A look back at the legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of Soviet Union
n August 30, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev passed away. He was the leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) from 1985 till its dissolution in 1991. His politics and policies have been viewed differently from within and outside the country. The Western world generally projected him as a pragmatist and reformist who tried to reconcile with the hard realities of the time. However, he was unable to stop the spillovers of his “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (opening up) policies from producing unintended consequences for the state and its economic and military model.
Some Western observers viewed him as an opportunist who grabbed power while sideling his competitors in the Politburo. Post-USSR, within the Russian republic, he received mixed responses. Some diehard communists held him singularly responsible for the Soviet collapse through his appeasement of the US and its allies grounded in the aforesaid policies which they contend were a misfit for Soviet audience who had been fed on an entirely different ideology. A section of the Russian intelligentsia and population does subscribe to the view that the Soviet Union collapsed due to structural non-performance rather than personal factors.
Joseph Nye, a prominent American political scientist, has written: “[i]ndeed, when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, there were 50,000 personal computers in the Soviet Union; in the United States, there were 30 million. Four years later, there were about 400,000 personal computers in the Soviet Union and 40 million in the US. According to one Soviet economist, by the late 1980s, only eight per cent of Soviet industry was globally competitive. It is difficult for a country to remain a superpower when the world doesn’t want 92 per cent of what it produces.”
As the foregoing indicates, the Soviet economic profile was non-impressive when Gorbachev assumed office. He took charge of a country with a failing economy, ineffective governance, highly-financed military and imperial overstretch. Had there been a solid economic base in terms of rationalised industrial organisation and production system with a focus on resource re-distribution which after all remains a core communist goal theoretically speaking the Soviets probably could have avoided the reversal of gains made under his predecessors.
The economic opportunity had already been lost with the effect that the US-led capitalism had captured major markets of the world by the mid-1980s. With limited resources and construed choices, Gorbachev introduced ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ hoping to prevent a sudden downfall but in vain. Within years, the Soviet Union’s strategic, economic and societal faut lines were exposed to the extent that the USSR opted to exit from Afghanistan under the Geneva Accords of 1988 and gave in to popular pressures in the periphery. Little wonder, by 1991 Russia stood out in strategic, if not socioeconomic, seclusion from rest of the units that constituted the USSR.
However, since Russia alone accounted for more than 70 percent of the territory and more than 50 percent the of population of the USSR, it held its ground in terms of statist aura, imperial legacy and the paraphernalia associated with a nation-state. In other words, there was a relative non-violent end to the otherwise turbulent Cold War which saw many wars, armed conflicts and clashes as well as migrations and mayhem. Importantly, the transition from the USSR to Russia was also relatively peaceful. However, the socioeconomic implications of the Soviet collapse were long-term, affecting sections of populations in the Central Asian states and elsewhere.
Within Russia, the post-Gorbachev governing mechanism led by Boris Yeltsin had to seek foreign economic support. Moreover, foreign profit and private sector made inroads to Moscow too. This brought only mixed results. On one hand, capitalism got introduced into a communist society and economy and, on the other, the latter morphed into a sort of hybrid system of economic and societal management. The positive outcome of Yeltsin years was Russia’s engagement with the international institutions such as the WTO and the global Western powers. This provided a window to peep into the US-led world and the way it prevailed over the globe.
It might have depended on nationalist feeling in some circles in the Russian federation. If that’s the case, the rise of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin can be contextualised vis-à-vis Russia’s desire to re-live the past in terms of global glory. Putin, who initially was considered Yeltsin’s right-hand man, maneuvered through the Russian political and bureaucratic stronghold and eventually controlled the political system.
Consequently, Russia adopted what generally is called state capitalism with a monopoly for the “oligarchs” – who are extremely influential figures economically as well as socio-politically. Putin has prolonged his stay in power by sharing perks with the Russian oligarchs who carry commercial interest in not only the Middle East but also East Europe and other important locations. Russia’s involvement in, for example, the Syrian and later Ukraine conflict can be seen from this angle too.
By countering capitalism through capitalism, Russia under Putin has emerged as a strong actor on regional, if not global, radar. With the ongoing war in Ukraine where the US and its allies are fighting a proxy war, the 20th Century Cold War playbook seems back in fashion. If power politics prevail over people’s priorities in Ukraine and rest of the (conflict) zones, this continuous Cold War will only worsen with deadly consequence for the marginalised communities, cultures and the climate.
The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor at the Department of Social Sciences, Iqra University, Islamabad. He can be reached at email@example.com