Leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus stunned the world Sunday by their declaration that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had ceased to exist and that a new Commonwealth of Independent States would take over many of its functions and obligations.
If this indeed happens, those three republics will have staged a bloodless coup that ends the state Lenin and Stalin created with so much terror and suffering. The seat of power would be transferred to Minsk, a city of 1.5 million people that has neither the faded glory of St. Petersburg nor the centrality and history of Moscow. Full of high-rises, badly built in Soviet-modern style after World War II, Minsk would be an apt symbol of the crumbling Communist legacy and the challenges ahead.
As Mikhail S. Gorbachev weakly noted in protest yesterday, the unceremonious way the Soviet Union was junked hardly reflected its founding documents, a 1922 union treaty and a succession of constitutions. But who cares? Even before the three leaders' unilateral action, the Soviet Union had effectively ceased to exist as a federation anyway. It had so totally bankrupted itself that even Mr. Gorbachev's office had to be financed through the largess of Boris N. Yeltsin's Russia.
If the Commonwealth of Independent States becomes a reality, it will facilitate a number of important changes. Open to all former Soviet republics "and also to other states that share the goals and principles of the current agreement," the commonwealth would guarantee extensive economic and political cooperation among the three Slavic anchors of historic Russia. The new capital, for its part, would make it impossible for the old Moscow-based central ministries to linger on. A truly new structure would have to be created.
The next few days should show whether Mr. Yeltsin and his colleagues in Ukraine and Byelarus have enough raw power to make their new commonwealth stick. The idea is opposed by many influential interest groups, from a restive army and the military-industrial complex to millions of bureaucrats now in danger of losing their sinecures.
Mr. Gorbachev also opposes the commonwealth. He voices some valid concerns and marshals several good security-related arguments, some of which are shared by the United States. Yet Mr. Gorbachev is so irrelevant and unpopular at home that few pay attention to what he says. For that reason, Secretary of State James Baker's visit Saturday to Moscow, Kiev, Minsk and possibly other republican capitals is particularly well-timed.
Mr. Baker's main mission is to encourage arrangements under which widely dispersed Soviet nuclear weapons can be secured by responsible central control and dismantled according to agreements. Otherwise, these weapons might end up in terrorist hands inside the former Soviet empire or abroad. The world does not need such a nightmare.