Twenty years after the disappearance of the USSR, the former Secretary General of the CPSU and last leader of the Soviet Union, made the bitter observation of the failure of democracy in Russia, while Vladimir Putin and Dimitri Medvedev agreed between them to share power, in view of the 2012 presidential elections. This is not Putin’s role. This must be decided by the nation through elections. The elections did indeed take place in March 2012, allowing Vladmir Putin, who again became Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012, to run for a third presidential term while Medvedev resumed his former duties as Prime Minister. Since then, Vladimir Putin has been re-elected in 2018 and will probably be so again in 2024. Dimitri Medvedev, meanwhile, remained at the head of the Russian government until 2020, to be replaced today by Mikhail Michoustine.
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The presidential party, United Russia, systematically dominates the elections, be they presidential, legislative or municipal, to the point that the other political formations make up the numbers and that specialists in political science speak, about Russia, of ” guided democracy”. Gorbachev, in 2011, evokes a kind of parody of the old Soviet system: “ United Russia reminds me of a bad copy of the Communist Party. We have institutions but they don’t work concluded the former Soviet leader in 2011. In fact, during the last presidential elections, United Russia won 76.6% of the vote, ahead of its main competitor, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and its candidate Pavel Grudinin, who won 11.7% of the vote. In 2021, United Russia, represented by Defense Minister Sergei Choïgou, gathers almost 50% of the votes. The Communist Party comes in second place with less than 19%. Mikhail Gorbachev certainly did not imagine that democracy would so effectively perpetuate the old political system after its supposed fall.
Fight against Soviet sclerosis
Gorbachev did not wish for the fall of the USSR when he was in power, although he was accused by the more conservative fringe of the Communist Party of having accelerated the disintegration of the Soviet empire through his reforms. Born on March 2, 1931 in Privolnoïe, in what is now Stavropol Krai, a small province in the Caucasus, Mikhail Gorbachev, who grew up in a family of kolkhozites, was marked, when he was six years old, by the arrest of his maternal grandfather, a victim of the Stalinist purges in 1937, while his paternal grandfather had already been deported in 1934. After having joined the Communist youth of the Komsomol, then the Communist Party itself, at the age of twenty years, Gorbachev, noticed by Yuri Andropov and theapparatchik Mikhaïl Souslov, a member of the Politburo who took him under his protection, quickly rose through the ranks of power, until he himself reached the Politburo, the highest body in the Party, in 1980. It was thanks to the ruling class’s awareness of the increasingly marked decline of the USSR that Mikhail Gorbachev was able to rise to the highest step of power and become Secretary General of the Communist Party in 1985.
Gorbachev’s action may be unanimously praised by Western leaders, but they did not help him much at the crucial moment when the USSR began a difficult, if not impossible, transition from Soviet authoritarianism to liberal democracy.
At the end of the 1970s, and even before the death of the gerontocrat Brezhnev, the Soviet leaders were well aware that the USSR had entered a phase of advanced decline. It is clearly lagging behind Western economies, even though the other communist power, China, began, from 1978 with Deng Xiaoping, a radical change intended to partially restore a market economy, framed by an authoritarian system. . While the People’s Republic of China manages to ensure the transition to a “socialist market economy”, the USSR becomes paralyzed. The resumption of the arms race and the war in Afghanistan further worsen the geopolitical and economic outlook. Aware of the problem, the Soviet leaders favored the accession to power of a new generation, that of Gorbachev, who was 54 years old when he became the new Secretary General of the party.
A mixed record
Gorbachev’s record gives rise to contrasting interpretations in the West and in Russia. The most paradoxical aspect of this historical legacy is that although Gorbachev’s action may be unanimously praised by Western leaders, the latter did not help him much at the crucial moment when the USSR began a difficult, if not impossible, transition. , from Soviet authoritarianism to liberal democracy. Some have blamed Gorbachev for going both too far and not far enough, challenging one-party rule, while still trying to keep a political – and ideological – system in place. Could it be otherwise?
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When Gorbachev came to power, the degree of decay which the USSR had reached already determined a point of no return and the end of the vast Soviet empire had already been consummated when, on April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., reactor no. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explodes following a poorly conducted safety test. The first reaction of the authorities, whether local or national, is to try by all means to cover up the accident, thus delaying the evacuation of the inhabitants of the area, in particular those of the city of Pripyat, in Ukraine. The first sarcophagus erected on the site of the power plant, from May to December 1986, symbolically became that of the USSR.
Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the Union and maintain its unity come up against both immense economic difficulties and political rivalries and appetites. The election as President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) of Boris Yeltsin (elected in the first round by direct universal suffrage) in June 1991 reduced Gorbachev’s power and the sovereignty of the USSR. On March 17, 1991, a referendum on the question of maintaining the Soviet Union gave 76% of responses in favor of maintaining it, but the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 13, 1989 had already initiated a movement that nothing could now stop.
A failed democratic transition
After the wave of independence in series which saw the “sister republics” (such as Ukraine) or the satellite States (such as Poland) gaining their independence between 1989 and 1990, the attempted putsch carried out in August 1991 by the supporters of the hard line within the Communist Party definitively marginalizes Mikhail Gorbachev, who does not receive – to put it mildly – the support expected from European leaders. François Mitterrand even declares that he wants to wait for the intentions of the “new Soviet leaders”…before realizing his mistake with the failure of the putsch initiated by Gennadi Yanaïev and his supporters. When Gorbachev announced his resignation on December 25, 1991, the CPSU had already been officially dissolved a month earlier and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) had already replaced the USSR with the Minsk and Alma-Ata agreements, signed on December 8 and 21, 1991.
With Gorbachev, very symbolically, the hope of a hypothetical perestroika who could have lifted Russia out of a long autocratic tradition
Since his forced retirement, Mikhail Gorbachev has seen the new Russian Federation descend into chaos with Boris Yeltsin, then Vladimir Putin coming to power with the promise of restoring the power and prestige lost with the fall of the USSR, until today to place his country and the whole of Europe on the brink of the abyss by attempting to invade the former Ukrainian “sister republic”. Forced to note the patent failure of the installation of democracy in Russia, Gorbachev will undoubtedly always have remembered Cicero’s phrase which he had, it seems, learned by heart: Dum spiro, spero“ As long as I breathe, I hope (Letters to Atticus. Volume IX, letter 10). And just as Cicero carried away with death the memory of a republic long since destroyed, with Gorbachev the hope of a hypothetical perestroika which could have lifted Russia out of a long autocratic tradition.