MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The powerful Soviet Union may still exist after all — at least on paper.
Former Belarusian leader Stanislav Shushkevich says a historic 1991 document that proclaimed the death of the Soviet Union is missing from the archives.
Shushkevich discovered that the document was gone while working on his memoirs. He said he believes it was stolen — possibly by a former Belarusian official — probably with the intention of selling it to a collector.
"It's hard to believe the disappearance of a document at such a level, but this is a fact," Shushkevich told The Associated Press.
Officials with Belarus' government and the Russia-dominated alliance of ex-Soviet nations confirmed late Wednesday that they only have copies.
"We don't know where the original is," said Vasily Ostreiko, the head of the archive department of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which has its headquarters in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. "We have a copy of that document. It's certified in line with international standards, but it's still a copy."
The document's disappearance reflects the chaos that surrounded the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union, a superpower of 300 million people that sprawled over nearly a dozen time zones and encompassed what is now 15 nations.
On Dec. 8, 1991, Shushkevich hosted Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk for secret talks at a government hunting lodge near Viskuli in the Belovezha Forest. The trio signed a deal declaring that "the U.S.S.R. has ceased to exist as a subject of international law and geopolitical reality" — defeating Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts to hold the Soviet Union together.
The agreement also announced the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose alliance joined by nine other Soviet republics that month.
Gorbachev resigned on Dec. 25, 1991, and the Soviet Communist empire that ruled with an iron fist for almost 70 years ceased to exist.