Moscow, 9 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Five years ago yesterday, an agreement was signed that dissolved the Soviet Union and created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). But the anniversary passed in Moscow with few protests or celebrations, underlining the ambivalence of many towards that historic day.
On December 8, 1991, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus gathered at a hunting lodge in Belovezhskaya Pushch in Belarus and signed a communique announcing that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.
The agreement changed the lives of many, leaving 60 million people stranded in "foreign" countries. But few took note of the anniversary, except for a small band of communist supporters who held a protest rally in the center of Moscow yesterday.
One protester described the agreement to dissolve the Soviet Union as tragedy. As he put it: "Look what has happened since then? Wages are not paid, people are going hungry."
The small protest was a far cry from last spring, when the communist-dominated Duma passed a resolution denouncing the agreement to dissolve the Soviet Union.
Although the critics were relatively quiet yesterday, the architects of the agreement came out in defense of their actions.
Former Belarusian leader Stanislav Shushkevich, in an interview with the Russian daily "Komsomolskaya Pravda" yesterday, said it was wrong to view the Belevezh agreement as the main cause of the Soviet Union's collapse. He said the union had already effectively ceased to exist, and that the meeting's participants had simply had enough courage to declare that fact "de-jure."
Shushkevich said the crafters of the agreement had tried to save the parts of the Union that were salvageable. But he said the collapse of the Soviet Union was unavoidable. He had harsh words for former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was not invited to the momentous meeting, saying his "inaction" and fumbled attempts to rescue the Union were to blame for what happened.
Shushkevich said the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which groups all the former Soviet republics except for the Baltic states, was the most "honorable" way out of the crisis.
Shushkevich dismissed critics of the agreement who said the collapse of the Soviet Union made little sense at a time when Europe was unifying. But he said the CIS could do more now to move beyond ideological dogmas and discuss concrete measures for cooperation.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in an interview with Interfax news agency on Friday, also defended the agreement and called for the pace of integration between CIS member states to be speeded up on the basis of what he called a "balance of interests."
Yeltsin said the CIS had established the framework for cooperation, but he said that was not enough. In particular, he called for increased military cooperation between member states in order to guarantee "stability and security."
Yeltsin denied that the CIS was an attempt to resurrect the Soviet-era empire and characterized it instead as an alliance between countries which have close historical ties and common interests.
Yeltsin also defended the much-criticized union agreement forged between Russia and Belarus as a model of good relations between CIS member states.
But five years after the creation of the CIS, it is only Belarus that is clamoring for deeper integration with Russia. In contrast, Moscow had been bogged down in disputes with Ukraine over the division of the Black Sea Fleet.
Some analysts believe Russia's union agreement with Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka may actually undermine long-term integration between the two countries. Andrei Piontowsky, an analyst with the Moscow Center for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL that Lukashenka, by pushing ahead with the agreement through undemocratic means, has actually discredited the idea of cooperation with Moscow in the future. As he noted: "Lukashenka will not rule Belarus forever."
Piontowsky also said that although some in Russia may push for further integration between the former Soviet republics, the CIS is no longer the vehicle for integration.
"It was an instrument for a peaceful and civilized divorce," he said. "It has fulfilled its role."