Gorbachev’s controversial legacy

Hussein Haridy
Thursday 8 Sep 2022

The death of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev last week came as a reminder of the costs the Arab region has had to pay since the fall of the former Soviet Union.


The last leader of the former Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, passed away on 30 August and was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow on 3 September.

He was mourned in the West and hailed as the man who contributed to the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the reunification of Germany. The Western media covered his “achievements” extensively and in a one-sided, Western-centric way, whether within the former Soviet Union or in Europe. It focused on the fact that he presided over, or led to, the breakup of the former Soviet Union.

In our part of the world, Gorbachev’s death came as a reminder of the cost our region has paid in blood and treasure since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the tenuous balance of power between the two former superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, in the post-World War II period up until 1991.

 It was also a reminder of how some leaders can become “dreamers,” what are sometimes called “visionaries,” and embark on policies that go against history and geography, the two basic determinants in the history of nations. 

Gorbachev’s policies are a case in point. At a moment of weakness in Soviet history, one that coincided with his rule from the mid-1980s to the end of 1991, he chose paths that might have looked, from his point of view, to be the best remedies for those weaknesses, but that whether intentionally or not in fact overlooked the realities not only of world politics but also of the complex history of the relations between his country and Europe and the US.

They were paths that ultimately undermined the security of Russia as perceived by the Russian political establishment, something that was magnified by the arrival in power of a certain former KGB officer by the name of Vladimir Putin, who once said, truly or not, that the fall of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. He blamed Gorbachev for “bending to the demands” of a “treacherous and duplicitous” West.

A column published by Russia’s state news agency after the death of Gorbachev said that his leadership could “serve as an illustration that good intentions on the part of a national leader can create hell on earth for a whole country,” meaning Russia in this case. Another region that has paid dearly for the fall of the Soviet Union due to Gorbachev is the Middle East and the Arab and Muslim world.

The Cold War years from 1945 to 1991, with some considering the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as the official end of the Cold War, saw positive developments in the region as a result of the balance of power between the two superpowers. They held each other at bay in terms of their respective interests in the Middle East. It was an era of security and stability in contrast to the destabilisation that followed in the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East after 1991 and the emergence of what US president George Bush and his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft called the “New World Order”.

This was an order that saw the unprecedented hegemony of one great power, the US, over the destiny of the Middle East. The US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 is just one example of the results of this new order with its attendant disastrous consequences not only in Iraq but also across the region and in the Gulf.

History has its own way of correcting the fatal mistakes made by some “visionary leaders” such as Gorbachev. In the meantime, their consequences can be clearly seen in the annihilation of a regular Arab army by NATO forces in Libya in 2011, as well as in the ongoing instability in Syria and in what happened in Iraq after 2003. 

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: