The Wilson Quarterly

History does not have a subjunctive mood. There are no alternatives to the past, only what actually happened. But to those who make history, the choices are unlimited, as is the burden that comes from knowing that each decision can affect millions of lives, and change the course of a nation, a region, or the world. Twenty-five years ago this fall, the Soviet Union dissolved. As foreign minister of Russia, I saw it happen, and I saw what came next.

President Putin has called the end of the USSR the major geopolitical catastrophe of the last century. This is far from the truth. The Soviet Union occupied more than one-sixth of the global landmass. When it ceased to exist, the region it dominated was placed on the precipice of chaotic disintegration and war. But through the heroic efforts of the new governments of the former Soviet states, catastrophe was avoided.

With the signing of the Belavezha Accords on December 8, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and I found myself in a new country. The Russian Federation emerged as an independent state with fourteen new sovereign nations on its borders. The three former Soviet republics on the Baltic sea — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — had gained their independence in September, 1991, and were embraced by the club of Western democracies. For the other new states, the direction they would choose was far from clear. Shaping relations with the new nations and with the countries of Eastern Europe formerly included in the sphere of Soviet domination would in many respects amount to shaping the future of Russia itself. As Russian foreign minister, that would be my task.

A UN Peacekeeper on a devastated street in Mostar (Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina), during the Bosnian-Croat war of 1992-1994

Photo courtesy of Flickr

The stakes were unprecedentedly high. Along with Russia, three other newly-independent states held nuclear arsenals comparable to England, France and China, and the future of those weapons was in doubt. For two years the world had observed with horror and a sense of helplessness the bloody and atrocious wars between the successor states of Yugoslavia, another former federated state whose collapse was a prelude to the Soviet Union’s. If the post-Soviet nations followed in Yugoslavia’s footsteps, the nuclear dimension would produce a war of unthinkable horror. Add in the stockpiles of chemical weapons also dispersed over large territories, and it was not unreasonable to imagine the apocalypse. Because thousands of those nuclear bombs were sitting atop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, the problem was truly global. Finding a different path that would save us from repeating the Yugoslavian precedent and ensure peaceful relations between newly independent states that substituted the USSR was of paramount importance, but also of monumental difficulty.

Numerous political difficulties stood in the way of Russia integrating with the West, but developing a framework for cooperation with the new states presented formidable challenges. All of them strived to cut any reminders of dependency to the imperial center, while looking for new ways of cooperation based on strong humanitarian, cultural and economic ties. Both we in Moscow and they in their respective capitals had little opportunity for analysis as we pushed forward into an unknown future. First and foremost, it was vital to prevent the post-Soviet states from turning against one another in a horrible disaster such as Yugoslavia was undergoing, with the added potential for a nuclear war. Second, we tried to shape new forms of cooperation in as many fields and as strongly as possible.

Twenty-five years ago this fall, the Soviet Union dissolved. As foreign minister of Russia, I saw it happen, and I saw what came next.

The Belavezha declaration on the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) provided a cornerstone for our efforts to turn potential conflicts into opportunities. It was done through the many bilateral and multilateral treaties and declarations signed in 1991 and 1992, and through the numerous non-treaty meetings in 1992 that cemented personal relations and increased familiarity with and transparency about major problems. In this way the political aspects of building relations with the near abroad states were supported by organizational forums, which in turn strengthened personal ties and recognition among leaders.

On the political front, the Foreign Ministry faced absurd charges that it was neglecting the newly independent states because of its obsession with the West. The charges were mounted by the opposition, which sought a neo-imperial policy and, when one was not forthcoming, dismissed the new foreign policy as weak and ineffectual. Parts of the media also failed to take the former republics seriously in the context of foreign policy, writing them off as “near abroad” states. This appellation, which became popular around 1991, was seen by those countries not as a reflection of their “brotherly” ties to the Russian people, but as a denial of their full independence by Russian imperialists. I avoided using the label as much as possible.

The difficulties we faced implementing the new foreign policy were not just political but also logistical. No one from the old Soviet Foreign Ministry specialized in newly independent states, since up to that point matters pertaining to the Soviet Union’s constituent republics had fallen under the aegis of the Communist Party apparatus. Some individuals with knowledge of the former republics might have been found among the party bureaucrats. A bit reluctantly, we offered positions to a few of them, but they refused. Most had joined business or research institutions and disliked the nation’s new direction. I asked a democratically-oriented parliamentary deputy, Feodor Shelov-Kovediaev, to take the post of first deputy foreign minister and handle relations with legislators and the former Soviet republics. Shelov-Kovediaev had accompanied Yeltsin to Kazakhstan in August 1991, and I had noted his sound judgment on relations with neighbors. During the August putsch he defended the Russian White House, along with the other democratic deputies. At first Yeltsin was reluctant to support his candidacy because Shelov-Kovediaev was not trained in diplomacy, but he agreed to it when I pointed out that no other career diplomat had expertise in dealing either with parliament or with the other republics.

