Gorbachev mourned as a rare but still bitter world leader

BERLIN (AP) — Mikhail Gorbachevthe last leader of the Soviet Union and for many the man who restored democracy to the then communist-ruled nations of Europe, was hailed on Wednesday as a rare leader who changed the world and for a time brought hope for peace among the superpowers.

But the man who died on Tuesday at 91 was also reviled by many compatriots who blamed him for the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union and its dwindling as a superpower. The Russian nation that emerged from its Soviet past shrank in size as 15 new nations were created.

The loss of pride and power has also led to the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has tried over the past quarter century to restore Russia to its former glory and beyond.

US President Joe Biden praised Gorbachev for his openness to democratic change. Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War.

“After decades of brutal political repression, he embraced democratic reforms. He believed in glasnost and perestroika – opening up and restructuring – not as mere slogans, but as the way forward for the people of the Soviet Union after so many years of isolation and deprivation,” Biden said. .

Biden added that “these were the acts of a rare leader – one with the imagination to see that a different future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it. The result has been a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.

Although Gorbachev was widely celebrated abroad, he was an outcast at home. Putin acknowledged that Gorbachev had “a profound impact on the course of world history”.

“He led the country through difficult and dramatic changes, amid large-scale foreign policies, economic and social challenges,” Putin said in a short telegram sending his condolences to Gorbachev’s family.

Gorbachev “realized that reforms were needed and tried to offer his solutions to acute problems,” Putin said.

Reactions from Russian officials and lawmakers have been mixed. They applauded Gorbachev for his role in ending the Cold War, but censured him for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Oleg Morozov, a member of the Kremlin’s main party, United Russia, said Gorbachev should have “repented” of mistakes that went against Russia’s interests.

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“He was a willing or unwilling co-author of the unjust world order that our soldiers are currently fighting on the battlefield,” Morozov said, referring to Russia’s current war in Ukraine.

Lech Walesa, leader of Poland’s pro-democracy Solidarity movement in the 1980s and the country’s president from 1990 to 1995, had a more nuanced view of Gorbachev. He said he “admired him, even loved him, but didn’t understand him”.

“He believed until the end that communism could be reformed, but I, on the contrary, did not believe it was possible,” Walesa told Wirtualna Polska media.

Walesa added: “He knew the Soviet Union couldn’t last any longer and he was doing everything he could to stop the world from blaming Russia for communism. And he succeeded there.

World leaders paid tribute to a man some described as a great and courageous leader.

In Germany, where Gorbachev is considered one of the fathers of the country’s reunification in 1990 and is commonly known as “Gorbi”, former Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed him as “a unique politician in the world”.

“Gorbachev wrote the history of the world. He illustrated how a single statesman can change the world for the better,” she said, recalling how she feared Russian tanks would enter East Germany, where she lived, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Current German Chancellor Olaf Scholz praised Gorbachev for paving the way for the reunification of his country, although he also pointed out that Gorbachev died at a time when many of his achievements had been undone.

“We know he died at a time when not only did democracy in Russia fail – there is no other way to describe the current situation there – but also Russia and Russian President Putin are drawing new trenches in Europe and started a horrible war against a neighboring country, Ukraine,” Scholz said.

Other European leaders have noted this contrast between Gorbachev’s fame for peacemaking and Putin’s attack on Ukraine.

Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “at a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, (Gorbachev’s) tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example for all of us” .

Gorbachev’s “desire for peace, his opposition to an imperialist vision of Russia, won him a Nobel Prize”, said Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. “These are all the more relevant messages in the face of the tragedy of the invasion of Ukraine.”

Others in Europe have challenged Gorbachev’s positive recollections.

Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s top diplomat who is also the son of Vytautas Landsbergis, who led the Lithuanian independence movement in the early 1990s, tweeted that “Lithuans will not glorify Gorbachev”.

Memories are still fresh in the Baltic country of January 13, 1991, when hundreds of Lithuanians marched to the Vilnius television tower to oppose Soviet troops deployed to crush the country’s bid to restore its independence. In the ensuing clashes, 14 civilians were killed and more than 140 others were injured. Moscow recognized Lithuania’s independence in August of the same year.

“We will never forget the simple fact that his army murdered civilians to prolong his regime’s occupation of our country. His soldiers fired on our unarmed demonstrators and crushed them under his tanks. This is how we will remember him,” Landsbergis wrote.

But another Baltic leader, Latvian President Egils Levits, noted that Gorbachev’s policies enabled the eventual independence of the three Baltic countries.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called Gorbachev “a unique statesman who changed the course of history” and “did more than any other individual to peacefully end the cold War”.

“The world has lost an imposing global leader, a committed multilateralist and a tireless advocate for peace,” the UN chief said.

Gorbachev’s contemporaries singled out the end of the Cold War as one of his accomplishments.

“Mikhail Gorbachev played a crucial role in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end. At home he was a figure of historical significance, but not in the way he had expected,” said Robert M. Gates, who led the CIA from 1991 to 1993 and later became US Secretary to the defense.

Calling Gorbachev a “brave leader and a great statesman”, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said the last Soviet leader “opened the doors of the Soviet Union to the great wave of Jewish immigration to Israel in the 1990s”.

In Asia, Gorbachev is remembered as a leader with the courage to bring about change.

China has recognized Gorbachev’s role in healing relations between Moscow and Beijing. Gorbachev had been an inspiration to reformist thinkers in China in the late 1980s, and his visit to Beijing in 1989 marked a turning point in relations between the parties.

“Mr. Gorbachev has made positive contributions to the normalization of relations between China and the Soviet Union. We mourn his passing and send our condolences to his family,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

However, Chinese Communist Party leaders also view Gorbachev’s liberal approach as a fatal display of weakness and his moves towards peaceful coexistence with the West as a form of surrender.

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Patrick Quinn reported from Bangkok. AP reporters from around the world contributed to this report.

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More AP articles on Mikhail Gorbachev here: https://apnews.com/hub/mikhail-gorbachev

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