Thursday, 8 September 2022
Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich
On 30 August the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, died in Moscow at the age of 91. Those who remember or have heard about how tense the late Cold War was in the seventies and eighties may remember Gorbachev as the fearsome name and face of the USSR. It is important to note that Gorbachev, a Communist Party faithful who rose to be general secretary in 1985, was no pushover or pro-Western, as critics have claimed. Gorbachev did all he could to preserve and expand the power of the Soviet Union. When he spoke of restructuring Moscow's foreign policy and its economy, and bringing transparency to its society, Gorbachev envisaged the Soviet party state that had emerged from the 1917 revolution growing its industry and military capabilities to keep contesting the Cold War.
In 1986 Gorbachev made a landmark speech in Russia's Pacific Fleet headquarters of Vladivostok that signalled that only the tone of Russian strategic policy had changed. This speech and the constant port visits of Soviet submarines into the South Pacific sent shockwaves through Canberra. Many of our hard-nosed defence planners worried that the Soviet Union had overcome Australia's area denial strategy in the Pacific. But, as we know from history, Gorbachev's social and economic reforms unleashed forces that had long been heavily repressed by the brutal hand of the Soviet state. Gorbachev's legacy is defined by what he did next.
When the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union began agitating for independence, Gorbachev, a committed Leninist, hesitated. At first, protesters were violently repressed in Georgia, but when the contagion of freedom which he had caused spread to the Baltic states, Gorbachev backed down. The Baltic states are free today thanks to this decision. He resisted the pressure from his security apparatus, and every instinct of the Soviet state to crush any open threats to the party's monopoly over power. Russian nationalists to this day resent this decision for destroying Russia's sphere of influence in Europe and for fatally undermining the Soviet Union itself. But from my perspective Gorbachev should also be remembered as a proponent of freedom who helped to end the costly Cold War.
Gorbachev would later visit Australia in 2006 to lobby the Howard government to sign the Kyoto protocol. We know from our former ambassador to Russia Peter Tesch, who bought him his first Akubra, that Gorbachev was curious about Australia's prosperous, multicultural society that didn't throw its weight around against its neighbours.
Mikhail Gorbachev remains a divisive figure amongst Westerners, Russians and Ukrainians. Gorbachev's memory is painful for many Ukrainians because of his share of responsibility in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and because he endorsed Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. But we also know from witnesses that, to his dying day, Gorbachev was crushed by the war in Ukraine—as all of us are in this place. As the war escalated earlier this year, a sick Gorbachev called for an end to the hostilities.
Among his remarkable acts of statesmanship and courage was his decision to unilaterally withdraw half a million Soviet troops from Germany and eastern Europe. That's a force eight times the size of the ADF. He chose to withdraw them rather than unilaterally keeping Soviet forces dominating half of Europe, as many of his advisers wanted to do. Those who criticise him in modern Russia say that Gorbachev was tricked by the West into selling out Russia's interests. But, in a 2014 interview, Gorbachev, who was himself closely involved in these negotiations with the US, rejected the idea that the West had deceived him into withdrawing troops. Still, Gorbachev was given no state funeral in Russia.
But, as we remember his life, let us keep in mind not only his contribution to the only period in history in which Russians briefly tasted real freedom for one generation; let us also remember his lasting contribution to international peace and security, and to Australia's security by extension of that. Dmitry Muratov, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who knew Gorbachev well, recalled that he refused to press the nuclear attack button even for simulated attacks during training. We can only hope that this spirit will guide the leaders of nuclear weapons states who weigh such huge responsibilities. Vale, Mikhail Gorbachev.
I rise to commemorate the life of Mikhail Gorbachev and the remarkable things that happened, particularly at the end of his tenure as the chairman of the Politburo and leader of the USSR. It is in the context of the very heartbreaking circumstance in the former USSR that we see before us right now—the Russian aggression and invasion of Ukraine, and the circumstance in that part of the world, which is very disappointing. It didn't have to be that way, because the opportunity was there when the Iron Curtain fell, and then when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics disintegrated into the constituent parts and became various forms of new democracies, for Russia, in particular, to have followed the path of countries like West Germany and Japan, which, having been adversaries to the peaceful Western world order, have now joined it and are some of the strongest members of it. What a different place the planet would be right now if Russia had followed the path of the now united Germany—West Germany for a long period of time, until the fall of the Berlin Wall—and Japan. That is the great lost geopolitical opportunity that the United States, in particular, and the Clinton administration have to bear responsibility for. It is heartbreaking that that moment of excitement at the fall of the Soviet Union has resulted in a very different outcome.
Nonetheless, Gorbachev was—I was reflecting on this just a moment ago—probably the last significant global figure of the 20th century who was involved in events like the Cold War who has finally passed away. It's an opportunity to reflect on him but also on that era. I was born in 1983, so I don't remember those things in real time, but I know through studies and an interest in global politics, which we all invariably have if we end up serving in the federal parliament.
That era that Gorbachev was a part of was a remarkable period of time—a relieving period of time. A previous contribution, from the member for Solomon, pointed out the very different way in which things could have transpired if Gorbachev had been a different type of person to the one he was. He was not to be universally admired, and things happened on his watch and under the regime that he led that were deplorable and disgusting, including, clearly, acts of violence by the regime that he headed, and the death of innocent people.
But, comparatively, we're very lucky that Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party, and we're very lucky that, compared to what others in that same position could have done, he saw the peaceful destruction of that Communist regime and, therefore, the end of the Cold War-the end of a period in which the spectre of nuclear war was ever present in people's minds until that point. Even though we unfortunately still have nuclear weapons and worst-case scenarios present here in 2022, there certainly was a dramatic de-escalation, thanks to Gorbachev's engagement and involvement with President Reagan, in particular, in the nuclear stockpiles and defensive build-up of the USSR, and, commensurately, of the United States—and from us being in a situation with those two powers constantly and very closely potentially triggering one another for the unthinkable to unfold. That never happened, thankfully. Thanks to Gorbachev, the risk of those two powers ultimately triggering something like that event disappeared when one of the two potential trigger fingers was gone.
So I pay tribute to Gorbachev and the impact that he had on the 20th century. I'm very pleased that he became the leader and led, particularly through perestroika and other measures, the destruction of that Communist regime. I note the bitter disappointment that what could have come out of that—a Russian democratic republic that was a member of the Western world, seeing its future through free and open trade, economic advancement and democracy, and being a part of a responsible world order—did not manifest. That's not really Gorbachev's fault, because it could have occurred. Disappointingly and depressingly, it did not, and we see the unfortunate reality of that with what's happening in Ukraine. But we should still pay tribute to him, with the very significant caveat that there were a lot of things that he was associated with that we should also deplore and criticise. Nonetheless, he was one of the great figures of the 20th century, and I indeed pay tribute to his legacy today.