Since the death of Mikhail Gorbachev much has been written about his legacy. Articles, documentaries and comments have been critical, as well as complimentary depending on how one was affected by his policies.
In Russia he remains controversial. Some have vilified him as responsible for the demise of the Soviet Union and as a consequence, Russia’s loss of its status as a super power. This touched a particularly sensitive chord with most Russians who take pride in their country as an exceptional state with a universal message.
Others praise him for bringing greater freedoms to the Russian people. Former Soviet republics, whether in the Baltics, the Caucuses, Central Asia and in Eastern Europe, credit him for initiating the process that led to their independence.
In the West, he is invariably praised. Where he also remains controversial is the rest of the world. For many, he is responsible, wittingly or otherwise, for the chaos that has engulfed the international system as the result of the end of the Cold War. The result of which has been a rise in the wanton use of force, whether in the form of internal strife or foreign invasions. Witness the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
I had the fortune of witnessing the Gorbachev era first hand. I served at the Egyptian embassy in Moscow from 1986 to 1990. I arrived one year after Gorbachev came to power and ended my assignment one year before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the exit of Gorbachev.
I witnessed Perestroika and Glasnost first hand and the forces they unleashed. But I also was able to observe at close range and in a tangible manner the many factors that were responsible for the downfall of Soviet Russia.
I also witnessed the yearning of the Soviet people for change and a better life. I could also feel the rising nationalism and the penchant for asserting independence in places like Tallinn, Tbilisi and Samarkand.
But the Soviet system was beyond repair. It was not only structurally weak, but corruption had permeated the system in a way that made reform impossible.
If it were not Gorbachev who had initiated the reforms, someone else from his generation would have. Contrary to the previous generations that ruled Soviet Russia, Gorbachev’s generation were more realistic as what the Soviet system could provide its people. The system was not able to satisfy the needs and aspirations of Russians for a better life.
The illusion of a socialist utopia down the road was no longer credible nor sustainable. The Russians now lived in a global village and aspired to the comforts of life that their neighbors in Europe, let alone the United States, enjoyed.
So, reform was both necessary and inevitable. The question was how?
Gorbachev saw economic change as the avenue to political reform. He introduced a “cooperative” sector as a first step towards what would have been limited and controlled private enterprise.
But he quickly realized that even this minor step was resisted by the Communist Party apparatchiks who controlled the levers of power. So, he shifted to prioritizing political reform.
He assumed the presidency in the hope of shifting power away from the recalcitrant communist party to bureaucracy. Izvestia the government newspaper became for the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution more important than Pravda the communist party newspaper as the vehicle more representative of the views of the leadership, i.e. Gorbachev and his allies.
Notwithstanding Gorbachev’s reform efforts, the system was unable to adequately respond. The result was confusion and ultimately collapse.
If Gorbachev’s attempt at internal reform utterly failed, aspects of his foreign policy he laid live on.
The foreign policy was designed to create an international environment conducive to domestic reform and was reflected in the following priorities: an improved relationship with the West and particularly the United States, close cooperation with China and scaling back the USSR’s entanglements around the world and maintaining balanced relations with all countries and parties, including in the Middle East.
After the departure of Soviet military advisors from Egypt in 1972 and the subsequent deterioration of relations between Moscow and Cairo, Soviet foreign policy was designed to isolate Egypt from its immediate neighborhood, principally by supporting the anti-Egyptian Arab “Steadfastness Front” comprised of Algeria, Libya, Iraq, South Yemen, Syria and the PLO. Relations with Israel, however, remained cool.
As to relations with Iran and Turkiye, they maintained their historical pattern of a combination of mutual mistrust and inevitable cooperation due to geographical proximity.
With the advent of Gorbachev, this policy underwent important changes. Relations with Israel underwent progressive improvement. More than anything else it was reflected in allowing direct migration to Israel. Before that not only Jewish immigration was highly restricted, but no Soviet Jew could leave the Soviet Union directly for Israel. They were given visas to Austria and from there they would choose their final destination.
Easing restrictions on Jewish immigration was clearly designed to improve relations with the US, particularly with Congress. At the time Arab embassies expressed their serious concerns to the Soviet government. The response was that it was a necessary condition for improving relations with Washington and that in any case the numbers were insignificant.
The reality proved to be different. More than a million Soviets immigrated to Israel, accounting for some 20% of the population. More importantly, they have helped transform Israel into an international high-tech powerhouse, thereby significantly altering the balance of power in the Middle East.
Under Gorbachev, Soviet policy was no longer aimed to isolate Egypt from its region. On the contrary, improving relations with Cairo was prioritized. After a hiatus of five years, in 1985 the respective embassies were once again headed at the ambassadorial level. The long-festering problem of Egyptian debt to the Soviet Union was finally resolved. This opened the door to more intensive economic and commercial ties.
Relations improved to the extent that President Hosni Mubarak visited Moscow in 1990, the first visit by an Egyptian President since Anwar Sadat visited Moscow in 1972.
Notwithstanding Moscow’s policy in normalizing relations with Egypt, it maintained its close relationship with the countries of the Steadfastness Front. But not without complications.
During his visit to Moscow in February 1987, South Yemen’s President Ali Salem El Beidh, a close ally, was told point blank that leaders in the developing world “should not be under the illusion that they can skip over historical stages in their economic and political development in their quest to achieve socialism.”
This was in essence an admonishment, not only to the guest but to the socialist leaders of the Third World, against the hasty pursuit of their goals and a clear warning that they cannot count on the Soviet Union if they were to pursue such an imprudent policy.
President Hafez Assad of Syria, also was subjected to an unpleasant surprise during his visit in 1987. Moscow let it be known that the meeting between Gorbachev and his Syrian guest did not go particularly well.
While Moscow was the main weapon supplier to Iraq in its war against Iran, it did not hesitate to curtail its arms shipments when Saddam Hussein used Soviet missiles to target Iranian population centers during the Iraq-Iran war.
As to relations with both Iran and Türkiye, they remained, as throughout history, complicated.
By the time Gorbachev left power, Soviet policy in the Middle East had undergone significant change. Relations with Egypt were largely normalized. Relations with the traditional allies, Libya, Iraq and Syria were preserved but maintained at a lower intensity. Relations with Israel were normalized.
President Boris Yeltsin continued along the same lines. This opened the door to the policies pursued by President Vladimir Putin.
Putin may have reversed certain aspects of Gorbachev’s foreign policy over time. Relations with the West and particularly the US, were initially excellent, but drifted to antagonism and ultimately outright hostility. It was not by design, but rather the result of the crisis in Ukraine that start in 2014 largely as a result of conflicting approaches to European security and differences over the role of Russia in the unfolding international system.
Relations with China remained on course and became even more close on all levels.
The one region where there was clear continuity was the Middle East. In fact, the changes introduced under Gorbachev have been accelerated under Putin. Egyptian-Russian relations have gained increased importance for both countries. Russia has become the main source of wheat and tourism for Egypt. Military relations have also improved significantly as the result of Egypt buying significant amounts of Russian weapons. Moreover, Moscow is building four nuclear power plants there.
As to Russian relations with Israel, they have maintained an upward trajectory reaching unprecedented heights. The fact that Israel coordinates its military policy with Russia - as we have seen in Syria - is a glaring example.
The process initiated by Gorbachev in seeking balanced relations with the countries of the region has borne fruit. Today Moscow is the only major power that is able to talk to all opposing parties, whether in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq. It also maintains friendly relations with regional adversaries Iran, Türkiye, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Gorbachev’s place in history will remain controversial, but when it comes to the Middle East, his legacy, with both its positive and negative aspects, lives on.