Statesmanship is not an easy legacy for someone to hold. It is often said that history will judge you, but history has its own narrative and it changes according to the ideology that has political power. This is why it is tough to judge Mikhail Gorbachev’s stint. His policies were controversial, and for Russians they were weak, leading to the disintegration of the USSR.
Reached to the top to change it
From his post university days, Mikhail Gorbachev strictly adhered to the orders of Communist Party. However, a lot of times he disagreed with their pronouncements. For instance, when the Polit bureau ordered him to persecute Fagim B. Sadykov, a critic of the Soviet regime, Mikhail did follow the instructions. However, he later revealed that his conscience was tormented. Few years after this experience, Gorbachev visited various West European countries through state-funded trips and found them better than his own country.
By the mid 1975s, Mikhail was fed up with the Soviet system and wanted to change it. Being a beneficiary of the system meant that there was a conflict of interest. Resultantly he decided to get to the top of the system and then strive towards changing it. Mikhail followed it in letter and spirit, when he became General Secretary of Communist Party in 1985.
Soon after he came to the helm of affairs, Mikhail launched a slew of reformist measures. These policies were aimed at changing the way society and economy functioned in Soviet Russia. Mikhail was particularly worried about low productivity, poor work ethics, and inferior quality of goods. To bring positive changes in the system, he allowed for more dissent to flow through media channels by partially freeing them of state control. The five-year plan, from 1985-1990, was focussed on machine building and other long term infrastructure projects.
It was clear that Gorbachev was a fan of liberal world order and this is what prompted satellite states of Soviet Russia to start dreaming of secession. The respective rebel groups became certain that the USSR would not be able to focus much on curbing their rise. The news of malnutrition and other poor human development indices in the USSR was now easily accessible to them, thanks to freeing up of information dissemination streams by Gorbachev.
Perception crisis leading to discontent
Perception around weakening of the USSR was further exacerbated by Mikhail’s decision to not invest more of Soviet resources in Afghanistan, “the graveyard of Empires”. Gorbachev further decided to reduce military spending in order to increase economic growth. Free market was now talk of the town and Gorbachev himself appeared in a TV Commercial of Pizza Hut to communicate his seriousness.
While people’s living standard increased a bit further, they started to concentrate more on their historical legacy. For various parts of the landmass, people sitting in Moscow, USSR, were not representing their own government. Gorbachev’s fault was that he did absolutely nothing to ensure that these territories remain under the control of Moscow. Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, Baltic states of the Estonian, Lithuanian, and Latvian Soviet Socialist Republics were key areas that were on the verge of seceding from the Union.
Ditched his Commune
Baltic states even went on to declare economic autonomy from the Soviet central government. They were so appalled by Russians that measures to restrict Russian immigration were introduced. Gorbachev, having introduced measures to reduce fear of Society, remained a mute spectator. He believed in talks and even visited Lithuania in order to convince them to remain a part of the Soviet Union.
However, states being ruled by Marxist-Leninist were still confident that Mikhail Gorbachev would not abandon their commune. They had their reasons to do so since Soviets had jumped in every time the global communist movement was in danger during the last 4 decades. But Mikhail had probably grown out of that mindset. Just like Arab countries that are ready to abandon pan-Arabism for their own national interest, Gorbachev was ready to do the same with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, at least his actions indicated such.
1989 was the defining year
On 19 August 1989, a peace march called “Pan-European Picnic” kicked off on the Austrian-Hungarian border. It was also a testing moment for Gorbachev’s strength as a leader of the United bloc. The picnic ended up creating an exodus crisis emanating out of East Germany. The Soviet Union’s non-interference communicated to people and by extension governments all around the world that the Empire was just holding onto stuff and could disintegrate anytime.
The 1989 revolution put a further dent on Gorbachev’s image. Gorbachev had no problem with the elections in the Communist ruled nations, as he believed that Eastern European countries would not abandon their socialist idealism. But the elections resulted in regime changes, an indication of the unpopularity of the utopia which the Communists had been propagating. Unfettered by these developments, Gorbachev visited East Germany for its 40th foundation day.
Failed to prevent breaking of the Wall
His conversation with East Germans was not that aggressive, which they were habituated of from erstwhile Soviet leaders. Few weeks after his visit, Gorbachev appreciated the East German government allowing its citizens to cross the Berlin wall. It was crystal clear that just like his liberal counterparts from the Capitalist bloc, Gorbachev wanted a United Germany. However, he has one big reservation about its impact on Soviet states.
Gorbachev did not want the unified Germany to be part of NATO. But within months of his objection, Senior Bush convinced Gorbachev to allow a unified Germany to have the option to choose its own strategic alliance partners. In return he was orally assured that NATO troops would not be posted on the territory of Eastern Germany.
One unpopular decision after another
Gorbachev’s pandering to the Capitalist bloc took another unpopular turn when he joined Bush to condemn the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein was considered an ally of the Soviet and any kind of negative messaging could impact the safety of 9,000 Russians in Iraq. He even endorsed a UN resolution allowing for use of force in order to push Iraqi soldiers out of Kuwait.
The declining popularity had led to an almost coup in the USSR and Gorbachev was subject to house arrest. But the leader leading the coup lacked support that led to withdrawal of plans. Later Gorbachev thanked Boris Yeltsin, now more popular than him for not dethroning his government. Gorbachev now started to address the concerns of various leaders of the coup and promoted them, which led to Yeltsin announcing the suspension of the Russian Communist party.
The final purge
At the end of 1991, it was getting clear that soon Yeltsin will be in charge and Gorbachev will be irrelevant. Gorbachev was now becoming ready for all or nothing. He decided to float the idea of a new Union treaty in order to keep the USSR unified. But just like Gorbachev, his idea was highly unpopular. Neither did the rebelling states nor did Yeltsin favour the idea.
Yeltsin favoured a confederation with little central authority. Kazakhstan and Kirghizia were the only ones who supported it. Gorbachev’s biggest hope, Ukrainians, also rejected his idea with overwhelming 92.3 per cent supporting the secession.
Then Yeltsin went on to chalk out a deal with Ukraine and Belarus and declared the end of the Soviet Union. They declared Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as its successor. CIS comprised of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and Moldova.
It was a slow death for USSR, but it was a death
While Yeltsin’s Russia had ratified CIS, Gorbachev went on to declare it illegal and dangerous. But the media, which should have been grateful to Gorbachev for giving them freedom, also did not come forward to support him.
By December 15th 1991, 12 republics were still there who hadn’t seceded from the Union. On 20 December, 11 of them signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, leading to the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, 5 days later, announced his resignation, which was formal in nature only as his fate was already sealed by Yeltsin. On the 29th of December, he vacated the Kremlin with guilt in his heart.
Marxist critique of capitalism
Gorbachev paid for over trusting the western countries. His policies were not designed with poor intentions. Mikhail wanted Russians to have better living standard. For that purpose, ditching communist utopia was necessary. But he could have remembered the Marxist critique of Capitalism. Relations and goodwill do not substantially matter in capitalism.
The very moment chips were put down, even those whom he helped in uplifting did not come to support him. He must have felt the same during his last minutes at the Kremlin. He could not win the love of the west and in that process ended up creating haters for himself inside his own country.
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