Feodor proved to be instrumental, especially in the initial and most difficult period of 1992. He undertook the monumental task of organizing from scratch a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) department in the ministry, recruiting diplomats to serve on assignment to the newly independent states. That was a tough one. We needed the best people to engage the new and somewhat fragile governments of the CIS countries on matters pertaining to a shared future, including such critical issues as security, peacekeeping, and managing a common currency, but the best people did not want to go. Traditionally, assignments to Western countries had been regarded by Soviet diplomats as the most prestigious—and it didn’t hurt that they were also the most profitable, since those diplomats, called “Westerners,” received their salary in the hard currency of the country of service, while those posted to Eastern European nations were paid in the soft currency of the socialist economies. In a typically perverse Soviet manner, the Communist diplomats had privately preferred “enemy” countries rather than Soviet allies, even as they vehemently argued for the opposite. This entrenched attitude did not change even when the need for duplicity went away, and many Soviet diplomats continued to prefer serving in the West to helping to shape the new relationship with the CIS.

We offered accelerated promotion and other incentives to the young diplomats who volunteered to go to the CIS countries, and by mid-summer Feodor had a working structure with good staff to address the challenges of the post-Soviet space. Yet he also seemed drawn to Western directions of policymaking, particularly the sessions of the disarmament committees, which were held in Geneva. I offered him a week in Geneva in the spring so that he could gain an idea of how established international bodies worked, and he soon became a frequent visitor there. This came to the attention of the press and Yeltsin, who asked me about it. I referred to the ministry’s need to acquire international experience to apply to problems in the CIS, but even to me that reasoning sounded unpersuasive.

The problems were exacerbated by the second assignment in Fedor’s portfolio, managing relations with parliament, where the opposition attacked the ministry on its handling of CIS issues. Although the attacks were politically motivated, ginned up as part of a larger power struggle, it was difficult to argue with the many parliamentarians who felt that the first deputy’s frequent trips to the West suggested a lack of focus, and the president soon fired him. On my initiative, a veteran diplomat, Anatoly Adamishin, who had been the Soviet Union’s ambassador to Italy, replaced him, doing the job more professionally, if with less passion and political vigor.

Building of the Government of the Russian Federation in Moscow in the evening

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

On January 8, 1992, the foreign ministers of the CIS countries gathered in Moscow to follow up on the December summits. Over the next twelve months this type of collective ministerial meeting occurred more than twenty times. There were also six meetings of heads of state and countless conferences involving ministers of defense, finance, economy, and education. While few of the dozens of resolutions passed were ever implemented, the frequent contacts and declarations of good intentions helped build a tight network of personal ties and led to smaller-scale arrangements that were successfully implemented and did much to promote mutual trust.

The region was at a tipping point, and unfortunately, despite initial success, the democratizing forces inside the Russian government did not succeed.

Almost all the heads of state knew each other from Soviet times, when they had met in the corridors of the Communist Party headquarters in Moscow. That shared background created a peculiar sense of comradeship that was nonetheless shadowed by old rivalries and scores yet to be settled.

While some republican leaders seemed more than willing to continue the old Soviet game of extorting subsidies and economic concessions from “Big Brother” Russia, they also had not forgotten their humiliating subjugation, and were keen to reject strong coordinating institutions. The failure to build such institutions right from the start, though perhaps unavoidable, contributed significantly to the failure of the reform movement and to the subsequent fate of the republics.

Yet some decisions were of historical significance. The most important related to unified control of the armed forces inherited from the Soviet Union. The last Soviet minister of defense, Marshal Evgenii Shaposhnikov, was appointed commander in chief of the CIS strategic forces. That smooth transition helped prevent chaos as the new states took control of the old military structures on their territories and created new national armed forces. Even in Russia, our own command and control took two to three months to establish, and the minister of defense was not appointed until April.

Russia also gradually took under its flag some military installations and forces outside its borders in areas of civil and ethnic conflict in Tajikistan, Georgia, and Moldova. Otherwise those troops, flatly defying the local government and remaining loyal to a nonexistent Soviet Union, could have become leaderless and thus extremely dangerous in an unstable environment.

“Rally on Shakhidon square”. The proclamation of independence in Tajikistan was followed by an entho-religious armed conflict for power in the country.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Although the new Russian commanders—initially former Soviet commanders who agreed to recognize the new authority in Moscow—could be biased and unable to stop corruption, they provided a degree of discipline and most of the time avoided getting involved in fighting. Some units under the Russian banner did play a constructive role in stabilizing conflict situations and protecting civilians, as did 201st Army Division in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, during the civil war there in 1992–1993.

