David C. Brooker is a visiting assistant professor in the politics and government department at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut.
As the Soviet Union completed its collapse in 1991, the founding presidents of Soviet successor states found themselves, sometimes unexpectedly, leading independent countries. Except for Boris Yeltsin, and perhaps Nursultan Nazarbayev, these leaders are not well known. Yet, the fact that they were in positions of authority at a time of great change meant that they had the potential to greatly influence the political and economic development of their countries and leave a lasting imprint on their respective countries. This makes studying their backgrounds, who they were and where they came from, important.
The leaders covered in this study are: Askar Akaev 1 (Kyrgyzstan), Zviad Gamsakhurdia 2 (Georgia), Anatolijs Gorbunovs 3 (Latvia), Islam Karimov 4 (Uzbekistan), Leonid Kravchuk 5 (Ukraine), Vytautas Landsbergis 6 (Lithuania), Ayaz Mutalibov 7 (Azerbaijan), Rakhmon Nabiyev 8 (Tajikistan), Nursultan Nazarbayev 9 (Kazakhstan), Saparmurad Niyazov 10 (Turkmenistan), Arnold Ruutel 11 (Estonia), Stanislau Shushkevich 12 (Belarus), Mircea Snegur 13 (Moldova), Levon Ter-Petrossian 14 (Armenia), and Boris Yeltsin 15 (Russia). These individuals will be referred to collectively as the "founding presidents" despite the fact that officially some held an office other than president. Even those who were elected chairperson of a governing council, as was the case in Belarus and the Baltic states, filled a role similar to that of a president and were sometimes referred to as "de facto presidents." This was seen most clearly when Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and Shushkevich met to form the Commonwealth of Independent States. Despite the fact that Shushkevich technically was not the president of Belarus, reports were that the "three presidents" met and effectively engineered the final end of the Soviet Union.
Most of the founding presidents came to their positions through a two-step process. First, they were elected to an executive office by their country's parliament. Second, they ran in and won a popular election. The only ones who did not take this second step were Shushkevich and the three Baltic leaders--Gorbunovs, Landsbergis, and Ruutel. Not only was the manner in which most of the fifteen came into office similar, but so was the timing (table 1). The first step, election by parliament, took place in 1990. There were only three exceptions to this. Gorbunovs was the veteran of the group, first having been elected chairman of the Latvian Supreme Soviet in 1988. The two latecomers were Nabiyev and Shushkevich. Both came into office in September 1991 after their predecessors were kicked out for their behavior during the coup attempt the previous month.
TABLE 1. Date of Elections.
Presidents Election by Parliament Popular Election
Akaev October 1990 October 1991
Gamsakhurdia October 1990 May 1991
Gorbunovs October 1990 --
Karimov May 1990 December 1991
Kravchuk July 1990 December 1991
Landsbergis March 1990 --
Mutalibov May 1990 September 1991
Nabiyev September 1991 November 1991
Nazarbayev April 1990 December 1991
Niyazov January 1990 October 1990
Ruutel March 1990 --
Shushkevich September 1991 --
Snegur September 1990 December 1991
Ter-Petrossian August 1990 October 1991
Yeltsin May 1990 June 1991
Most of the popular elections took place in 1991. …