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Mikhail Gorbachev Has Gone, But Challenges He Faced are Alive and Kicking

Gorbachev's well meaning acts have left a detritus which still plagues Europe. Ukraine war is an example of this.

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Mikhail Gorbachev was a man who changed history. He didn’t mean to, but as the eighth leader of the old Soviet Union (and its first and last President), he sought to reform the Communist system through policies encapsulated in the words “perestroika” (restructuring or reform ) and “glasnost” (openness) and create a democratic and humane socialist society.

Instead, his well-meaning actions triggered a collapse of the Soviet Union, a mighty Eurasian empire of the time of comprising of 15 republics who declared independence mostly in 1991, leaving the rump Russian Federation as the successor state with thousands of nuclear weapons. By the end of the year, the USSR was formally dissolved and Gorbachev resigned.

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Snapshot
  • Gorbachev's well-meaning actions triggered a collapse of the Soviet Union, a mighty Eurasian empire, leaving the rump Russian Federation as the successor state with thousands of nuclear weapons.

  • He helped abolish an entire class of nuclear weapons that threatened Europe, ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan, settled regional conflicts and evolved an entirely peaceful way of dealing with issues.

  • His vision of a peaceful Europe was demolished by his one time saviour and opponents, beginning with Boris Yeltsin, and ending with Vladimir Putin.

  • Gorbachev’s greatest achievement, unplanned as it may have been at the beginning, permanently shifted the paradigm.

  • Even so the events have left a detritus which still plagues Europe. The ongoing war in Ukraine is an example of this.

Why Gorbachev is Hailed as a 'Hero'

Today, he is hailed as a hero around the world, having been given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, but reviled in the Russian Federation. For many people who lived through the difficult years of the 1990s, and to those belonged the security apparatus, including Vladimir Putin, the Soviet collapse was a moment of shame and defeat. Its reverberations are still being felt as the Russian Federation fights a war to undo history and disarm Ukraine.

Contemporary observers like US President Ronald Reagan and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl are clear that the credit for the revolutionary changes, inadvertent though they may have been, belong to Gorbachev. His policies broke up the Soviet Union, ended the Cold War, reunited Germany, and enabled Eastern Europe to reclaim their countries. He helped abolish an entire class of nuclear weapons that threatened Europe, ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan, settled regional conflicts and evolved an entirely peaceful way of dealing with issues.

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Geo-Political Context of Gorbachev's Time as USSR's Supreme Leader 

But we know that his vision of a peaceful Europe incorporating Russia and its erstwhile adversaries in a united democratic political and economic space, was demolished by his one time saviour and opponents, beginning with Boris Yeltsin, and ending with Vladimir Putin.

Gorbachev was born in 1931 to a poor peasant family of Ukrainian and Russian heritage in the Stavropol region of the Caucasus. He became the supreme leader of the USSR, the world’s second super power in 1985 at a time when its economy had become unworkable and it was mired in a war in Afghanistan.

At the age of 54, he was the youngest member of the Politburo and expected to restore the vitality of the socialist economic and political system instead, he unleashed forces that swept away the Soviet empire and ended the Cold War which had always been on the brink of a nuclear war.

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Gorbachev's Many Challenges and Successes 

The primary reason for this was that soon it became apparent to Gorbachev that it was impossible to carry out perestroika or restructuring without tackling the social and political ossification of the country. The policy of glasnost self-consciously aimed at giving greater freedom to the Soviet people who hithertofore lived under a tyrannical system run by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

This enabled the people to speak their minds without worrying about being jailed for it. He also released political prisoners and opened up the Soviet archives revealing the past crimes of his predecessors.

The first consequence of liberalisation was that beginning 1988, Soviet-imposed regimes in the Baltics, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland began to break away from Moscow’s control. Popular protests broke out in favour of democracy. Of great significance was the reunification of Germany in March 1990. A year later in February 1991, the Warsaw Pact military alliance was dissolved.

To halt the slide, communist hardliners and some military elements staged a coup in August 1991 in an attempt to overthrow Gorbachev. He was himself accosted by the KGB and military at the doors of his vacation home in a Black Sea resort and told to resign. But with the help of Boris Yeltsin in Moscow, the coup was foiled. But it did set the stage for the constituent units of the country to break away.

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Russia's Current Challenges Have Roots in Gorbachev's Time

The Soviet Union was a highly centralised state, ostensibly federal, comprising of 15 republics. Beginning 1988 with the Baltic states, the Soviet Union began coming apart as eight other republics seceded.

On 8 December 1991, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus agreed to form a new Commonwealth of Independent States and dissolved the Soviet Union. Two weeks later, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and agreed to a new protocol joining the CIS.

Four days later Gorbachev resigned and turned over his presidential powers to Boris Yeltsin who succeeded him as the president of the new Russian Federation.

Simultaneously, Gorbachev had to deal with the Soviet Union’s great rival, the United States of America under Ronald Reagan which was not only backing the war in Afghanistan, but also seeking to create the so-called Star Wars plan aimed at neutralising the Soviet missile capability by a high-tech anti-missile shield.

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How Gorbachev Almost Won the Americans Over 

There were intense negotiations in Reykjavik between US President Reagan and Gorbachev which yielded the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987.

The two sides came tantalisingly close to an agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons. But the American refusal to compromise on Star Wars led to a collapse of the negotiations.

This was a remarkable moment in contemporary history, unfortunately, nothing came out of it. Even the INF treaty has now collapsed.

Reagan and Gorbachev hit it off and had genuine respect and empathy for each other. This, more than any other factor helped Gorbachev to bring the Cold War to a close. The Reykjavik talks persuaded Gorbachev to end the debilitating decade-long war in Afghanistan. Action was initiated by the Geneva Accords of April 1988 and the withdrawal began in February 1989.

Gorbachev’s greatest achievement, unplanned as it may have been at the beginning, permanently shifted the paradigm. The Soviet Union dissolved, the United States entered its unipolar moment, and the entire orientation of Eastern Europe changed and they, erstwhile members of the Soviet led Warsaw Pact, became member so their rival NATO. Even so the events have left a detritus which still plagues Europe. The ongoing war in Ukraine is an example of this.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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