The breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was arguably one of the most pivotal and surprising events of the twentieth century. What seemed like a sudden end of the Cold War ushered in a new world, along with new challenges and opportunities. Despite a nearly year-and-a-half process that led to the dissolution of the USSR in December 1991, the end of the mighty Communist superpower still caught many by surprise—in the United States and across Soviet Union itself. To Russian President Vladimir Putin, the end of the Soviet Union was a “major geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century.”
But was the breakup of the Soviet Union really inevitable? It is common knowledge today that indeed, by the end of 1991, there was no way to preserve USSR as it existed for decades after 1922. According to today’s prevailing attitudes, the political, economic and socio-cultural processes brewing in the country since 1986 eventually tore the nation part, and the relatively quick end of the largest country on the planet was more preferable to any alternatives. However, there were attempts made by the Soviet government to extend the life of their country by changing specific aspects of how it could be governed. The “what if” discussions about the end of the Soviet Union are still reverberating across Russia, as country’s intellectuals, politicians and nationalists try to understand what, if anything, could have done to keep their country together and to what ends. If we were to take a closer look at what actually happened, could USSR have actually survived into the twenty-first century?
The Soviet constitution included Article 72 that allowed the constituent republics to secede. However, let's be honest here, if that would really the case then such process could have taken place well before 1990. The reality was very different. The Soviet Communist government would have never allowed its republics to freely leave the country as independent entities. Such a case would mean the permanent weakening of the Soviet state in the “zero-sum” game of the Cold War.
All fifteen Soviet republics were tied and interconnected together by a complicated economic matrix that placed the Russian Federated Socialist Republic (today’s Russia) at the center of all major industrial, economic and political activity across the country. We can hear the echoes of such an arrangement today in a complicated relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Even in the midst of conflict between the two countries, Russian military is still reliant on Ukrainian military products, and Ukrainian factories and industrial conglomerates still reap dividends by selling their technology to the Russians. In fact, Moscow only recently announced that it is capable of “import substitution” of Ukrainian military wares starting in 2018. The Soviet Union held its vast regions and republics together by a system of subsidies and fixed economic quotas, with many of its less developed regions receiving Soviet tech and consumer products in exchange for raw materials and agricultural goods. In some cases, Moscow supplied both finished and raw materials to make up for lack of industrial base and economic development in certain regions.
As the Soviet economy showed signs of a major slowdown in 1980s, the population and many of the USSR’s policy makers became restless. Recently enacted Soviet policies that encouraged political openness and discussion unleashed forces that were shaking the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party and undermining the very foundations of the state. Fast forward to December 8, 1991. The dissolution of the country was made possible by the so-called Belavezha Accords that took place in Belarus. The heads of three Soviet constituent republics—Russia, Ukraine and Belarus—signed the document that officially dissolved USSR. The signers actually referred to the afore-mentioned Article 72 of the constitution that allowed for “peaceful” secession from the state. To be clear, this was a decision neither made after canvassing the general population nor announced publicly months in advance. As the shock of the Belavezha decision still reverberated across around the world, another summit took place on December 21, this time in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan. There, the heads of the eleven of the Soviet republics (minus Baltics and Georgia) finally dissolved what was left of the Soviet Union. No doubt that the second summit was underwritten by the earlier Belavezha Accords, which laid the legal foundation and a final precedent for the eventual and irreversible dissolution of the USSR. On December 25, 1991, in a Christmas gift to the United States and its allies, the Soviet flag was lowered in the Kremlin and replaced with a current Russian tri-color, ending the Cold War and ushering in a new and uncertain world.
What could have been
In hindsight, the bulk of the Soviet population wanted to preserve USSR in some shape or form. But such preservation and eventual survival of the Soviet state required different management, with a more decisive government apparatus ensuring that it was not challenged by alternative political or ethnonational models. Prior to the August 1991 coup that gravely weakened then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and propelled Boris Yeltsin to prominence, the Soviet government debated the merits of a Union of Sovereign States (USS). On March 17, 1991, a popular referendum was held in the nine Soviet republics—Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. The vast majority of voters supported maintaining the federal system of the Soviet Union. Following the results of the referendum, the Soviet central government signed an agreement with its nine republics on April 23, 1991. Following the full implementation of this treaty, the USSR would have become a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy and military. How that arrangement would have worked in reality is difficult to answer, considering major political and social changes already taking place across the country. By August 1991, nine republics, except Ukraine, approved the draft of the new treaty. Unfortunately for Gorbachev and his last-ditch efforts, the Soviet hardliner August 1991 coup permanently sidelined him from political stage and ended any further efforts to reform the country.