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Stanislav Shushkevich, who steered Belarus to independence during the breakup of the Soviet Union and served as its first leader and became an outspoken critic of the current Belarusian president, died May 4 in Minsk. He was 87.

His wife, Irina, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause. Last month, he was hospitalized for a few days with covid-19.

Mr. Shushkevich was a harsh critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who succeeded him as the new nation’s leader in 1994. Lukashenko has ruled the country with an iron fist ever since, relentlessly crushing dissent.

“We have stability, yes, but it is stability based on fear, based on the killing of people who are inconvenient to the state,” Mr. Shushkevich told the Times of London in 2004. “It reminds me of the stability of a cemetery.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Mr. Shushkevich strongly criticized Lukashenko for allowing Moscow to use Belarus as a staging ground for massing troops and launching the war.

Mr. Shushkevich, a university professor of engineering and physics, became a lawmaker in Belarus during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s political reforms. After a botched hard-line coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, he was elected to lead the then-republic as the speaker of the Belarusian legislature.

On Dec. 8, 1991, Mr. Shushkevich hosted the leaders of Russia and Ukraine at a secluded hunting lodge near the Polish border to sign an agreement that declared the Soviet Union defunct and formed a new alliance of the USSR’s three Slavic republics called the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Two weeks later, eight other Soviet republics joined the alliance, effectively terminating the authority of Gorbachev, who stepped down on Dec. 25, 1991.

Mr. Shushkevich, the head of the republic of Byelorussia, as Belarus was called at the time, spoke about the signing of the agreement with pride in an interview last year with the Associated Press. He called the accord he signed with Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine a “diplomatic masterpiece.”

“A great empire, a nuclear superpower, split into independent countries that could cooperate with each other as closely as they wanted, and not a single drop of blood was shed,” Mr. Shushkevich told the AP.

“We decided to shut the prison of nations,” he said. “There was nothing to feel contrition for.”

Mr. Shushkevich argued that he and the other leaders saw no point in Gorbachev’s efforts to keep the remaining 12 Soviet republics together.

The Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia already had seceded, and the failed August coup against Gorbachev by hard-line Communist Party members had eroded Gorbachev’s authority and encouraged other republics to seek independence.

“All versions of the union treaty boiled down to the restoration of the old ways or to Gorbachev’s proposal of a new structure where he still would be the boss,” Mr. Shushkevich said.

As Belarus’s first post-Soviet leader, Mr. Shushkevich faced daunting challenges amid an economic meltdown and political turmoil that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union.

His popularity waned, and when the country had its first presidential election, in 1994, populist Lukashenko won by a landslide after promising to shore up the crumbling economy, combat corruption and restore Soviet-era social benefits.

Lukashenko marginalized Mr. Shushkevich and his legacy, essentially forcing him by decree to live off an almost worthless pension and by removing his name from history textbooks. He was charged in 2006 with orchestrating an unsanctioned political rally, but a court in Minsk acquitted him.

Mr. Shushkevich was born to parents of peasant background in Minsk on Dec. 15, 1934. His father, variously identified as a teacher, journalist and poet, was purged during the Stalin era and sent to the Soviet gulag.

The younger Mr. Shushkevich studied physics at the state university in Minsk and rose to prominence in academic ranks before coming late in his career to politics as the Soviet Union neared its end.

He reportedly had two children, but a complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Before his prominent role in the breakup of the U.S.S.R., Mr. Shushkevich became a footnote in another historic event. He taught Russian to Lee Harvey Oswald when they worked at the same radio factory in Minsk in the early 1960s. Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.

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