Preventing the former Soviet troops and the new national armies from being drawn into local hostilities was of immediate concern to the CIS. The CIS states undertook a mission of stopping and preventing those “mini-wars” through a united effort, which was an enormous step toward constructive cooperation. At a March 20, 1992 summit in Kyiv an agreement was reached to set up a corps of military observers and collective units for peacekeeping operations on CIS territory. A set of guiding principles was drawn up that was consistent with the UN Charter and practice—yet another indication of the readiness of the new leaders to respect standards of international law. Though in practice, joint peacekeeping operations mostly boiled down to providing a CIS top-off to Russian operations, since the other member-states faced difficulties contributing troops and money, they played an important role in making mandates and missions more balanced and international than they would have been otherwise. In a different development, on May 15, 1992, the presidents of nine states signed the Tashkent Treaty, aimed at establishing a collective security system.

Strengthening the legal basis of the CIS and any institutions based on it was another ongoing concern of the CIS. By the end of 1992, they were able to agree on a charter for the CIS. This fundamental document defined both the major goals of further integration and mechanisms for attaining them. It was signed at a summit of CIS nations on January 22, 1993. The CIS Charter formed the basis for the Treaty of Economic Union, signed by the heads of state on September 24, 1993, and for a document establishing the Interstate Economic Committee, which was signed in October 1994. Thus considerable positive diplomatic and basic legal work was done and a degree of cooperation was achieved in many fields.

Maintaining a common currency, however, was one goal that could not be sustained. Although most CIS states had agreed to do so initially, their very different developmental trajectories and Russia’s astronomical inflation in 1992-1993 proved insurmountable barriers. Nonetheless, striving to strengthen integration, Yeltsin frequently urged the republican leaders to stay in the ruble zone, even as the Russian financial authorities were scheming to get rid of their weaker partners, which they regarded as dead weight. The uncontrolled emission of rubles by the other CIS states caused further chaos. Over the course of 1991 and 1992, one by one the new states introduced their own currencies. The controversial and disorderly manner in which the common currency of the ruble was broken dealt a major blow to ambitions of preserving a high level of economic integration and of cementing mutual reliance in planning future development.

While wrestling with the unprecedented task of recharging relations among the former Soviet republics in the new cooperative framework of the CIS, we had to face the question of what to do with the strategic nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union, which was now spread among four states: Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Each of them boasted more nuclear power than France, Great Britain or China.

During intensive multilateral and bilateral discussions in the first few months of 1992 we ironed out the technical aspects of a new arrangement for control and possible use of nuclear weapons. The black attaché case with the nuclear codes would remain with the president of Russia, who would consult the heads of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine in case of an alert. In principle, all three non-Russian states accepted the obligation of ridding their territory of nuclear weapons and joining the Treaty on Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons signed by majority of UN member-states in 1968. Most importantly, all three agreed to be non-nuclear states in accordance with the Non-proliferation treaty. Also, all agreed to move the tactical nuclear weapons immediately to Russia and to begin doing the same with the strategic missiles and bombers.

Belarus was the first to step up to the plate, signing the respective agreements and undertaking practical measures to remove the nuclear weapons and strategic materials from its territory. Kazakhstan followed suit after two to three months of hesitation, which was prompted in part by President Nazarbayev’s ill-calculated idea to try to bargain either with Russia or the United States for some political or financial gain for giving up the share of the Doomsday Machine on Kazakh territory. Hesitations and bargaining dominated the Ukrainian approach, and the issue of demilitarizing its Soviet-era supplies became woven into a knot of other intractable problems in Russian-Ukrainian relations.

In October 1991 the Russian vice president Alexander Rutskoi had gone to Kiev to negotiate the price of Russian natural gas exports to Ukraine, and through Ukrainian territory to the West and Turkey. On that visit he also claimed Russian control and ownership of the Black Sea fleet, based in Sebastopol, and, indirectly, Russian sovereignty over the whole Crimean Peninsula.

Alexander Rutskoi served as the only Vice President of Russia from 10 July 1991 to 4 October 1993.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When the authorities in Kyiv pushed back strongly, as expected, Rutskoi publicly warned them against stubbornness in dealing with Moscow, which had nuclear weapons and the ability to claim sovereignty over Crimea both on historical grounds and because of the large ethnically Russian population living there. Ukraine’s answer to such a blackmail attempt was that it too had nuclear weapons and would defend its borders by all means. Since that unhappy episode in rude diplomacy, the possession of nuclear weapons and of Crimea became linked in the minds of Ukrainian politicians, reducing to a minimum their cooperation in the sphere of nuclear weapons containment.

Rutskoi’s statement was the first threat to the prospect of a smooth denuclearization of Ukraine and the establishment of friendly Russian-Ukrainian relations. The real knockdown blows were inflicted by two similar resolutions claiming Crimea for Russia that were passed by the Russian Federation parliament in April 1992 and March 1993. Each time, despite firm denials of territorial claims by the Russian president’s office and the Foreign Ministry, Ukraine’s parliament redoubled the force of its public rebuttals. These incidents were followed by a hardening of the positions of Ukrainian diplomats at the negotiating table, and a freeze on working on the future of nuclear sites. The Russian ability to deal with Ukraine was effectively crippled, and it turned for help to the United States.

