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Collapse of the USSR: 25 years since the biggest regime change in history

While many link the collapse of the Soviet Union to a failed economic system, few realize that there is much more to the story than meets the eye.

The collapse of the USSR took many people by surprise. More than anything, it was amazing that the disintegration of this military superpower happened without bloodshed.

In 1995, George F. Kennan wrote:

“I find it hard to think of any event more strange and startling, and at first glance more inexplicable, than the sudden and total disintegration and disappearance from the international scene of the great power known successively as the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.”

The most common explanation for the collapse of the Soviet Union in the West is the malaise of the communist system with its unsustainable reliance on five year economic plans and big military spending.

What is less scrutinized, however, is the degree of Western involvement in what can easily be called the greatest regime change in history. As with all regime changes, it appealed to the basic instincts of those who yearned for more power, in the case of the Soviet Union – the leaders of the Soviet republics. If you add to this the support for nationalism offered by Western NGOs from the mid-1980s, you get just the right explosive mixture.

The final “explosion” came in the form of the Belovezh Accord, signed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus on December 8, 1991. The Belovezh Accord essentially annulled the 1922 Treaty on the Creation of the USSR.

While George Bush warned against the rise of “suicidal nationalism” in the Soviet republics, American groups, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the AFL-CIO provided financial assistance to opposition organizations throughout the USSR. In May 1988, the NED, led by Zbigniew Brzezinski, adopted a resolution in support of “national democratic movements crucial for promoting democracy in the former Soviet Union.”

In 1991, NED’s first president, Allen Weinstein, confessed to The Washington Post that: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”

The Washington Post’s article from September 22, 1991, was almost self-congratulatory on the US role in the Soviet collapse:

“We didn’t need the CIA to support Yeltsin’s countercoup. We just needed a telephone operator. Preparing the ground for last month’s triumph of overt action was a network of overt operatives who during the last 10 years have quietly been changing the rules of international politics. They have been doing in public what the CIA used to do in private — providing money and moral support for pro-democracy groups, training resistance fighters, working to subvert communist rule. And, in contrast to many of the CIA’s superannuated Cold Warriors, who tended to get tangled in their webs of secrecy, these overt operatives have been immensely successful.”

“The realm of what used to be called “propaganda” can now simply be called information. The CIA worked hard in the old days to draw foreign newspapers and magazines into its web, so as to counter Soviet disinformation. Frank Wisner, the head of CIA covert operations during the mid-1950s, once remarked that he could play his media assets like a “mighty Wurlitzer.” Today the mighty Wurlitzer actually exists. It’s called CNN.”

In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the “overt operations” were often conducted by people like Allen Weinstein, a former professor at Smith College.

“Weinstein’s career as an overt operator dates back to 1980, when he joined Soviet dissidents in organizing a citizens’ committee to monitor the Helsinki Accords on Human Rights. He quickly became connected with the network of pro-democracy activists who were then beginning to challenge anti-democratic regimes around the world. Soon he was sponsoring conferences for dissidents, arranging visits for them to the United States and otherwise making trouble.”

In Russia, the work of “democracy promoters” was simplified by the national territorial boundaries of the republics and the corruption of the republican leaders, striving for more power and independence from the center, and Yeltsin was surely the most responsible among them for the Soviet collapse. In 1990, after winning the presidential election in Russia, Yeltsin pushed for complete independence of Russia from the Soviet Union. It was just a matter of time before other republics would follow suit and hold their own presidential elections.

After the failed coup in August 1991, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had been dissolved and that provided further impetus for centrifugal forces in the republics. According to Article 72 of the 1977 Soviet Constitution, Soviet republics had the right to secede freely from the Union.

On December 12, 1991, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR ratified the accords on behalf of Russia and at the same time denounced the 1922 Treaty on the Creation of the Soviet Union, effectively seceding from the USSR.

On December 21, 1991, the representatives of 11 of the 12 remaining Soviet republics—all except Georgia—signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, which signified the dissolution of the Soviet Union and established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Finally, on December 25, 1991, the Russian SFSR, now no longer a sub-national entity of the Soviet Union but a sovereign nation in its own right, adopted a law renaming itself the “Russian Federation” or “Russia.”

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