The referendum on the preservation of the Soviet Union, held on March 17, 1991, was a desperate attempt by the authorities to stop the ever-accelerating process of disintegration by appealing directly to the people. Although more than 70% voted to keep the USSR, the process had passed the point of no return and the referendum was powerless to stop it. In addition, Russian Federation officials led by Boris Yeltsin had coalesced to form a powerful opposition to Mikhail Gorbachev and his allies by early 1991.
They did not pursue secessionist plans, at least not deliberately or consistently: instead their actions were grounded in their struggle against the Kremlin and aimed at maximally weakening the Union’s leadership. Yeltsin’s stroke of genius was a parallel referendum, with Russians voting simultaneously for the preservation of the USSR and for establishing the post of an elected president of the Russian Federation. In June 1991 Yeltsin was elected president, thus gaining greater legitimacy than President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev, who dared not hold a public vote and instead had been elected by the Congress of People’s Deputies the previous year.
The referendum was only a relatively reliable indicator of the “people’s will”, as events in Ukraine in December 1991 proved: 90% backed independence even though as recently as March 70% had voted to retain the union state. A referendum in a politically unstable and democratically immature society does not give a real picture of people’s desires: it is an instrument of manipulation and political intrigue.
The possibility of creating a Union of Sovereign Republics survived until the August 1991 coup, but there would only have been a slim chance that a union along those lines could have stopped the process of dissolution. A USR could only have been an intermediary phase of the redistribution of power in favor of the republics, which would have eventually raised the question of independence. Had an agreement to establish a USR been signed, it would have alleviated the nature and consequences of the USSR’s dissolution, above all in economic terms, but it would not have prevented it.
Today’s attempts to spur integration among the former Soviet republics are in no way connected to the events of 20 years ago. Modern integration principles are based on common economic and security interests. It takes time and effort for an awareness of these common interests to arise, because the post-Soviet republics, already accustomed to sovereignty, are wary of proposals that involve sharing it.
The ties that bind Russia and Kazakhstan together are extremely important in this respect. Should their leaders express the intent, and follow through on it consistently, we could eventually see heightened interest in integration across Central Asia and in Belarus. But the other ex-Soviet countries are unlikely to favor real integration in the near future because of the serious economic and political commitments it would entail.
Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-chief, Russia in Global Affairs, Member of the Presidium, Council on Foreign and Defense Policy