Aggregating all Soviet-era nuclear weapons under Moscow’s control and command was in the interest of international community, in accordance with the principle of nuclear nonproliferation, and we had to work together to solve it. The key lay in the hands of the “nuclear club”—the United States, the UK, France, and China. With them we coordinated the effort of denuclearizing Ukraine and Kazakhstan. That was a priority at my meetings with the U.S. Secretary of State Jim Baker, the UK foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, and the French foreign minister Roland Dumas, who visited Moscow during January 1992. The topic also dominated my private meetings in New York at the Jubilee session of the UN Security Council, which for the first time in fifty years included heads of states and governments. I spoke with the foreign ministers of all the members of the nuclear club, who promised to make it clear to the newly independent nations that abandoning the nuclear option was a prerequisite for further relations with the Great Powers. China’s position was of particular importance for its neighbor, Kazakhstan.

A further step was taken in May with the active participation of Secretary Baker at a Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) ministerial conference in Lisbon. The foreign ministers of all three republics signed an agreement to become non-nuclear states. Also in Lisbon an international effort was launched to keep the former Soviet nuclear scientists busy in Russia and other CIS countries so that they would have fewer incentives to work on contract for countries such as Iraq or Iran. It was dubbed the “KGB initiative,” for Kozyrev, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the foreign minister of Germany, and Baker.

The Budapest Memorandum and International Guarantees for Ukraine

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Thus a solid international foundation was laid for successful resolution of the delicate and vital problem of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This process culminated in Budapest on December 5, 1994 when the Russian Federation, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom signed the Budapest Memorandum. These documents provided security assurances to the three countries in exchange to their accession to non-proliferation. By the end of 1996 all nuclear weapons were removed to Russian territory. Thus the three former Soviet republics lived up to their obligations under the Memorandum. Unfortunately it was not the case with Russia, which in 2014 annexed Crimea, which in the time the Memorandum had been signed was part of the Ukrainian territory. Article 1 of the Budapest Memorandum demands Russia “respect Belarusian, Kazakh and Ukrainian independence and sovereignty and the existing borders.”

Only recently liberated from the Soviet camp as a result of Gorbachev’s “new thinking”—his pivot toward resolving global problems through appealing to shared moral principles rather than reiterating old saws about the eternal Marxist-Leninist struggle against capitalism—the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe were more sensitive to developments in Russia than were their Western neighbors. Their leaders were grateful for Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost in the USSR, which had helped break the back of the Communist regime in their countries and open the way for liberation. They were also aware that Gorbachev had not dismantled the sturdy pillars of the Soviet system, such as the Communist Party itself, the KGB, and the military-industrial complex, and that, though deposed, Gorbachev continued to pledge allegiance to socialism.

“Germany becomes one country” October 3, 1990; the German Democratic Republic is falling under the FRG's Constitution. The message on the wall: "Thank you, Gorbi"

Photo courtesy of RIA Novosti

In practical terms, the Eastern European countries in the final years of the Soviet Union suffered from a disruption of economic ties with the Soviet Union, which amounted in some cases to the lion’s share of foreign trade. This trade was not easily replaced. The weakened economic ties stemmed in part from Moscow’s policy of punishing the former satellite countries for radically switching geopolitical orientation from East to West. Almost all of the satellite countries expressed a desire to join the European Community (now the European Union) and NATO as soon as possible. Under Gorbachev’s new thinking, the punishment for such defection no longer entailed the use of military force, as had happened in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, but still was sufficient to tether the Eastern European states in their search for new relations with the West. As the democratic movement in Moscow gained strength during 1991, they cautiously looked to reviving relations with Yeltsin’s government on a new basis.

I regarded the new European democracies as natural allies in overcoming the Soviet legacy and building a new society. In foreign policy terms they were the best candidates to build a bridge from the CIS to the West. They would be faster to democratize and to introduce market reforms, and in a sense they could lead the way for Russia. This bridge strategy proved productive. Its long-term success, however, would require new Russia’s unreserved condemnation of the Soviet past, which was also the desire of the governments in those countries. Understandably they wanted the old practices of the Soviet Union to be publicly repudiated by Moscow.

In 1991, while the Russian Federation was still part of the Soviet Union, the newly elected president of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, was the first foreign leader to invite Yeltsin on a visit with a protocol equal to that usually provided to heads of independent states. This first official visit, carefully prepared as a historic encounter of Russian democrats with their allies and predecessors in Eastern Europe, was a significant foreign policy achievement for the reformers in Moscow and for Yeltsin personally. Boris Pankin, the Soviet ambassador to Prague, acting on his own and risking the wrath of Gorbachev and the Soviet ministry, accompanied Yeltsin, which helped make the visit look more official. Yeltsin used the visit to unambiguously condemn the Soviet intervention in 1968, when tanks rolled into Wenceslas Square, putting an end to the Czechoslovak government’s liberalization reforms and the Prague Spring.

