Gorbachev’s death opens Russian divide in Europe – POLITICO

When the death of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was announced, Europe’s Western elites lined up to pay glowing tributes to the heroic statesman who helped end the Cold War. For many Eastern Europeans, the truth is bitterly different.

« Lithuans will not glorify Gorbachev, » said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said. “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.

As the European Union grapples with how to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, disagreements over Gorbachev’s legacy once again reveal the deep divisions among the bloc’s 27 member states over EU politics. regard to Moscow.

It is countries like Lithuania, which are closest to the front line, which are most threatened by a newly aggressive Russia and which have the most reason to fear a complacent reading of history.

Less than 24 hours after news of Gorbachev’s death was announced, the explosion at Landsbergis was remarkable. Just hours earlier, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed Gorbachev as a « trusted and respected leader » who « opened the way to a free Europe ».

French President Emmanuel Macron also weighed in, saying « Gorbachev’s commitment to peace in Europe has changed our common history ». German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the former leader of the Soviet Union made possible his country’s existence as a unified state.

Similar praise came from Washington, London and Dublin.

But for Lithuanians like Landsbergis, the events of Gorbachev’s reign remain painful today. In January 1991, the Soviet army stormed parliament and a television and radio center, killing 14 people. A few days later, five people were killed when soldiers burst into a Latvian government ministry and opened fire.

The bloodshed did not stop there. In Azerbaijan, 150 people were killed by the Soviet army, while more than 20 people were massacred by Soviet forces, armed with batons and shovels, in Tbilisi, Georgia.

These violent episodes are often overlooked when Western politicians report on these heady and historic moments in the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev, who was president at the time, himself denied any knowledge of the atrocities. In his 1995 book, « Memoirs, » Gorbachev addressed the controversy, saying he was unaware of what was happening in the Baltics and vaguely hinting at a conspiracy.

« When it comes to Gorbachev’s memorabilia, the Baltic experience is different, » said Kadri Liik, senior policy officer at the European Council on Foreign Relations. « For much of Europe, Gorbachev is the one who ended the cold war, he brought Germany together, while the memory in the Baltic states is that – yes, he started perestroika, Glasnost – but he was against the independence campaign of the Baltic states.

Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa Gorbachev with Lithuanian Communist Party First Secretary Algirdas Brazauskas in Siauliai January 12, 1990 during a three-day visit to the Lithuanian Soviet Republic. Lithuania legally separated from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990 | Vitaly Armand/AFP via Getty Images

The pain of the violent events of 1991 is still felt, particularly in Lithuania.

Earlier this year, the families of those killed in the 1991 Soviet crackdown filed a civil lawsuit against Gorbachev. The plaintiffs argued that as Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces in 1991, Gorbachev had the authority to prevent the event, but failed to do so.

In 2019, several dozen former Russian officials were convicted of war crimes by a court in Vilnius for their part in the raids. But their sentences were handed down in absentia because Russia and Belarus refused to extradite them.

While Gorbachev’s death reopens these wounds, it also accentuates current divisions in Europe over Russia.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the trio of Baltic countries – as well as former Eastern Bloc states like Poland – have taken a warmongering stance on the war, advocating a more forceful response from the EU.

Armed with a historical memory of Soviet control that Western Europe simply does not possess, eastern EU members have chastised their Western partners for their perceived naivety towards Vladimir Putin.

The East-West divide over how to respond to Putin has permeated every aspect of EU policy-making since the start of the war – from the tortured rounds of negotiations over sanctions to the need to speed up the energy independence from Russia – with the Baltic and Eastern European countries on several occasions. calling for stronger action.

He is also behind the current standoff over the banning of Russian visitors from Europe. The Baltic states have urged the EU to implement a total ban on Russian visitors, a proposal that has met with resistance from a group of Western European states.

As comments praising Gorbachev for his role in ending the Cold War and promoting a detente with the West continue to roll in, there has also been notable silence from Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government. Gorbachev’s handling of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 looms large in Ukraine’s history.

The Soviet leader at the time chose to downplay the disaster, not informing the general population of what had happened until weeks later. Labor Day parades in cities and towns went according to plan, even as radiation drifted into Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Gorbachev’s views on Putin’s war in Ukraine in recent months are unclear – a day after the invasion he called for a « cessation of hostilities » and the start of peace talks, but did not blame the Russia.

Gorbachev also supported Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, a takeover deemed illegal by the EU and most of the international community.

As with many figures in world history, Gorbachev’s legacy is part myth, part fact. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs may have come closest to reality in his response to Gorbachev’s death on Tuesday.

Gorbachev « tried to reform the Soviet Union and he failed » Rinkēvičs tweeted. The collapse of the Soviet Union was « the best moment of the 20th century », he said, but it was not so simple.

“The end of the Cold War was great, but killing people in Tbilisi, Vilnius, Riga is also part of its legacy. It’s up to history to judge.

Camille Gijs and Zoya Sheftalovich contributed reporting


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