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1991: Gorbachev resigns as Soviet Union breaks up

VIDEO : British politicians pay tribute to Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union for almost seven years and executive president for nearly two, has stepped down from office.

He announced his resignation in a 10 minute speech, broadcast live on television, as the Soviet Union passed into history.

It has been replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The 60-year-old appeared solemn but composed.

"Due to the situation which has evolved as a result of the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent states I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics," he said.

He said he was resigning on a matter of principle, adding the decision to dismantle the state should have been made "on the basis of popular will".

Mr Gorbachev, highly regarded abroad but not at home, listed his achievements.

"Free elections have become a reality. Free press, freedom of worship, representative legislatures and a multi-party system have all become a reality," he said.

Human rights, free enterprise and the removal of nuclear threat were also now in place, he said.

He added that some mistakes had been made but ended by offering his best wishes to the people.

Tributes

Control of the former Soviet Union's nuclear force now passes to Boris Yeltsin, the Prime Minister of Russia which inherits the USSR's permanent seat on the United Nations' Security Council.

The Soviet red flag, bearing the hammer and sickle, was lowered over the Kremlin and in its place the Russian Federation's tricolour was raised.

It was an image mirrored at Soviet embassies around the world.

US president George Bush, who was told of the changes by Mr Gorbachev by telephone, joined other world leaders in paying tribute to him.

America is expected to recognise the existence of Russia tomorrow.

British Prime Minister John Major, speaking at Chequers, said Mr Gorbachev helped make the world a safer place.

In Context
Mr Gorbachev's resignation ended a week of speculation about his political future after Mr Yeltsin announced Russia was taking control of the Union parliament, the foreign ministry and all security organs.

The CIS's creation had been confirmed by 11 Soviet republics at Alma Ata days earlier.

On 8 December the leaders of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus had met in secret to disband the Soviet Union and form a new union and on 21 December eight others joined it.

Mr Gorbachev had attempted to make life in the USSR more democratic, with policies such as perestroika (restructuring,) and glasnost (openness.)

The Soviet system was ultimately unreformable and the changes created a political vacuum in which talk of disintegration of the USSR could grow.

Mr Gorbachev became known as the man who set out to reform the system and ended up destroying it.

Some blamed him for being nave, while others described him as a visionary.


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