Yeltsin was received with respect, which culminated in an invitation from Havel to join in a glass of beer in one of Prague’s pubs. Yeltsin panicked, thinking it was a veiled reference to his own drinking, but I assured him it was simply a symbolic gesture of friendship. A few days later I was able to show him press clippings confirming that the pub episode had been positively received all over the world, even by the opposition press in Moscow.

In April 1992 Havel came to Moscow on a return official visit. A treaty of friendship and cooperation was signed that referred to relations of equality between the two nations based on freedom of choice and shared democratic values. Again, and this time in writing, the 1968 intervention was deplored as an unjustified use of force, inadmissible in international relations. The withdrawal of Soviet armed forces from Czechoslovakia was confirmed and related financial and material matters were dealt with. As in other similar cases, Russia was returning camps and buildings occupied by the Soviet army while the other side agreed to help with an orderly evacuation.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) inviting President Vaclav Havel (right) of Czechoslovakia to proceed to the hall of negotiations during Vaclav Havel's official visit to Moscow.

Photo courtesy of Alamy

The treaty signed with Havel, an outstanding and widely respected figure, provided an introduction for Yeltsin to a club of democratic world leaders and laid a solid basis for a new opening with the Eastern European states. It was also immediately challenged by the opposition in parliament under the pretext that it went too far and could lead to legal claims of reparations from other Eastern European countries. That possibility, however, had been anticipated and carefully avoided in wording worked out with the Czechoslovaks, who understood that new Russia should not become a scapegoat for the Communist Soviet Union.

In the same fashion, a new treaty of cooperation that included strong but legally nonbinding language condemning the Soviet intervention was signed during Yeltsin’s visit to Hungary in November 1992. I was impressed by his willingness to make symbolic gestures of departure from the Soviet legacy. The Russian president went to the grave of Imre Nagy, a Hungarian liberal prime minister whose attempts at freeing Hungary from the grip of the Soviet Union had led to the repression of October 1956, and his own execution. Yeltsin laid a wreath during an official ceremony, apologized for the invasion and handed over documents from the Communist Party and KGB archives related to it.

Tragically, twenty-five years later, Russia finds itself an authoritarian country with a weak economy dependent on the price of oil and other raw materials.

After the formal events he spoke to the press, and his spontaneous remarks conveyed emotional outrage over the Soviet Union’s brutality and injustices. Only later did it occur to me that with his straightforward rejection of Russia’s Communist past on his trips abroad, Yeltsin may have been trying to compensate for what he was about to do to the democratic movement in Russia. For the Communist and “centrist” opposition had finally wrung concessions from him, which he would announce at the upcoming parliamentary congress on December 10, when he would also fire his first deputy head of government, Yegor Gaidar.

Ironically, in Hungary, the Gaidar government had started to demonstrate some efficacy in foreign economic affairs. During Yeltsin’s visit the total amount of the Russian debt to Hungary was agreed on as $1.7 billion and a model of repayment was set up. Half of the payment would come in the form of military hardware, including spare parts for Soviet weapons being used by the Hungarian army, and settlements were reached on the provision of other material goods and energy. This agreement cleared the way for the reactivation of economic ties between the two countries, and Russian-Hungarian trade quickly rebounded.

All in all, despite economic and financial problems, relations with Eastern Europe in 1992-1993 not only improved after the backlash against the Soviet period but were put on a solid footing on the basis of bilateral treaties. A new partnership, with emerging democracies and markets integrating into Europe and the North Atlantic community, began to take shape. I maintained a friendly rapport with the Hungarian foreign ministers Géza Jeszenszky and later László Covács, who played instrumental roles during the Budapest summit, not only in strengthening the international body but also in helping me and the U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher reach an important agreement on a number of issues.

Oil pumps of Lukoil company in Russia

Photo courtesy of Oleg Kozlov/Shutterstock

Before the controversy over NATO expansion overshadowed Russian relations with Eastern Europe in 1994, the main problems in those relations were in the economic sphere. The emerging Russian private business sector was more interested in selling oil and other mineral resources to the West for hard currency than in trying to restore cooperative ties, which in many cases had been built on administrative-political decisions dictated by the desire to keep the Eastern European nations within the sphere of Soviet influence and uncompetitive in open-market conditions. Clearly, the new economies forming on both sides of the divide were looking not backward, to barter arrangements and cumbersome currency rates, but ahead, to participating in Western European markets with hard currency and quality standards. Russia and its former socialist partners had to undergo deep internal market-oriented reforms before economic ties could be developed on the new basis. The same applied to the rest of the former Soviet republics, where the change was deeper and more painful.

Unfortunately, political and managerial mistakes rendered the transformation even more difficult. With the happy exception of Hungary, slowness and inefficiency in the financial and economic branches of the Russian government and some of the Eastern European governments proved major stumbling blocks to increasing trade with the other republics. Moreover, with the loss of Yegor Gaidar, the Russian economic authorities largely changed from a cadre of young reformers to veteran bureaucrats under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and Russia gradually returned to its old habits of punishing pro-Western regimes and favoring neo-Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe and in the post-Soviet space of the near abroad countries. Different financial and trade instruments were brought to bear for this purpose, even if the results were at odds with Russia’s own interests—and they were always counterproductive in the long run.

