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Soviet Union and Africa: Gorbachev’s policies come full circle

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Picture: ANA file – Mikhael Gorbachev, Perestroika architect and Russian leader.

By David Monyae

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former and last leader of the Soviet Union died in Moscow on the 30th of August aged 91. His instrumental role in reforming the Soviet system and ending the Cold War at the end of the 1980s had important repercussions for Africa and changed the course of the continent’s history.

On assuming power in 1985, Gorbachev set his sights on reforming the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) whose socio-economic system was stagnating and being outcompeted by the West. To accomplish this task, he introduced two sets of reforms known as the perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (openness).

The former set of reforms saw the Soviet Union adopt some elements of the free-market system including decentralising economic decision-making, allowing individual and collective ownership of businesses, granting state-owned enterprises independence, and liberalising international trade among others.

The latter set was more focused on political reforms including allowing free speech, promoting transparency and political tolerance. These reforms led to the Soviet rapprochement with the West marked by the signing of a nuclear disarmament treaty effectively ending the Cold War. They also precipitated the dissolution and disintegration of the USSR symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany.

Africa was mired in the politics of Cold War as the United States and the USSR competed for influence on the continent. The Soviet Union had supported regimes in countries such as Angola and Ethiopia as springboards of international communism. On the other hand, the US pumped billions of dollars in aid to Congo, Sudan, and Liberia among others in a quest to repel the spread of Soviet influence in the region. Thus, the end of the Cold War directly and indirectly affected the African political landscape.

The USSR was a major player in Africa such that its loss of global influence led to the end of its interventionist foreign policy in Third World countries. Gorbachev’s administration worked with the US to bring the decades-old Angolan civil war to an end at the beginning of the 1990s through peaceful settlement. The Soviet diplomats played an important role in bringing their Movement for People’s Liberation in Angola (MPLA) allies to the negotiating table and encouraging them to soften up on hardline issues. The USSR’s abdication of a hardline stance on communist ideology under Gorbachev also fast-tracked Namibia’s transition to independence in 1990.

Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist regimes in Eastern Europe nudged the Apartheid government in South Africa towards the negotiation table as the fears of a communist take over of South Africa subsided.

More indirectly, the end of the Cold War led to both democratisation and the intensification of civil wars between ethnic groups. The withdrawal of US military aid in Liberia, Somalia, and Zaire (now DRC) plunged those countries into vicious civil wars as the governments could not suppress insurgencies. The withdrawal of Soviet support (amounting to US$10 billion in the 1980s) for the Mengistu Haile Meriam regime in Ethiopia led to the secession of Eritrean rebels. The cooling off of superpower rivalries also unleashed democratic forces, even if in a flawed way, in countries like Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and Benin to name a few as part of conditions for accessing much- needed financial aid.

Thus, Gorbachev’s reforms leading to the end of the Cold War also had the effect of placing African countries at the mercy of the Bretton Woods institutions who administered their own ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ reforms in the form of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) on African states. Without an alternative, Africans had no choice but to take the pain of SAPs, which had devastating consequences for economic development and the welfare of African citizens.

At the time of his death, Gorbachev’s policies had come full circle. With tensions between Russia and the US on the rise, Russia is gradually finding its way back to Africa. Moscow has established military co-operation with countries facing instability such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, and Mozambique.

Russia’s Wagner Group fighters have been active in Mali, Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Libya. In a month’s time the Russia-Africa Summit will take place in Ethiopia as Russia and Africa seek to expand their cooperation.

In the last summit in 2019, 48 African heads of state were in attendance demonstrating their desire to work with the Kremlin.

Monyae is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Sciences and Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

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