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Was Mikhail Gorbachev a beacon of hope or a hopeless dreamer?

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Picture: CNP/ABACA via Reuters – A flood of tributes has poured in from leaders from across the world for Mikhail Gorbachev, with his passing momentarily uniting disparate and even antagonistic nations and geopolitical blocs, says the writer.

By Ilya Tsukanov

Mikhail Gorbachev passed away on Tuesday at the age of 91. Praised by some as a global visionary for his efforts to end the Cold War and increase international co-operation on issues like climate change, the former Soviet leader has taken criticism from others for the failure of his economic and political reforms, and for selling his country out to the West.

A flood of tributes has poured in from leaders from across the world for Mikhail Gorbachev, with his passing momentarily uniting disparate and even antagonistic nations and geopolitical blocs in an outpouring of sympathy for a man best remembered for his efforts to reduce East-West tensions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his “deep condolences” to Gorbachev’s family, and called the ex-Soviet leader a “politician and statesman who had a huge impact on the course of world history”.

US President Joe Biden characterised Gorbachev as “a man of remarkable vision” who had the “courage to admit that things needed to change”. European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen described him as a leader who “opened the way to a free Europe”, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that Gorbachev “did more than any other individual” to end the Cold War.

Gorbachev came to power in March 1985 after the back-to-back-to-back deaths of three elderly Soviet general secretaries in less than three years, becoming the leader of the world’s second military, economic and technological superpower.

Less than seven years later, in December 1991, the country which Russian czars and successive Soviet leaders forged over three centuries ceased to exist, disintegrating into 15 republics and plunging a sixth of the world’s land mass into an unprecedented social and economic crisis.

“Gorbachev’s role is highly controversial,” Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the centre for European and international studies at Russia’s Higher School of Economics, said in an interview.

Greatest Achievement

Suslov suggested that Gorbachev genuinely wanted the USSR to prosper, to “renew and strengthen” the country, and “to achieve world peace, not only to end the confrontation between the two superpowers but to qualitatively eliminate in principle threats to international security, to overcome Europe’s divisions, create a common European home and get rid of nuclear weapons”.

There are few leaders in global history who could rival Gorbachev in such “grandiose idealism”, the academic said.

As far as concrete “achievements” are concerned, Suslov pointed to Gorbachev’s central role in securing a peaceful end to the Cold War and reducing global stocks of nuclear weapons.

It was Gorbachev, he recalled, who initiated talks on the elimination of ground-based nuclear missiles in the 500km to 5500km range via the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. That treaty lasted 31 years before the US unilaterally scrapped the agreement in 2019.

Gorbachev is also the initiator of the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the USSR (and then Russia) and the US, which dramatically reduced the two countries’ nuclear arsenals and paved the way for START-2 and START-3, Suslov noted.

The normalisation of Moscow’s ties with Beijing after a bitter, decades-long dispute between the communist powers is also Gorbachev’s achievement, according to Suslov. “A lot of people forget that it was Gorbachev who took Moscow’s relations with the People’s Republic of China out of the hostile state they were in in the 1960s and 1970s, which even saw a conflict on Damansky Island, etc.”

Wu Fei, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Jinan University, agreed that Gorbachev played an important role in improving relations, but emphasised that the politician has a mixed legacy as far as China is concerned, given his “betrayal” of the cause of socialism and responsibility for the USSR’s collapse.

Ultimately, the professor believes that the “mistakes” made by Gorbachev in the late 1980s and early 1990s continue to bear their poisonous fruit today, “including in terms of the historical legacy that he left in relations between Russia and Ukraine”.

Biggest Mistake

Gorbachev’s biggest mistake in foreign policy was to place too much trust in the West, which did not see the USSR as an equal partner, but sought to defeat it, Suslov believes.

The academic characterised Gorbachev’s handling of the matter of Germany’s unification as his “greatest foreign policy mistake,” with this event, and specifically the lack of written guarantees from Nato not to expand east, sowing the seeds for the current geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West in Ukraine, according to Suslov.

“Firstly, the unification of Germany created the first precedent for the expansion of the West and its absorption of the ‘non-West’. The German Democratic Republic was absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany. This was not the reunification of Germany, but the expansion of the FRG onto the territory of the GDR. At the same time, Germany remained within the framework of Nato and the European Community. The USSR received nothing at all for this,” Suslov emphasised.

Stefan Bollinger, a German political scientist and member of the Historical Commission of the Die Linke party, said that Gorbachev’s legacy for East Germans is undoubtedly one of betrayal.

“Egon Krenz, the last communist leader of the GDR, sought support in Moscow for an East German version of perestroika, but got only warm words in return, which turned out to be a lie amid negotiations which had already begun on the idea of ending Germany’s division,” Bollinger recalled.

“In commemorating Mikhail Gorbachev’s life, it should be appreciated that he was both a catalyst and a consequence of his time,” said Dr Samuel Hoff, George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at Delaware State University.

Hoff said that Gorbachev’s administration demonstrated what the US and Russia have in common, including that he wasn’t afraid to experiment with the country’s economy, he worked with American leaders to “make the world safer” and he “demonstrated that America and Russia could be successful military allies” during Operation Desert Storm.

Gorbachev’s Downfall

Gorbachev also carried out a “large number of mistakes” on the domestic front, Suslov noted.

“Gorbachev’s inability to hold onto the reins of power and prevent the uncontrolled strengthening of centrifugal tendencies within the country, his inability to discern in time where the threat would come from and what certain leaders whom he once supported might do (I mean here Boris Yeltsin). This, of course, was Gorbachev’s biggest mistake domestically,” he said.

Serbian-American publicist and historian Srdja Trifkovic expressed less of a rose-tinted opinion on Gorbachev and his role in history, telling Sputnik that while the late politician received some highly laudatory obituaries from Western officials and media, the factual outcome of his leadership turned out to be fatal for his own country.

“On the whole, we’re talking about a person who let the genie out of the bottle and opened Pandora’s box, and did not know how to deal with the consequences,” the historian suggested.

Trifkovic believes that, ultimately, history will remember Gorbachev as a leader who “perhaps wanted the best in terms of reforming Soviet society, but who was not strong enough to cope with this task”.

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