For all these reasons, an agreement settling the debt issue with the Czech Republic was reached only in May 1994, three years after Havel’s visit to Moscow. Even more striking was the delay in reaching an agreement with Bulgaria. The president of Bulgaria, Zhelyu Zhelev, came to Moscow on an official visit to the Russian Federation in October 1991. Since it was not a visit to the still extant Soviet Union, he did not meet Gorbachev, but he and Yeltsin signed a declaration of cooperation that established full diplomatic relations with Russia. The treaty of friendship was concluded in August 1992 at the summit in Sofia, yet an agreement settling Russia’s small debt of $100 million was reached only in May 1995. The Polish president Lech Wałęnsa and Yeltsin signed a new treaty of friendship and cooperation in Moscow in May 1992, but the mutual debt claims waited three years for resolution, when they were simply written off by agreement of both parties.

I had anticipated a gap between political and economic improvement—foreign policy would normally precede foreign economic policy—but did not expect it to be so striking. My concept was that once foreign policy had opened the door to better relations, trade and investment would follow. And the Russian Foreign Ministry did its job, proving there were no insurmountable obstacles to Eastern European countries being the good friends of a democratic Russia and a bridge to the West. However, there were many internal political impediments to realizing economic change. A favorite canard of Russian neo-Soviet politicians is that the Eastern European nations cannot be friendly to Russia on a voluntary basis because they look to the West, not the East. When Russia was looking to the West too, which to my mind is in that country’s best interest, the Eastern Europeans were not turning their backs on Moscow. On the contrary: they were politically ready to work together, benefiting from economic cooperation, which expanded as market reforms took hold.

In reality, it was Russia that turned its back on those countries, at the same time that it turned its back on the West and revived the image of NATO as an enemy. I remain convinced that sooner or later Russia will again start looking to the community of the most advanced European nations, where it belongs, and will be able to draw on the reservoir of good will embodied in the treaties we signed in the early 1990s.

Unfortunately, Moscow put the brakes on both Russia’s integration into the democratic community and reforms at home. For this reason, Russia did not become an attractive partner in modernization, lagging behind not only the Eastern European and Baltic states but even some CIS countries. More and more conducting itself like a diminished Soviet center, Russia tried instead to buy the loyalty of its less-developed neighbors with subsidized oil deals while threatening all of them, in particular the most advanced, with its neo-imperialist ambitions. To my mind the prospects for CIS reintegration suffered not so much from the so-called shock reforms of Gaidar’s cabinet, which might indeed have been handled more smoothly, but from their abridged and unfinished character, owing to the stubborn resistance such reforms faced in Russia.

The backbone of the resistance was presented by those industrialists known as “red directors”—old-style managers not only of military but also of civilian plants, in both Russia and in former socialist states. The red directors had begun having difficulty finding a niche for their factories in the new, much more open markets. They looked back with nostalgia on the Soviet administrative distribution system, which guaranteed cooperative manufacturing ties and a certain demand, however reluctant, for their products in any part of the former Soviet Union and very often in Eastern Europe. Mostly those networks had been rendered obsolete long ago as they had been thrown together without much attention to cost or productivity effectiveness and thus were resistant to modernization. Neither the end products nor the production chains had any chance of surviving in a competitive environment, especially if they had to go up against high-quality Western production systems.

The red directors were inclined to blame their difficulties on the independence of the former USSR republics and Eastern European nations, rather than on the failings of their factories and the old system. In keeping with the simplistic Soviet approach to socioeconomic problems, which was based on command and enforcement, they kept demanding that the new authorities in Moscow reestablish the old network and conditions. They also supported politicians who promised to accomplish this impossible mission, or at least protect them from Western competition.

Oddly enough, the red directors were soon joined by many “new Russian” businessmen opposed to opening the post-Soviet markets to Western capital. As a result of the slowness and ambiguity of reforms in Russia, they profited from the shady trading of oil, metals, and other commodities, buying them from the red directors at low domestic prices or in barter swaps and exporting them to world markets for discounted but still several times greater prices. Even when they gradually started to take control of production they felt far from assured of their property rights, and preferred to stick to quick black- or gray-market profits rather than build modern corporations. Former KGB and police officers took an active part in such businesses by providing protection, which gave them a new economic and financial base.

That new business-industrial-security complex feared foreign interference and hated Western standards. It saw the West as a threat not so much because of its support for human rights and democracy but because of its open market competition and transparency. As in Soviet times, Russia’s new businessmen wanted petrodollars from the West but rejected Western “interference.” Freed from Communist censorship, they enjoyed spending those dollars for villas in London and on the French Riviera and at ski resorts in Courshavel and Saint Morris; and, of course, some petrodollars went into accounts in Western banks. These were the “neo-Soviets” or “new Russians.”

