GORBACHEV’S death on August 30 has been followed by a virtual deluge of commentary on his role as a reformer of a politically stratified and economically stagnating communist state — the Soviet Union — which ended in a break-up, the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe led by it and the end of the Cold War. A large body of opinion in Russia today, in particular President Putin, considers the collapse of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical disaster. Gorbachev is held responsible for triggering the chain of events which led to the collapse, in particular his pursuit of wide-ranging reforms labelled as perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Gorbachev had also spoken about a third aspect of reform, demokratizatsiya (democracy) which does not figure much in the discourse. Perestroika involved introducing market mechanisms and relaxation of price controls in the economy. It also meant limited space for private business and entrepreneurship. It included devolving greater decision-making powers to the constituent units of the Soviet state. Glasnost meant openness in political terms, allowing the airing of criticism of the government and its policies and creating some space for independent media. It did not envisage the abandonment of the one-party state.
Gorbachev undertook the dismantling of economic and political edifices of the Soviet state and lost control of both.
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up policy may not seem so different from Gorbachev’s reforms. Perhaps, Gorbachev may even have drawn some lessons from the visible economic success achieved by Deng’s reforms initiated in 1978 and which preceded his own by several years. Deng’s open-door policy was part of his economic reform policy and implied opening up the Chinese economy to the outside world, embracing export and foreign investment-led growth on the East Asian pattern. It did not include political reform and certainly not the loosening of controls on the information and media space. This was a key difference from glasnost. The reportage in the Soviet media on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1987 was the first demonstration of the new liberal space. This played an important role in undermining the prestige and credibility of the Soviet state.
Deng’s reforms also led to acute economic and social stresses. With high growth came high inflation. The breaking of the ‘iron bowl’ of state-guaranteed security of employment and access to health, education and other public services, as part of the reforms, led to deep economic insecurity and distress in some sections of the Chinese society. These came to a head in the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, confronting the leadership with an unprecedented crisis. Deng was instrumental in the brutal suppression of the demonstrations. In the aftermath, there were voices in the party leadership that linked the political turmoil to the reforms. Over the next three years, there was a slowing down of the reforms. This was reinforced by the international isolation of China. It was in 1992 that Deng carried out his famous ‘southern tour’ to the relatively more developed and economically open state of Guangdong and reaffirmed the reform policies. China resumed its accelerated growth trajectory. But the political lesson it drew was that the levers of political power and control over media and propaganda must be reinforced. The Chinese revile Gorbachev because he lost control over the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the army. No Chinese leader would make this mistake.
Gorbachev visited China when the Tiananmen demonstrations were reaching a climax. He gave his view of the unrest to his delegation: ‘Some of those present here have promoted the idea of taking the Chinese road. We saw today where this road leads. I do not want the Red Square to look like the Tiananmen Square.’
Later, in a conversation with Rajiv Gandhi that year, Gorbachev spelt out what he meant by the ‘Chinese road’: ‘One thing is clear, that the process of economic reform did not find support in the political reform. We must do many things in the sphere of economic reform so that it corresponds to the pace of the political reform.’
Gorbachev undertook the dismantling of both the economic and political edifices of the Soviet state and lost control of both.
Rajiv and Gorbachev agreed that China’s isolation would be a mistake. The then Congress secretary, Ghulam Nabi Azad, on his way back from the DPRK, was the first foreign political personage to meet Jiang Zemin, the newly appointed party general secretary, in the July of 1989.
Gorbachev raised the possibility of a grouping of the Soviet Union, India and China. This is the first reference to what would become the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral, which took shape subsequently. Primakov gave public voice to it when serving as Russian PM in 1998.
I served in the PMO during the tumultuous drama unfolding in the then Soviet Union. There was disquiet over the unravelling of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev’s apparent acquiescence in this. When there was a short-lived coup against him in 1991, the reaction was one of caution but with a hint that perhaps the old Soviet Union would be salvaged. PM Narasimha Rao famously remarked, ‘Mr Gorbachev’s ouster was a warning to people who favoured reforms without controls.’
China and India were apprehensive about what the collapse of the Soviet Union would mean in terms of their respective positions in the emerging geopolitical landscape. But it is also true that both countries adjusted with considerable success to the changed external environment.
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