Putin reversed many of Gorbachev’s reforms

NEW YORK (AP) – One represented freedom, openness, peace and closer ties to the outside world. The other jails critics, muzzles journalists, pushes his country deeper into isolation and wages Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II.

These are the bookends of the story between Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President.

In many ways, Gorbachev, who died Tuesday, unwittingly enabled Putin. The forces unleashed by Gorbachev spiraled out of control, leading to his downfall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Since coming to power in 1999, Putin has taken a hard line that has led to a near total reversal of Gorbachev’s reforms.

When Gorbachev came to power as Soviet leader in 1985, he was younger and more dynamic than his predecessors. He broke with the past by saying goodbye to a police state, turning to press freedom, ending his country’s war in Afghanistan and releasing Eastern European countries trapped in Moscow’s communist orbit. He ended the isolation that had gripped the USSR since its inception.

It was an exciting, hopeful time for Soviet citizens and the world. Gorbachev brought the promise of a better future.

He believed in integration with the West, multilateralism and globalism to solve the world’s problems, including ending armed conflict and reducing the threat of nuclear weapons.

In sharp contrast, Putin’s worldview holds that the West is a “kingdom of lies” and that democracy is chaotic, uncontrolled and dangerous. While Putin largely refrains from direct criticism, he does imply that Gorbachev has sold himself out to the West.

Putin, returning to a communist mindset, believes that the West is imperialist and arrogant, trying to impose its liberal values ​​and policies on Russia, using the country as a scapegoat for its own problems.

He accuses Western leaders of reviving the Cold War and holding back Russia’s development. He aspires to a world order with Russia on par with the United States and other major powers, and in some respects trying to rebuild an empire.

Gorbachev sometimes bowed to Western pressure. Two years after US President Ronald Reagan implored him to “tear down that wall” in a speech at the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev did so indirectly by not intervening in populist anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War followed.

At home, Gorbachev introduced two far-reaching and dramatic measures – “glasnost” or openness – and “perestroika”, a restructuring of Soviet society. Topics previously taboo could now be discussed in literature, the news media and society in general. He implemented economic reforms to allow private enterprise and moved away from a state-run economy.

He also relaxed the dreaded police state, freed political prisoners like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, and ended the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power. Freer travel abroad, emigration and religious customs were also part of it.

Putin has turned away from Gorbachev’s changes. He focused on restoring order and rebuilding the police state. An increasingly tough crackdown on dissent has led to critics being jailed and branded traitors and extremists, including for describing the “special military operation” in Ukraine as merely a war. He sees some critics as foreign-funded collaborators with Russia’s enemies.

In his quest for control, he has shut down independent news organizations and banned human rights and humanitarian organizations. He demands absolute loyalty to the state and emphasizes traditional Russian family, religious and nationalistic principles.

Gorbachev’s leadership was not without flaws. Its more liberal policies have been patchy, such as a bloody Soviet crackdown in 1991 against the independence movement in the Baltic Soviet Republic of Lithuania and an attempted early cover-up of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986.

In 1988, he realized that trying to hide dire events was not working, and when a severe earthquake struck Armenia in December 1988, he opened the borders to international emergency relief and provided transparency about the destruction.

After nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, Gorbachev ordered the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, entered into several arms control and disarmament agreements with the United States and other countries, and helped end the Cold War. For these efforts he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

But at home, Gorbachev’s economic reforms were not going well. The liberation of industry from state control and the all-too-rapid and arbitrary admission of private enterprise led to widespread shortages of food and consumer goods, exacerbated corruption, and produced an oligarch class.

The burgeoning pro-independence movements in the Soviet republics and other problems so angered the Communist Party hardliners that they attempted a coup against him in August 1991, further weakening his hold on power and leading to his resignation four months later.

In the end, many in Russia felt that Gorbachev left them broken promises, dashed hopes, and a weakened, humiliated country.

One who felt this way was Putin. For him, much of what Gorbachev did was a mistake. The biggest was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

The Soviet Union was disregarded, defeated and shattered into pieces – 15 countries. It was also personal for Putin, for as a KGB officer stationed in East Germany, he watched in horror as huge crowds staged the popular uprising that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, and once besieged his KGB offices in Dresden.

To this day, Putin’s perceptions of threats to his country and people’s revolutions color his foreign policy and deep distrust of the West. They reinforce his decision to invade Ukraine on February 24.

As a justification for the war, he cites what he believed to be a broken US promise to Gorbachev – an alleged promise made in 1990 that NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe. US officials have disputed any such pledge, but Putin believes NATO expansion, and particularly the prospect of neighboring Ukraine joining the alliance, poses an existential threat to Russia.

Critics say Putin is twisting facts and ignoring local moods to claim Ukrainians want to be liberated from the Kiev government and ally with Moscow.

He has also made massive efforts to modernize and expand Russia’s military power by moving away from the arms control agreements that Gorbachev agreed to.

Putin’s war in Ukraine, his human rights abuses, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea have sparked massive international sanctions that reverse the cultural and economic ties that Gorbachev fostered. But for a few allies, Russia is isolated.

One might expect Gorbachev to be more critical of Putin, but he condemned NATO’s eastward expansion and said the West missed the opportunity offered by the end of the Cold War. He even supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

But in many respects the historical bookends between the two leaders are far apart.

In 1983, before Gorbachev came to power, Reagan famously branded Russia an “evil empire.” Five years later, he recanted the description at a summit meeting with the Soviet leader.

Fast forward to today, where current US President Joe Biden has called Putin a “murderer,” a “butcher,” and a “war criminal” who “cannot remain in power.”

The Cold War that Gorbachev helped end is back.


Andrew Katell was a Moscow-based Associated Press correspondent who covered Gorbachev from 1988-1991. Now semi-retired, he has a lifelong interest in Russian affairs and contributes to the AP’s reporting on Russia and Ukraine.

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