The business-industrial-security complex quickly consolidated and soon had achieved a critical mass of economic-financial and police-state power sufficient to boost the political opposition in 1992-1993 and commence a step-by-step takeover.

On November 17, 1992, the main opposition newspaper Pravda reported my appeal, addressed to the West and to democrats in Russia, to mobilize so as not to “miss the chance to transform the post-Soviet space into a zone of democracy and free market.” In other words, the paper went on, I wanted to guarantee the free access of multinational capital and corporations to former Soviet Union states and the Eastern European countries. This interpretation was aimed at the economic concerns of the opposition’s power base, while its political paranoia manifested in the next paragraph: “Splitting into pieces the former socialist camp … Kozyrev in effect is paving the way for the expansion of a new American empire.”

More sophisticated critics preferred to wrap the same message in more modern terms. They accused the “young reformers” in government of breaking “historical” ties with important economic partners and the Foreign Ministry of abandoning the “traditional” zone of Russian interests in Eastern Europe thanks to its obsession with a pro-Western direction of economic and foreign policy. Unhappy with the nature of the new relations based on the treaties signed in 1992 they kept calling for “restoring balance,” by which they meant reversing course.

The neo-Soviet policy in Eastern Europe was damaging the prospects of improved relations with that part of the world and was perhaps an even worse choice for Russia itself. Counterproductive in terms of preserving special ties with the former satellite countries, it also fed false imperial aspirations in Moscow power circles infected by the “lost empire” syndrome. Most important, it was rooted in the legacy of the Cold War, dividing Europe into East and West in military-political and socioeconomic senses. Only in this light could the Eastern Europeans be seen as defectors to the West and the West as aggressively advancing into Moscow’s zone of interest.

The nostalgia for empire played into the hands of the forces of revenge and isolationism. And the renewed isolationism fed hostility toward Russia’s joining any Western institutions. The key resistance point of the opponents of Russia’s new foreign policy, and specifically of the bridge concept, would be expressed in their attitude toward NATO.

With the help of the United States and Western Europe the Russian Federation made a special effort to join the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which could provide considerable financial recourse and expertise in building a market economy. At first this initiative was praised by Russian public opinion, but soon the Communist opposition and the old-style bureaucracy started to criticize those institutions as weak, unhelpful and poorly managed. Such criticism was common in both developed and developing countries, and was not always groundless. Yet in Russia it had a distinctive ideological anti-democracy and anti-free-market tincture. The economic reformers in Moscow made only weak and sporadic attempts to explain the benefits of cooperation with world bodies. Some bureaucrats in Moscow deliberately added to the confusion in order to divert attention from constant accusations of corruption in the distribution of funds. As a result, the World Bank and the IMF became symbols of the West’s mistreatment of Russia in a large part of Russian media from the mid-1990s on.

Nevertheless, pragmatic financial and trade interests pulled Moscow toward Western institutions and toward closer ties with the European Community. The bridge concept did work, and the concept was defendable in the eyes of reasonable public opinion. From early 1992 we constructively discussed both with these countries and with the European Community how to minimize the negative aspects and maximize the positive aspects of such integration for Russia.

In a word, the rapprochement of Russia with and the integration of Eastern European states into Western economic institutions was reluctantly accepted even by neo-Soviet forces as inevitable.

The long-standing antipathy toward NATO was another matter. Unlike other Western institutions, NATO was a military-security alliance formed specifically to counter the Soviet Union and was the organization most hated and demonized by Communist propaganda. The residual adversarial attitude toward NATO was cherished by the military-security complex in Russia as the last line of defense of its concept of the world, which guaranteed it a privileged position in the power structure of the “seized fortress,” be it called the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation.

The alternative to that defensive attitude was for the military and security forces of democratic Russia to partner with their Western counterparts in fighting common enemies—terrorism, drug trafficking, and so on. Of course, that would require a deep reform of those Russian institutions, for which cooperation with NATO would be helpful. And it could be achieved only under robust and determined political leadership. I spoke with Yeltsin about it more than once, but he preferred to retain personally loyal but politically neutral ministers of defense and police, as well as the conservative chief of the foreign intelligence service, who entertained the usual prejudices against NATO.

World leaders during a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Warsaw, Poland

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Under these circumstances NATO-related issues had to be dealt with in a particularly careful manner. I discussed some of my concerns confidentially with both the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration and felt assured of sensible cooperation in handling the NATO problem. Similar discussions took place with the Eastern European leaders, who recognized that their desire to join NATO would have to be realized in stages and likely in concert with Moscow’s moves.

Lech Wałęsa, the president of Poland, was the source of an awkward NATO moment for Yeltsin. Like Havel, Wałęsa was an outstanding new leader who came out of the anti-Communist opposition, though unlike his Czech colleague, the Polish president had not an intellectual but a worker’s background. In dealing with Yeltsin he preferred to put on the straightforward, if not rude, manners of a simple but earnest guy, foreign to bureaucracy and diplomatic intrigue. He sensed a kindred soul in Yeltsin, who for his part liked to be seen as the “Russian bear,” at times compensating for a lack of political consistency and diplomatic sensitivity with decisiveness.

