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Gorbachev given cascade of assurances by West

file photo: the last president of the now former soviet union, mikhail gorbachev gestures during a news conference in athens
Top of the range in the pantheon of great men

It was Yeltsin that oversaw the break-up of the Soviet Union

The passing of Mikhail Gorbachev is a good time to reset the West’s relationship with Russia. There is strong evidence that Gorbachev was given a “cascade of assurances” by western leaders in 1989-1990 that Nato would not move “an inch eastwards” before he agreed to German reunification and peaceful withdrawal from East Europe.

The West owes it to his legacy to do a mea culpa and make amends because in Russia he is thought of as a naive romantic who believed in assurances instead of insisting on treaty guarantees by way of protocols attached to Nato’s treaty excluding all former members of the Warsaw Pact from membership of the alliance.

It is dangerous and childish not to talk to Russia and leaders like Emmanuel Macron of France and Olaf Sholz of Germany should come clean about the “cascade of assurances” given to Gorbachev and begin a constructive dialogue with Russia in his memory. The Germans in particular owe it to his legacy to speak up.

In my book Gorbachev is top of the range in the pantheon of great men; who else in the history of mankind could claim to have freed millions and removed the threat of nuclear annihilation?

He was a breath of fresh air when he came to power in 1985 after the gerontocracy of Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko in the early 1980s under whom the Soviet totalitarian system and its command economy was creaking and in grave and urgent need of reform.

Some Russian commentators blame Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost – restructuring the totalitarian state to a more open society – for the collapse of the Soviet Union but that’s just biased hindsight by revisionists. Perestroika and glasnost were sound policies. Just like capitalism evolved into social democracy, Gorbachev figured communism could evolve in the same direction from the opposite end of the spectrum and was prepared to relinquish Soviet control of East Europe as a price worth paying for giving up totalitarianism at home – a trade-off that suited Russia.

There can, however, be little doubt that the process of relinquishing East Europe set in motion a train of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union for which Gorbachev is blamed by his detractors in Russia. But they conflate the withdrawal from East Europe beginning in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that were historically different in origin and cause.

The origins of the collapse of the Soviet Union were that the revolutionary zeal that sustained the union of soviets was no longer able to contain the parochial claims of the various nationalities that comprised it. What caused its collapse was the rejection of Gorbachev’s new Union Treaty designed to loosen Moscow’s grip on the outlying states of the union in line with Leninist thinking on self-determination.

In August 1991 while Gorbachev was on holiday in Crimea there was a coup d’etat by renegade KGB and diehard Communist apparatchiks to oust him from power and forestall the Union Treaty. It failed, and he returned to Moscow visibly diminished as he stepped out of his airplane. Political power haemorrhaged to his onetime protege Boris Yeltsin who had memorably put down the coup atop a tank. Not to put too fine a point on it, Yeltsin saved Gorbachev in order to bury him and the Soviet Union with him. After assuming the reins of power, it was Boris Yeltsin who agreed the break-up of the Soviet Union, when the outlying states spearheaded by Ukraine and the Baltic States fell away like dominoes.

The reason Gorbachev is blamed for the collapse of the Soviet Union in Russia instead of Yeltsin is because it is wrongly equated with the collapse of Soviet control of East Europe and, possibly, because Yeltsin was President Vladimir Putin’s mentor.

But whereas Gorbachev absolutely intended to relinquish Soviet control of East Europe his draft Union Treaty was designed to preserve, not break up, the Soviet Union. His intention fell victim to the law of unintended consequences, because the Soviet communist party that was the glue that held the union together was abolished by Yeltsin for its participation in the coup d’etat.

In 2005 Putin lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. His aphorism was not directed at Soviet disengagement from East Europe even though he had personally witnessed German reunification with dismay – “Moscow is silent” Putin was told when as a young KGB officer he sought military protection for elements of the East German regime before driving home to Leningrad.

In the same speech he characterised the collapse of the Soviet Union a real drama that he menacingly claimed left tens of millions of Russians outside the Russian Federation which set alarm bells ringing in the Baltic States and Ukraine, but which suggests he was not attributing it to Soviet withdrawal from East Europe.

However what he should have been lamenting was the betrayal of the Soviet Union’s legacy preferring the American-style capitalism of Boris Yeltsin that leapfrogged social democracy for a system that involved corruptly hiving off the family silver to oligarchs.

Russia’s natural progression as the Soviet Union’s successor state was Gorbachev’s principled idea of preserving benevolent socialism and discarding totalitarianism. Instead, Yeltsin jettisoned good socialist principles on the altar of naked free enterprise and rampant capitalism totally alien to Russia’s Soviet legacy. Harking back to the geopolitical power of the Soviet Union instead of its socialist progressive principles was as disrespectful to 70 years of socialism as it was hypocritical.

As for the West it was at best indifferent and at worst triumphant – not too different from the policy against Germany at Versailles in 1919 “to squeeze them until the pips squeaked” that led to World War II between 1939-1945.

“We won and they lost” was the mantra in some quarters in Washington. Francis Fukuyama, the American historian, even proclaimed The End of History, and Nato and the EU expanded eastwards incontinently and to hell with the assurances given to nice Mr Gorbachev.

Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a retired part time judge

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