageous odyssey.

Yet even if Mr. Gorbachev was not immediately capable of appreciating it, the commonwealth that was being formed was not so different from the one he envisioned.
White House Waits

Washington -- December 8, 1991 -- (Special to The New York Times) -- President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia called President Bush at the White House today to tell him about the commonwealth agreement, but the White House declined to release details of that conversation or comment on the agreement.

"Yeltsin promised the President that he would send him additional information about the agreement and we're awaiting that information," said Bill Harlow, a spokesman for the White House.

GRAPHIC: Photo: President Leonid M. Kravchuk of Ukraine, second from left, Stanislav Shushkevich, chairman of the Byelorussian Parliament, third from left, and President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia, second from right, as they signed an agreement yesterday in Brest to form a new commonwealth. (Associated Press) (pg. A8)

Map/Graph: "The New and the Old"

Population, January 1990

Russia: 148 million
Ukraine: 51.8 million
Byelorussia: 10.3 million
Baltics: 8 million
Others: 70.6 million

Consumer Goods, share of production, 1988

Russia: 47.0%
Ukraine: 16.4%
Byelorussia: 1.5%
Baltics: 6.8%
Others: 28.2%

Agriculture, share of total output, 1988

Russia: 46.7%
Ukraine: 22.1%
Byelorussia: 5.4%
Baltics: 4.4%
Others: 21.4%

(Source: The Statesman's Yearbook, 1991-92; U.S.S.R. Facts and Figures Annual, 1991) (pg. A1)

Map of The Soviet Union highlighting republics that have formed a new commonwealth (pg. A1)

Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company