Thus, on a visit to Warsaw on a hot August day in 1993, Yeltsin saw no problem when Wałęsa invited him to a private dinner in a country residence in “simple and friendly” format: one-on-one, with no protocol formalities, aides, or note-takers. Well after midnight I was woken by a call from the president, which was unusual. When I walked to Yeltsin’s apartments he could hardly utter a few words of apology for the late-night call and said that he had agreed with Wałęsa to insert a new paragraph into the prepared text of a political declaration scheduled for a signing ceremony the following morning. He handed me a piece of paper with ragged handwriting on it, and said no more.

Apparently the Polish leader had resorted to a trick used by Kazakhstan’s president Nuruslav Nazarbayev and some other CIS bosses, who used to drag Yeltsin to private tête-à-têtes, preferably dinners, that featured hard drinking. In between friendly toasts they would persuade him to make promises and sign papers on concessions, mostly on trade and financial matters. By the time Wałęsa tried the technique it had largely been abandoned by others, because we had learned to sabotage or reverse those decisions after Yeltsin had had time for sober reflection. In the end, such practices left only a residue of bitterness, and were counterproductive. Wałęsa probably did not know that.

When I read the new paragraph I was of two minds. The passage explicitly endorsed the intention of Poland to join NATO as soon as possible and committed Russia to support it. In principle that was the right thing to do, and I could only congratulate Yeltsin on such a straightforward approach. But it was dangerously premature.

In practical terms, Russia, Poland, and other former Soviet states were at an initial stage of learning to work together with NATO in the framework of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, which was formed in 1991 to give potential candidates some idea of how the organization worked and its mission. There were stages in the admission process that those states could not simply jump over. Some time would be needed to ease the transition for the military, especially in Russia, and to demonstrate to them and to the Russian public the benefits of cooperation with the former enemy. A statement like the one Wałęnsa proposed would wake the sleeping dogs to no practical purpose. I was convinced that in the case of NATO, Russia as major military power and former adversary should be the first to establish a solid framework of new cooperative and alliance relations.

The following day at dawn I had two versions of the affected part of the declaration prepared, one including the Yeltsin-Wałęsa text and the other providing a more general formulation, saying that Russia recognized the right of Poland, like that of any sovereign nation, to join any multilateral bodies it chose, including NATO. I spoke to Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, and together we went to Yeltsin, who needed Alka-Seltzer more than anything else. After a brief discussion he agreed to the second version, but felt awkward in going back on his word with the Polish leader. We pointed out that the declaration had been negotiated and approved by both sides at the highest level in advance, as is normal practice in international affairs, and changing it would only impede its solution in the future. After some bargaining Wałęsa accepted the milder formulation, but then started to tell everybody how I had tried to sabotage Poland’s joining NATO.

Soon the matter of the new Eastern members joining NATO, known as NATO expansion, became the most explosive and damaging issue in relations between Russia and the rest of Europe. It was actively exploited by resurgent neo-Soviet forces in Moscow. Most important, we lost all ability to calmly discuss the matter and find a solution without politicized domestic pressures, which immediately heated up in Russia. The Warsaw “Not Only Tea Party” should be included in history books as a classic example of poor timing, and the unexpected fallout of excessive boozing.

* * *

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (right) and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev (left) during the Russian president's visit to Canada

Photo courtesy of Alamy

After the Belavezha Accords were ratified, a deputy asked me for my projection on the future of the CIS and the whole post-Soviet space. I told him that everything depended on Russia. If we stuck to market-oriented democratic reforms, and were able to integrate into Europe and the larger Western community, the former Soviet Republics would follow our lead. But if we chose a different path, I warned, reforming sluggishly or, worse, succumbing to neo-imperialism and animosity towards the West, the former Soviet Republics would do the same, and would become unreliable and troublesome neighbors. In the worst case, there could be a replay of the Yugoslavia catastrophe. The region was at a tipping point, and unfortunately, despite initial success, the democratizing forces inside the Russian government did not succeed.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Russia slid towards the second path, and the post-Soviet space followed suit. Tragically, twenty-five years later, Russia finds itself an authoritarian country with a weak economy dependent on the price of oil and other raw materials. Surrounded by similar unreliable partners, it is closing up into a kind of fortress, antagonizing the West and any former Soviet Republics that strive to move towards Western Europe. In the cases of Georgia and Ukraine, the confrontation has become violent. The threat of a Yugoslavia-style disaster still lingers, but there is cause for hope. The first path, of reform and democracy, is still open to Russia—and sooner or later she will take it.

* * *

Andrei Kozyrev was the Foreign Minister of Russia under
Boris Yeltsin, 1991-1996. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Wilson Center.

Cover photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev

Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev

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