On December 8, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a subject of international law and as a geopolitical reality. The presidents of the three Slavic republics, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, which had contributed almost seventy years before to its foundation, declared its dissolution at the Minsk meeting.
At the time of its constitution, sanctioned by the 1922 treaty, the Soviet Union had four entities: the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), Ukraine, Belarus and the Transcaucasian Federation. Through internal divisions, which led in 1924 to the creation of new republics in the Central Asian territory of the RSFSR and to the dissolution in 1936 of the Transcaucasian one, and following the annexation of external territories, the USSR came to count 15 republics: the three Slavs (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine); Moldova, the ancient Bessarabia located between Ukraine and Romania, occupied by Stalin in the aftermath of the Second World War; the three republics formerly belonging to the Transcaucasian federation (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan); the three Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), annexed in 1940; the republics of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan).
The crisis of the Soviet system has its roots in the failure of Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to get the so-called perestroika off the ground, the system of political-economic reforms that he started in March 1985, when he became secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. From the beginning a contradiction was revealed which in the following years was to lead to dramatic tests and definitive results: that between the extraordinary variety and diversity of the economic, social and cultural forces that thanks to perestroika they were coming to light, presenting their requests and their protests, and the almost absolute lack of legislative instruments that could be concretely used to guarantee, with the defense of the interests of the various social forces, the safety and continuity of perestroika as a radical reform, albeit internal to the system. Inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts manifested themselves in various republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia) and various National Fronts were born which gradually acquired mass bases and made their own slogans of an ever more clearly separatist type. What was missing was above all a project for a reform of the unitary state, capable of coping with the disintegrating forces. There was talk of transforming the Union into a Federation or a Confederation of independent states, if not a sort of Commonwealth, but in fact the conservatives nestled in the party structures prevented any concrete start of the reform. Gorbachev himself, moreover, still thought that the Union could survive the collapse of the political-social system.
Inter-ethnic conflicts became more and more serious. The confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan for Nagorno-Karabah (a territory inhabited mostly by Catholic Armenians, inserted in Azerbaijan following an agreement in 1923 between the USSR and Turkey) was added to the contrasts that exploded in the Georgia: Tbilisi claimed independence from Moscow and the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia demanded separation and annexation to North Ossetia, bordering but belonging to Russian jurisdiction. At the same time in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the national fronts, through large popular demonstrations, proclaimed the annexation to the USSR of the three Baltic republics and the referendums held subsequently were void, and they pronounced themselves for the full independence of their countries. Nationalistic movements also appeared in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.
From the shores of the Baltic to those of the Black and Caspian seas, the danger of the disintegration of the unitary state was concretely presented. Meanwhile, beyond the borders of the USSR, starting from the first weeks of 1989, a series of sensational events brought all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in rapid succession – under the pressure of perestroika., as well as due to the worsening of internal crises and the pressures of public opinion and opposition movements – to leave the Soviet system. The leaders of the USSR were taken by surprise by the character of a radical break with the past soon assumed by the ‘1989 revolutions’. In that year it became clear that in all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, regardless of the way through which the democratic revolution was taking place (dialogue between the central power and the opposition, as in Poland, or popular uprisings now peaceful as in Czechoslovakia, now violent and pushed to dramatic outcomes as in Romania), however, we were moving towards radical transformations of the economic, social and political system characterized in the first place by the conquest of full independence from USSR. In short, the international system of Soviet socialism was collapsing.
The process of crumbling the system advanced with relentless rhythms. The Communist Party of Lithuania proclaimed its independence from the CPSU on December 29, 1989 and the example was followed by the Communist parties of the other Baltic republics, while the Communist parties loyal to the central leadership organized the Communists of the Russian minorities separately.
On 17 March 1991 a referendum on the maintenance of the Union, albeit ‘reformed’, on the basis of a model not yet defined, ended with a success of the yes. Only apparently, however, was it a victory for the Moscow ruling group. Six republics – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia – had not participated in the vote, and others – Ukraine and Belarus in the first place – were preparing to take decisive steps towards the proclamation of independence.
With the clear aim of blocking the attempt to revive perestroika and above all to prevent the start of the reform of the state through the signing, set for 20 August 1991, of a pact between the republics of the USSR based on the recognition of their sovereignty, on 19 August an attempted coup was carried out, with the participation of the president’s closest collaborators. The behavior of Gorbachev – of which the coup leaders tried to obtain the complicity -, forcibly detained in Crimea together with his family, and above all the decision by which Boris Yeltsin from the seat of the Russian Parliament, who on 12 June of that year was been elected president of the Russian Federation,
Gorbachev was able to return to Moscow, but the situation had completely changed. The dualism of power between a Gorbachev increasingly weakened and forced to suffer the continuous pressure of Yeltsin, and the latter who with a series of decrees restored flags and symbols of Russia, suspended the activity of the CPSU and requisitioned its seats, imposing his men in all key points, ended in a few weeks. On 8 December the representatives of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, to which the representatives of Kazakhstan were later joined, formally proclaimed the end of the Soviet unitary state and invited Gorbachev to acknowledge it and leave power. One after another all the republics of the USSR that had not yet done so proclaimed their independence,
In order to reassure not only the other republics but, beyond the borders of the former USSR, the United States and European countries, worried about the persistence of a confused situation in such a vast territory, crossed by bloody conflicts and strewn with weapons of nuclear extermination, Yeltsin took the initiative to give life to new and stable forms of connection and collaboration between the former Soviet republics. On 21 December 1991, eleven of them (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan; Georgia joined in December 1993) formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Gorbachev, who up to the end had defended the idea of a unitary state, left the Kremlin on the evening of December 25, 1991.