The Conflicts That Outlived Gorbachev

Part of Gorbachev’s legacy is the crippling of surrounding states all for the dream of a ‘renewed union’

8 September 2022

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

My personal memories of Gorbachev, and how his plans led to today’s breakaway ‘republics.’

In the summer of 1991, a few weeks before the August coup d’état, I met the ‘president’ of the self-proclaimed Transnistrian Moldovan Republic, Igor Smirnov, in the lobby of one of the hotels of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Smirnov, who went on to head this ‘republic’ — effectively a Russian-occupied enclave of Moldova and turned it into a Klondike of smugglers — was encouraged and told me he had been received in the Kremlin by the Chairman of the USSR Supreme Council, Anatoly Lukyanov. 

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Also in attendance at the time were the leaders of other self-proclaimed ‘republics,’ which were then being created with a straightforward objective — to stop the Soviet republics from seceding from the USSR and forcing them to participate in the ‘renewed’ state.

Lukyanov, according to Smirnov, said that in a few weeks, the leadership of the USSR would be able to achieve ‘normalisation’ of the situation in the country and neutralise ‘radicals’ and ‘nationalists,’ and asked the meeting participants to be ready to support these efforts. But most importantly, during the meeting, the President of the USSR, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, Mikhail Gorbachev, unexpectedly entered the office of the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet. He welcomed Lukyanov’s guests, wished them good luck and left.

Fractured Memories

I remembered this conversation when I thought about Mikhail Gorbachev’s historical role and the high appreciation of his contribution in the West. I understand Germans who thank Gorbachev for the peaceful reunification of their Fatherland or Americans who believe that this man ended the Cold War and saved them from the fear of a nuclear confrontation — however, as it has now turned out, he did not do so forever. 

However, I also understand politicians in Lithuania who remember how the Soviet Army killed civilians in Vilnius — when an attempt was made to overthrow the leadership of that republic, which promised to restore the country’s independence. I understand the politicians in Moldova who know that the conflict in their country, which is still not over, was inspired by the Kremlin under Gorbachev. 

I remember very well how, on the first day of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR on 25 May 1989, the Latvian MP Vilen Tolpezhnikov came to the podium to declare a minute’s silence in memory of those killed by the army in Tbilisi. Gorbachev also reluctantly stood up. He then slowed down the formation of a replacement commission to investigate the tragedy — headed by Anatoly Sobchak, the future mayor of St Petersburg and Putin’s mentor. Gorbachev never admitted responsibility for Tbilisi, Baku or Vilnius — as if he were not commander-in-chief at the time; as if the soldiers could act without his orders.

Many journalists in the former USSR and the West recall with nostalgia how they talked with Gorbachev — then politically retired — and recorded extended interviews with him. I was not so lucky. But on the other hand, I spoke with Gorbachev when he was President of the Soviet Union — on the veranda of the Kremlin’s Palace of Congress, in the confusion of the political whirlwind of the time.

The Pivotal Moment

It was then that Gorbachev decided (also erroneously) that since he had lost control of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR)  to Boris Yeltsin, Ukraine should become his main engine for the creation of a ‘renewed Union.’ And he wanted to ‘signal’ to the Ukrainians with my help. Incidentally, the interview was called — ‘Ukrainians, let’s go!’ 

I will not repeat its content simply because it is almost impossible to replicate the content of any conversation with Gorbachev. But I still remember my feeling. I liked Gorbachev very much at that time. I experienced a youthful delight that such colossal changes had begun in the USSR. 

But I was horrified that my interlocutor — the head of such a state — did not understand the mood of my compatriots at all. And if only I had understood mine!

How it Began 

The first riots in Gorbachev’s USSR began in Kazakhstan on 17 December 1986, after Gorbachev removed Leonid Brezhnev’s close friend and favourite Dynmuchamed Konyaev from the post of First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of that republic and offered the place to a party worker from central Russia. 

The Kazakhs — mainly young people — already felt they were citizens of their own country, and they sent a person to lead Kazakhstan who knew nothing about the republic or the Kazakhs but saw Kazakhstan simply as another ‘region’ — and it is clear that the ideas of the new secretary, Gennady Kolbin, in this respect were in no way different from those of Gorbachev himself. 

The young and energetic general secretary, who came from the territory of Stavropol, proved to be a complete layman on one of the main issues relating to the future of the USSR — the national question. Moreover, Gorbachev believed that his incompetence should not prevent him from exploiting national issues for political intrigue. 

And when the union republics announced their desire for sovereignty, he began instigating internal conflicts in these republics to achieve their ‘obedience.’ One of my colleagues even wrote an article about the ‘sixteenth republiс’ of the Soviet Union — the centre led by Gorbachev. 

Gorbachev acted not as a Russian politician but as a politician of this ‘sixteenth republic.’ For when he began to lose the struggle with Boris Yeltsin for control of Russia — without which there is de facto no USSR — he decided to take advantage of the mood in the autonomous republics of Russia itself, to make them practically total participants in the process of creating a ‘renewed Union’, to discuss status upgrades and to compete with Yeltsin.

Uncertain Dreams of Change

I do not doubt that the peoples of Russia deserve a better fate. But then, this game of the two presidents around the Chechens or Tatars — laid the foundations for conflicts that turned into bloody wars in the Caucasus. And this is part of Gorbachev’s political legacy. 

After all, this legacy is by no means just perestroika, glasnost or German reunification. Perestroika has long been on the same page as the demolition of the Berlin Wall in history books. 

But the Karabakh conflict, the conflict in Transnistria and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, all of which began under Gorbachev and outlived him. 

To date, there is no understanding of how these conflicts and the question of the territorial integrity of the countries that became their victims will be resolved. 

On the contrary, the scenarios of these conflicts are used by the leaders of modern Russia to interfere in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries and turn other former Soviet republics into disabled countries.

The irony of history is that this tragic political legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev has proved far more lasting than his dreams of change.

Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.


Picture: Orginal picture of Gorbachev: RIA Novosti archive, image #359290 / Yuryi Abramochkin / CC-BY-SA 3.0, RIAN archive 359290 Mikhail Gorbachev, Added Filter and Cropped, added map of USSR, CC BY-SA 3.0 Picture of USSR: NuclearVacuumMap-Flag of the Soviet Union, filter, CC BY-SA 3.0

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Vitaly is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. He is also an author and renowned journalist working in democratic media in Central and Eastern Europe for more than three decades. He is the author of hundreds of analytical articles in Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Israeli, Baltic media. He hosts television programs and his own analytical channels on YouTube. He is currently broadcasting at the office of the Espreso TV channel in Lviv and continues to cooperate with the Ukrainian and Russian services of Radio Liberty. On the Russian service of Radio Liberty, he continues the project about the post-Soviet space “Roads to Freedom”, which was aired first from Moscow, then from Kyiv, and is now being produced in Lviv as a joint project of Radio Liberty, the Current Time TV channel and the Espreso TV channel.


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