Stanislau Shushkevich, the first head of state of independent Belarus, one of the three leaders who signed the December 1991 agreement declaring that the U.S.S.R. had ceased to exist, and a staunch opponent of strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has died after being hospitalized for complications caused by COVID-19.
Shushkevich died on May 4, his wife, Iryna, said. He was 87.
A soft-spoken professor of nuclear physics who became a staunch and steadfast advocate of democracy, Shushkevich played a pivotal role in one of the most important events of the 20th century before largely disappearing from the world scene -- but remaining a resonant voice of dissent as his autocratic successor, Lukashenka, tightened his grip on the nation of nearly 10 million.
On December 8, 1991, Shushkevich, then the chairman of parliament, met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk at a resort in a forest in western Belarus and signed the Belavezha Accords, which effectively dissolved the disintegrating Soviet Union while creating the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev resigned on December 25 and the U.S.S.R. was no more.
In an interview with RFE/RL in 2016, Shushkevich said that the three leaders had done the right thing, arguing that the Soviet Union had essentially collapsed following the failed hard-line coup against Gorbachev in August 1991 and that the Belavezha Accords avoided a “Yugoslav scenario,” a reference to the wars that ravaged the former multi-ethnic Balkan country in the 1990s.
WATCH: Twenty-five years after signing an accord that effectively dissolved the Soviet Union, the first leader of independent Belarus, Stanislau Shushkevich, told RFE/RL that action had to be taken to avoid a "Yugoslav scenario."
He expressed great respect for Yeltsin, calling him a close friend and a “true supporter of democracy” who advocated a level of autonomy for Russia’s regions and enabled free media and political opposition to flourish at home.
The economic trauma and social upheaval that accompanied the demise of the Soviet Union swiftly undermined advocates of democratic reform and opened the door for Lukashenka, a former state farm chief who beat Shushkevich and other candidates in a 1994 presidential election after a campaign in which he railed against crime and corruption.
“The transition from one political system to another is a very hard period. It is very easy to abuse it and say that hardships come from the new developments,” Shushkevich later told RFE/RL.
“You don’t even have to be very clever to do that. You can be like Lukashenka and just say that democrats have ruined everything,” he said.
Shushkevich was born in Minsk to parents with peasant backgrounds in 1934, in the midst of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s rule. His father, a journalist and a poet, was arrested in 1937 as an “enemy of the people” and spent eight years in the gulag. He was released in 1946 but arrested again in 1949, and he worked as a woodcutter in Siberia until 1954.
After studying physics at university, the younger Shushkevich began working on product design at a radio factory, where he came into contact with one of the most infamous Americans of the 20th century.
Lee Harvey Oswald, the presumed assassin of U.S. President John Kennedy, had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and before returning to the United States spent two years in Minsk, where he wound up working at the same plant. Shushkevich was put in charge of teaching Oswald Russian.
In April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine contaminated large swaths of nearby Belarus, displacing tens of thousands of people and sickening many, and Shushkevich took up the cause of those affected by the accident and the Soviet government’s botched response.
It was the beginning of a political career that would flourish with the collapse of one authoritarian regime and falter as another took hold less than a decade later.
Gorbachev’s political reforms in the late 1980s opened the door for Shushkevich to enter public office.
With the backing of the Belarusian Popular Front (BNF), a newly established opposition group, Shushkevich was elected in 1989 to the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union and in 1990 to the Supreme Soviet of Belarus – the parliament -- where he was chosen as first deputy speaker.
WATCH: Former Belarusian President Stanislau Shushkevich says no one has been a more willing servant to Moscow than current Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka. His comment came in a 2016 interview with RFE/RL's Anna Sous.
After the failed coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, several top communist figures in Belarus stepped down, including the speaker of the Supreme Soviet. As interim speaker, Shushkevich presided over the August 25 declaration of independence, and he was formally elected as speaker in September.
Like the heads of the other Soviet republics that gained independence in the U.S.S.R.’s collapse, Shushkevich faced tough political and economic challenges from the start. Belarus needed a new constitution and currency and had to work out a new relationship with Russia, including what to do with Soviet military bases.
Shushkevich agreed to turn over the nation’s nuclear weapons to Russia, calling it one of his most important legacies. He did so without demanding any compensation or conditions, unlike Kravchuk, who demanded Moscow first recognize Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
In an interview in 2016 with RFE/RL, Shushkevich defended his decision, saying that the nuclear warheads stored in Belarus were close to the surface and could be targeted by enemies, wiping his country off the Earth. Ukraine’s, on the other hand, were located deep below the surface, he said -- presumably a reference to the difference between road-mobile ICBMs and those in silos.
Over the next two years, as Belarus worked on a new constitution -- wrestling over whether to have a parliamentarian or presidential political system, among other things -- Shushkevich sparred with Prime Minister Vyacheslau Kebich, a future rival for the nation’s top office.
Meanwhile, in the background, Lukashenka, a member of the Supreme Soviet, was plotting his path to power. Tapped to head a parliamentary committee set up to investigate corruption, Lukashenka delivered a report to the nation on live television in December 1993, six months before Belarus held its first presidential election.
During his three-hour presentation, Lukashenka gave the impression that Shushkevich and Kebich had encouraged and benefitted from corruption, damaging their image while bolstering his own, Brian Bennet, a former British ambassador to Belarus, wrote in his book The Last Dictatorship in Europe.
Days after hosting U.S. President Bill Clinton in Minsk in January 1994 and less than two months before the new constitution was approved, putting a system with a powerful presidency in place, Shushkevich was removed from his position following a vote of no-confidence.
He nonetheless ran for president in June 1994 on a platform of democratic values, coming in fourth behind Lukashenka, Kebich, and BNF founder Zyanon Paznyak, with 10 percent of the vote. Lukashenka, who at 39 was a generation younger than his main competitors, beat Kebich by a landslide in the runoff. Shushkevich remained in parliament until 1995.
Lukashenka quickly constructed an authoritarian regime, jailing opponents, muzzling the media, stamping out competition, stifling dissent, and prolonging his time in office through elections and referendums that international observers said were not free, fair, or democratic. He barred Shushkevich from running for parliament in 2004.
Shushkevich remained a vocal critic of Lukashenka, speaking at street protests, and founding and leading a social-democratic party, and supporting opposition candidates in the deeply compromised presidential and parliamentary elections that Lukashenka used to extend his power.
Six years ago, Shushkevich told RFE/RL that Lukashenka would sacrifice the nation’s independence to Russia if he felt his grip slipping -- a warning that looks well-founded in light of recent events. Weakened by massive street protests over his claim of victory in an August 2020 election, Lukashenka has become increasingly dependent on Moscow and Belarus hosted troops for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
“For the sake of keeping his hold on power, our current illegitimate -- I repeat, illegitimate -- president will sell off everything, including Belarus,” Shushkevich said in 2016.
Unlike many other former leaders, including others in ex-Soviet republics, Shushkevich received no special accommodation or protection from the government.
He lived in a modest Minsk apartment and received a state pension worth less than $1 a month after Lukashenka’s government refused to adjust it for inflation, a decision many believe was intended to punish Shushkevich for his stance.
Shushkevich, who was forbidden to work in Belarus and supplemented his miniscule state income with fees for lectures and speeches abroad, said in the same interview in 2016 that he wouldn’t “stoop so low as to ask” anything of Lukashenka, whom he called “unscrupulous” and “unintellectual.”
“While I am healthy, I can support myself,” he said.
Shushkevich is survived by his wife Iryna, son Stanislau, and daughter Alena.