In A Nutshell
The Belavezha Accords, the agreement that officially dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991, is missing. The loss wasn’t discovered until Stanislav Shushkevich, former head of Belarus, requested to see the document as preparation to write his memoirs. Shushkevich believes the document was probably stolen by someone who sold it to a collector. Although it hasn’t been tested in court, it’s believed that existing notarized copies of the agreement have the same power as the original to enforce the breakup.
The Whole Bushel
After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he began to implement changes in the USSR that seemed revolutionary, yet no one expected the breakup of the Soviet Union. First, Gorbachev introduced glasnost, meaning “political openness,” that allowed citizens and newspapers to publicly criticize the government. Political prisoners were also freed. Next, Gorbachev set about restructuring the economy with reforms called “perestroika.” This privatized a lot of economic activity that had previously been run by the state. Individuals could now own companies and workers could strike.
It seemed like the Soviet Union was making strides toward democracy. But it didn’t really work. Perestroika destroyed the Soviet economic state, but market reforms were slow to rebuild the economy. Goods became scarce and people became frustrated. “The old system collapsed before the new one had time to begin working,” explained Gorbachev.
Together with his policy of noninterference toward the Soviet satellites, the stage was set for independence movements all around. In the early 1990s, the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia were the first to break away from the USSR. Next, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed when the Republic of Belarus, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine left the USSR. Then, except for Georgia (which declared independence two years later), the other republics broke away within weeks. On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist.
After such a monumental occurrence, you’d think all parties involved would keep the original paperwork somewhere safe. However, the Belavezha Accords, the agreement that officially dissolved the Soviet Union and established the CIS in 1991, is missing. The loss wasn’t discovered until Stanislav Shushkevich, former head of Belarus, requested to see the document in 2013 as preparation to write his memoirs. Shushkevich believes it was probably stolen by someone who sold it for a lot of money to a collector.
On December 8, 1991, Shushkevich had secretly met with Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Belarus to sign the Belavezha Accords. According to the agreement, there were supposed to be three originals in the languages of Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Russian. But for some unexplained reason, each of the leaders was only given a certified copy of the agreement in Russian. The only original document, which is now missing, was placed in the archives of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.
Pyotr Kravchenko, the foreign minister of Belarus in 1991, was given the original of the agreement for safekeeping. Although he’s bragged about having all the drafts of the agreement, he refused to comment when it went missing. “We don’t know where the original is,” said Vasily Ostreiko, the head of the archive department of the CIS, headquartered in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. “We have a copy of that document. It’s certified in line with international standards, but it’s still a copy.” Although it hasn’t been tested in court, it’s believed that existing notarized copies of the agreement have the same power as the original to enforce the breakup of the Soviet Union.