Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gorbachev at Eighty

In this piece published in the online journal Open Democracy Archie Brown salutes the achievements of Mikhail Gorbachev , the last leader of the Soviet Union, who turns 80 this week. Brown suggests that the significance of Gorbachev's contribution has been significantly undervalued in the West because of the belief that it was Western (and US) military power that ended the Cold War. Brown argues that Gorbachev cannot be held responsible for subsequent events in Russia. Brown writes:
As Gorbachev reaches the age of eighty and reflects on his life in politics, he can take pride in the fact that he left Russia a freer country than it had ever been and that, by playing the most decisive part in ending the Cold War, he provided the chance for international relations to be conducted on a more peaceful and equitable basis. It is quite another matter what use has been made of those possibilities within his own country and by those in other countries who mistakenly believe that it was their military power, rather than Gorbachev’s vision and higher realism, that ended the division of Europe and removed the threat of catastrophic nuclear war.
Brown lists 12 achievements of Gorbachev that were fundamental breaks with the Soviet system. Brown argues that the Western World owes Gorbachev a huge debt:
  1. The introduction of glasnost and its development into freedom of speech and publication.
  2. The release of dissidents from prison and exile and the resumption of rehabilitations of those unjustly repressed in the past.
  3. The establishment of freedom of religious observation and the ending of the persecution of the churches.
  4. Freedom of communication across frontiers, including an end to the jamming of foreign broadcasts, more exchange of information, and a growing liberty to travel abroad.
  5. The introduction of genuinely competitive elections for a legislature with real power (a decision, taken in 1988 and implemented in 1989, marking the point at which liberalisation turned into democratisation).
  6. The development of civil society, with all sorts of independent organisations and pressure groups emerging – a result of perestroika and not, as some observers imagine, a precursor of it.
  7. Progress towards a rule of law which included subjecting the Communist Party to the law and moving supreme power from party to state institutions (with the Politburo in the last two years of the Soviet Union no longer the de facto highest organ of state power, but more of a talking-shop in which members increasingly raised their voices against Gorbachev).
  8. Replacing Leninism and dogma with a commitment to pluralism and free intellectual inquiry (for even while Gorbachev continued to speak respectfully of Lenin, he abandoned the fundamental tenets of Leninism).
  9. The ending of Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, with the last Soviet soldier leaving that country in early 1989.
  10. Allowing the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe to become independent and non-Communist without a shot being fired (except in Romania, where Gorbachev had least influence, and Romanians fired on Romanians).
  11. Consenting to, and negotiating with Helmut Kohl, the peaceful reunification of Germany.
  12. Underpinning these last three momentous foreign policy shifts was a fundamental change of outlook – what was called the ‘New Thinking’ – which Gorbachev embraced and promoted. He rejected the notion of East-West relations as a zero-sum game and endorsed the idea that there were universal values and universal interests. By so doing, he had already by 1988 demolished the ideological foundation of the Cold War. In 1989, when Gorbachev’s actions and non-actions reflected this New Thinking, the Cold War ended on the ground.
Reading that list of achievements is a reminder that Gorbachev is one of the most significant and important political leaders of the 20th century.

No comments: