The Malta Independent 25 September 2022, Sunday
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The world needs another Gorbachev

Mark Said Sunday, 18 September 2022, 09:44 Last update: about 8 days ago

What made a politician with a typically Soviet background and Party career become an unprecedented driver of reform, supporting democratisation in the USSR and opposing, in most cases, the use of violence to repress social and political dissent? Praised in the West for having contributed to the peaceful end of the country’s disintegration, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev will always remain a rather enigmatic figure.


In 1985, the Politburo selected Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party, making him the leader of the Soviet Union. It did not take long for Gorbachev to start uttering words like glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Over the next six years, the Berlin Wall fell, the Communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe were overthrown and the Soviet Union was replaced by the Russian Federation. Gorbachev could not have achieved all this, however, were it not for the fact that preceding him was Nikita Khrushchev, a crude, bumptious, erratic, and belligerent character who nonetheless was the only leader of the Soviet Union before Gorbachev to qualify as a reformer. Khrushchev spent much of his life as one of Stalin’s henchmen, with blood on his hands. But once the dictator had died and Khrushchev had outmanoeuvred his peers in the scramble for succession, he did his best to “de-Stalinize” the Soviet Union, freeing prisoners from the Gulag and relaxing repression and censorship.

The onset of Perestroika in the Soviet Union was the first and decisive step. It changed from a totalitarian regime to a society of freedom and democracy. A political wind of change blew in Moscow. The chief of state Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to reform the Soviet Union. Foreign policy, too, entered a new era. It was a time of disarmament and relaxation of formerly hostile relationships to put an end to the Cold War. Gorbachev even tolerated reforms in the other socialist states in Europe. Poland was seen as the forerunner. When Gorbachev visited East Berlin, Honecker, too, was put under pressure. The party chiefs in Eastern Europe were at the mercy of their citizens, and Moscow’s example of glasnost, perestroika and new thinking emboldened independence-minded reformers in all the Soviet captive states.

German unification was of global importance. It was precarious and extremely difficult. It paved the way to ending the Cold War. Despite strong opposition from his adversaries in Moscow, Gorbachev continued his politics of disarmament and brought East and West closer together. It was an incredible piece of luck that this crusty and powerful system was reformed from the top down. Not from the streets, but by one man, who set in motion a movement within his own party. Gorbachev’s influence has had a decisive impact on history. His unique life philosophy and personality were critical factors in explaining how he was able to achieve unprecedented levels of reform in the Soviet system, and why he viewed such improvements as important. While many point to Gorbachev’s visionary attitude as a reason for the Soviet Union’s demise, it must not be forgotten that his forward-thinking ideas were actually what made him rise among the ranks.

By December 1991, Gorbachev had waned from the political scene and, shortly after, the Soviet Union collapsed. Under his administration, Cold War tensions diminished, the Soviet Union saw its first free and fair election with the rise of freedom of speech, and the threat of nuclear holocaust was reduced. Despite this, Gorbachev could not keep the Soviet Union intact. Gorbachev came to be viewed as a great statesman in the West, but largely despised in his own country. This sympathetic view of Gorbachev portrayed him as a King Lear type of figure, losing his country by trying to save it.

Today, we are witnessing a re-emergence of a New Cold War in the global political scene. There is an overarching sense of a growing East vs. West divide, notable in the rise of anti-American attitudes prevalent in Russian media, and vice-versa in American media. While the traditional sense of the term Cold War implied a strict ideological global divide, contemporary political events point to a divide that is more geopolitical than ideological. This is best exemplified in the contrasts between NATO, EU and American forces, versus Russia, China, and perhaps other emerging powers that make up the BRICS alliance.

Today we have a Putin looking back at the late 1980s and 1990s with bitterness. He sees the tumult of that period not just as the collapse of the Soviet Union and a victory for its enemies in the West but as a devastating blow to something far more precious, venerable and enduring, the Russian state. In contrast to Gorbachev, Putin will never go down in history as a hero. He has always shown us exactly who he is. So why did it take the invasion of Ukraine for us to believe him?

While the tragic invasions and occupations of Georgia and Ukraine have secured Putin a de facto veto over their NATO aspirations, since the alliance would never admit a country under partial occupation by Russian forces, this fact undermines Putin’s claim that the current invasion is aimed at NATO membership. He has already blocked NATO expansion, thereby revealing that he wants something far more significant in Ukraine today, the end of democracy and the return of subjugation.

Because the primary threat to Putin and his autocratic regime is a democracy, not NATO, that perceived threat would not magically disappear with a moratorium on NATO expansion. Putin will not stop seeking to undermine democracy and sovereignty in Ukraine, Georgia, or the region as a whole if NATO stopped expanding. As long as citizens in free countries exercise their democratic rights to elect their own leaders and set their own course in domestic and foreign politics, Putin will keep them in his crosshairs.

The era of detente and arms control between Washington and Moscow has been replaced by a bloody war in Ukraine. Gorbachev lived long enough to see everything he had tried to achieve crumble or get blown up. Putin has turned the clock back. The world today is again on the brink of total annihilation. The world today is in dire need of another Gorbachev.


Dr Mark Said is an advocate


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