25 years ago, the demise of the Soviet Union all started with a hunting trip in Belarus involving Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and Ukraine’s Leonid Kravchuk.

Russian first President Boris Yeltsin makes a speech from atop a tank in front of the Russian Parliment in this August 19, 1991. Photo: AP

The article is first published at The Guardian's The New East network.

The Belavezha Accords, which were signed in Belarus 25 years ago in December 1991, broke up the Soviet Union and launched its constituent republics on the path to statehood.

But Stanislav Shushkevich, then chairman of the Belarus Supreme Soviet, had no plans “to bring up the question about what the Soviet Union is and how it should exist” as he went to meet Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and President Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine at a state resort in the Belavezha forest.

He had invited Yeltsin to a hunting trip there to try to secure Russian oil and gas supplies for Belarus during the impending winter. In the end, both the hunting and the energy talks gave way to more serious matters.

As the delegations gathered, they realized the political crisis would have to be solved first. After the August 1991 hardliner coup against Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts at reform, the Soviet Union had become “essentially ungoverned,” Shushkevich said.

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The agreement they signed started the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose alliance of 11 of 15 former Soviet republics. But its greatest achievement was dissolving the U.S.S.R. after 70 years without large-scale violence, Shushkevich said. Western leaders had feared that a Soviet breakup would lead to civil war in the nuclear power.

“The important result of the appearance of the CIS was that the divorce [from the Soviet Union] happened without scandal or a drop of blood,” Shushkevich said. “Countries made declarations of independence and started considering themselves independent.”

The legacy of the agreement and its intention to “build democratic, rule-of-law states” in the former Soviet Union remains mixed. After heady democracy and huge economic inequality in the 1990s, Russia under Vladimir Putin has experienced a rise in living standards but a drop in pluralism. Georgia attempted to turn towards the West and make reforms, but a 2008 war with Russia cemented Moscow’s control over the Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Ukraine’s own turn towards to the West led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine, while the rest of the country remains mired in corruption.

In Uzbekistan, the late ruler Islam Karimov’s right-hand man, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, recently won 88.6 percent of the vote in a presidential election that monitors said was “devoid of genuine competition.” Moldova recently elected Igor Dodon, a reactionary pro-Russia president.

Shushkevich blamed the resurgence of Soviet-style political trends on Russia spreading “imperial thinking” that “positions Russia as a big brother.” While he insisted he wouldn’t have done anything differently at Belavezha, he did admit some regrets over what had happened since.

“I’m disappointed because the Belavezha Accords opened big opportunities, but Putin wants to turn this around,” Shushkevich said. “He said the breakup of the Soviet Union was a tragedy, but this is an unacceptable statement, because tens of millions died for this Communist order. We need to make a government for the people, not sacrifice the people for the state.”

During the discussions at Belavezha, the seed for a wide-ranging agreement was planted when the then Russian Secretary of State, Gennady Burbulis, unexpectedly asked whether the others would be willing to sign a statement that “the U.S.S.R. as a geopolitical reality and subject of international law ends its existence.”

Shushkevich jumped on the idea, and the group began hashing out the accords. To avoid the appearance they were “creating a Union of Slavic Republics,” Shushkevich called Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev to invite him to sign. He promised to come but was held up by “technical reasons” in Moscow; later it emerged that Gorbachev had offered him the position of chairman of the Supreme Soviet in the renewed U.S.S.R.

Shushkevich denied rumors that the group went drinking that night in the banya, a kind of Slavic steam bath, saying they had only enjoyed a long steam and massage.

“Yes, it was customary to drink at meetings in the Soviet Union, ‘democratic centralism’ [where binding decisions are made centrally] was also customary, but there was no drunkenness or democratic centralism” at Belavezha, he joked.

Although hunting was only the pretext to gather the leaders together, Kravchuk and the then Ukrainian prime minister, Vitold Fokin, went out the next morning and Fokin shot a wild boar, Shushkevich recalled.

That morning they reconvened and worked out the rest of the agreement. After signing it, Shushkevich called Gorbachev while Yeltsin called the then U.S. president, George H.W. Bush. Shushkevich said Gorbachev hung up on him when he heard Bush had been told about the accords.

Shushkevich became the leader of an independent Belarus, but was defeated by Alexander Lukashenko in the 1994 presidential election. Since then, Lukashenko has resisted many reforms and locked up prominent critics, and the state still controls four-fifths of the economy.

The former leader said he was hopeful change would come with the younger generation, which unlike its predecessors has unfettered access to information. “I’m disappointed that we can’t strengthen democratic principles in Belarus, but we just need to live through this phase,” Shushkevich said. “After revolutions in the West, blood was spilled for a long time, and they fought for the rights they have now, an open society with human rights.”

The article is first published at The Guardian's The New East network.