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Soviet Collapse Anniversary Marked
December 8, 2001

MOSCOW (AP) - Bitterness. Nostalgia. Pride.

With those contradictory emotions, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus marked the 10th anniversary Saturday of the secret talks that sealed the collapse of the Soviet Union, wrenching apart the communist empire that helped define global politics for three-quarters of a century.

From a hunting lodge in a Belarusian forest, former presidents Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus announced to the world on Dec. 8, 1991 that the U.S.S.R. ``as a subject of international and geopolitical reality no longer exists.''

Their bold new alliance effectively left former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev without a job - he resigned Dec. 25 - and ended Vladimir Lenin's political creation. The accord changed life not only for the former Soviet Union's 290 million people, but for the world beyond.

``I have no regrets,'' said Shushkevich, the former Belarus leader. ``We did everything right. There is not a single letter or line that I would change even now.''

Ukraine's Kravchuk agreed, saying he considers the trio to be defenders of freedom.

``I regret only one thing: we failed to implement what we signed together,'' he said, according to an interview published Friday in Kiev's Fakty daily.

The past 10 years have not been easy for any of the former Soviet republics. From a future that seemed filled with limitless possibilities, Russia under Yeltsin lurched painfully through a series of political and financial jolts to the 1998 economic collapse, when many Russians watched their savings disappear overnight - some for the second time in a decade.

Since President Vladimir Putin came to power, the economy has stabilized, but Russian liberals worry that the new leader in the Kremlin has restored order at the expense of some democratic freedoms.

Ukraine, which stands between Russia and central Europe, has not integrated with the West as quickly as anticipated. President Leonid Kuchma's government has been dogged by accusations of incompetence and corruption, while relations with Moscow remain tricky. Ukraine's 50 million people are sharply divided between Ukrainian nationalists and those with close cultural ties to Russia.

Belarus is the least reformed of the former Soviet republics. President Alexander Lukashenko has suppressed opposition and media, turning Belarus into something of a pariah state in Western eyes. He is openly nostalgic for the days of the Soviet Union, and he is hardly alone.

Some 72 percent of Russian citizens deplore the breakup of the Soviet Union, according to a poll published Saturday by the independent research center ROMIR. The polling company, which did not give a margin of error, questioned 2,000 people across Russia ahead of the 10-year anniversary.

The Soviet Union was headed for collapse when Yeltsin and the other leaders gathered in the Belarusian woods, but few anticipated the cataclysmic changes their talks would bring. Employees of the forest reserve recalled that it began ordinarily enough: the leaders relaxed and visited the banya, a Russian steam bath.

``On the second day began the work to pull apart the union,'' a report Friday in the newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta quoted one employee, Sergei Balyuk, as saying.

Shushkevich recalled that the agreement was signed by 2 p.m. Then phone calls were made - to President Bush the elder and Gorbachev. Yeltsin reached Bush first, something that still rankles many in Russia.

The pact, which created the Commonwealth of Independent States as a much looser replacement for the Soviet Union, topped television broadcasts and grabbed newspaper headlines around the world.

``It is impossible to cross the U.S.S.R. out of history,'' said Shushkevich. Similarly, ``The agreement we worked out and signed can't be crossed out. It is history, it is real history.''

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