Gorbachev and Putin: A Love-Hate Relationship
On Tuesday, the last leader of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev died at age 91. He took power in 1985 and introduced major reforms. Despite the reforms, six years later, the Soviet Union disintegrated. He was the youngest member of the Soviet Politburo and the only USSR leader born after the 1917 Revolution. He introduced two major reforms, Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness).
In an article he wrote for Politikyol, Soli Ozel mentions that Gorbachev was a leader who changed the global image of the USSR. For the outside world, a wind of peace was blowing but inside the Soviet Union, the reforms were unsuccessful with the inner-party resistance. With the increased freedom of expression, nationalist movements were emerging after being suppressed for decades.
Gorbachev did not suppress the liberation movements in Eastern Europe, and the independence movements inside the USSR. As a result, Warsaw Pact regimes collapsed. And the Soviet Union dissolved, but Soli Ozel points out that in fact Boris Yeltsin was responsible, since he wanted to get rid of the republics outside Russia.
After Gorbachev’s death, the current President of Russia, Vladimir Putin sent condolences to the late Gorbachev’s family and placed red roses on his coffin in the Moscow Central Clinical Hospital. But Putin will not attend Gorbachev’s funeral. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that he is not able to attend because of his schedule.
According to the analysis of Steve Rosenberg from BBC, the official reasoning is not convincing. The real reason why Putin will not attend the funeral is that currently in Russia, Gorbachev is seen as a weak, indecisive leader who let Russia’s superpower status and global influence slip away.
Putin is currently dismantling Gorbachev’s legacy by taking away freedoms and suppressing democratic institutions. Rosenberg adds that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is keeping Putin busy, “no wonder his schedule is full.”
A friend of Gorbachev, Aleksei A. Venediktov said that Putin has reversed Gorbachev’s life’s work, he added that all of Gorbachev’s reforms are now reduced to zero, in ashes and smoke. Venediktov’s liberal radio station, Echo of Moscow was shut down after the start of the war.
The newspaper Novaya Gazeta, meaning “New Newspaper” in Russian, which Gorbachev founded with his 1990 Nobel Prize Money was suspended in March.
According to France 24, Gorbachev and Putin had a “love-hate” relationship. Gorbachev embraced, then rejected, then re-embraced Putin during his 20-year rule. When Putin was first elected after the chaos of the 1990s, Gorbachev expressed hope for him and said that Putin was intelligent, serious, reserved, and well-organized and that he likes people of this kind.
Gorbachev defended Putin in 2006 after activists expressed concern about his treatment of civil society. Gorbachev said that those who fear Putin’s authoritarian tendencies are wrong. Over time, he started to criticize Putin and backed the protests against Putin’s third term in office which started in 2012.
Putin responded to this criticism by saying that Gorbachev abdicated power. Nonetheless, Gorbachev supported the 2014 annexation of Crimea by saying that Crimea is Russia and let someone prove the opposite.
Gorbachev continued his support for the Russian foreign policy when Putin launched a military campaign in Syria in defense of President Assad. When Putin ran for the fourth term in 2018, Gorbachev said that Putin was the kind of leader Russia needed in a very complicated international situation.
Four years after the last Presidential election, on February 24, 2022, Russia began the invasion of Ukraine. Gorbachev, who is himself a son of a Ukrainian mother and Russian father, did not comment on the war. His Gorbachev Foundation published a statement calling for the cessation of hostilities and the start of peace talks.
According to an article by Arda Tunca in Politikyol, one of the reasons behind the current Russia-Ukraine War could be Gorbachev. Putin holds Gorbachev responsible for the collapse of the USSR and Russia being surrounded by NATO. In 2005, Putin said that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.
According to Anton Troianovski of the NY Times, the legacy of Gorbachev loomed over Putin’s speech. Putin, referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union said that they lost confidence for only one moment but this was enough to disrupt the balance of forces in the world. Putin said that Gorbachev was weak and bent to the demands of the West, while emphasizing he will not make the same mistakes as Gorbachev.
In July 2021, a 5,000-word essay by Vladimir Putin titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” was published. In the article, Putin claimed that after the collapse of the USSR, the West tried to use Ukraine as a threat to Russia by supporting the neo-Nazis there.
According to Putin’s irredentist vision, there is a Greater Russia that Ukraine, Belarus, and perhaps Northern Kazakhstan, which is heavily Slavic, are annexed. Putin wants the West and the global South to accept Russia’s sphere of control in Eurasia with a mix of territorial reintegration and dominance in the fields of security, politics, and economy.
*Born in 1997, Volkan Isbasaran studied Political Science and International Relations at Yeditepe University and holds an MA in Political Science from Central European University. His research areas include terrorism, conflicts, and ethnic/religious minorities.