By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
MOSCOW/BUDAPEST (Worthy News) – Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet Union leader who helped end the Cold War but saw his reforms crumble at the end of his life, has died at the age of 91.
The Central Clinical Hospital said that Gorbachev died after a long illness but has no more details.
He will be remembered for allowing Soviet satellite states to break away with several, but not all, Western-style democratic and economic reforms.
Gorbachev, who came up to power in 1985, had initially tried to salvage the Russia-led troubled Soviet Union. But when he stepped down at the end of 1991, the East-West border was no longer a flashpoint.
Encouraged by Gorbachev’s policies of Perestroika (‘reconstruction’) and Glasnost (‘openness’) towards changing the autocratic Communist Soviet system, some countries occupied by Soviet troops took bold steps.
A young Worthy News reporter witnessed how the foreign ministers of then Communist Hungary and neighboring Austria symbolically cut the barbed wire on their “Iron Curtain” border in 1989.
That step would eventually lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year when already tens of thousands of East German refugees had fled to the West through Hungary.
Because of Gorbachev’s policies, the NATO military alliance pulled all but a few thousand troops back from the eastern flank, and the terrors of the Cold War seemed consigned to history books and museums.
Yet that all changed this year in February, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. NATO rushed its forces eastwards, mobilizing 40,000 troops under its direct command, with plans to put 300,000 on high alert.
But even years earlier, Gorbachev expressed doubts about Russian President Vladimir Putin, who called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
Speaking to a Worthy News reporter in Budapest, Hungary, in 2007, Gorbachev admitted that Russia wasn’t the country he envisaged when he launched his policy of Perestroika in the late 1980s.
He expressed concerns at the time about the detentions of former chess champion Garry Kasparov and other Russian opposition leaders. Gorbachev, who freed prominent dissidents while in power, said Russia had not yet completed its transition from what he called “totalitarianism” toward democracy.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate stressed that Russia was about halfway through its change process. “So it is not the Russia that we expected and not yet the goal we were moving towards,” Gorbachev told Worthy News’ partner agency BosNewsLife at the time.
He acknowledged that Christian groups also expressed concerns about what they saw as a crackdown on non-Orthodox churches, clergy, and missionaries in the country. “There are, of course, many faiths in Russia,” Gorbachev added in the exchange with the Worthy News reporter.
Yet, he asked for an “understanding” of Russia’s slow phase towards a full-fledged democracy with political and religious rights. “Given that many people live in poverty, I think that many people don’t value democratic values as they should, according to opinion polls too,” he said, referring to President Vladimir Putin’s election victories.
However, he stressed, “There has been a very excessive attitude towards those who demonstrate in the streets” against the Kremlin. “Why did they arrest Kasparov for five days? That’s excessive,” Gorbachev wondered in the exchange with a Worthy News reporter.
The former Soviet leader urged the European Union not to walk away from Russia. “Sometimes EU enlargement is seen as the only solution. What about the changes in the Soviet Union? We shouldn’t speak about Russia and Europe but build trust.”
Yet nearing his death bed, Gorbachev, who had reached out to the United States and Europe to end mistrust, may have been forgiven for being frustrated that his reforms seemed forgotten.
Gorbachev was a champion of political freedoms and arms control.
He even discussed the potential elimination of nuclear weapons with Ronald Reagan at the Reykjavik summit in 1986.
Now, the last remaining agreement between U.S. and Russia limiting nuclear weapons is being corroded by Russia’s suspension of joint inspections.
Both countries are modernizing their arsenals, and Putin has threatened nuclear use, bringing the world back to a new Cold War.
The Reagan Foundation and Institute said it “mourns the loss of former Soviet leader Gorbachev, a man who once was a political adversary of Ronald Reagan’s who ended up becoming a friend. “
He is survived by his only child survives him. His longtime wife Raisa Gorbachev, whose stylish, forceful, and glamorous performance made her a lightning rod for attacks on her husband’s programs of economic and political reform, died in 1999 of leukemia. She was 67.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Gorbachev family and the people of Russia,” the Reagan Foundation said.
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