Gorbachev’s death cracks open Europe’s Russian divide – POLITICO

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

“Lithuanians 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 the occupation of our country by his regime. His soldiers shot at our unarmed protesters and crushed them under his tanks. That’s how we’ll remember him.”

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

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It is countries like Lithuania, closest to the front lines, that are most at risk from a newly aggressive Russia and have the greatest reason to fear a complacent reading of history.

Less than 24 hours after Gorbachev’s death was announced, Landsbergis’ eruption was remarkable. Just hours earlier, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had hailed Gorbachev as a “trusted and respected leader”, who “paved the way for a free Europe”.

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

Similar praise came from Washington, London and Dublin.

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

The bloodshed didn’t stop there. In Azerbaijan, 150 people were killed by the Soviet army, while more than 20 people were massacred by Soviet troops armed with truncheons and shovels in Tbilisi, Georgia.

These violent episodes are often overlooked when Western politicians report on those tumultuous, history-making times when the Soviet Union fell apart.

Gorbachev, who was president during this period, himself denied any knowledge of the atrocities. In his 1995 book “Memoirs,” Gorbachev addressed the controversy, claiming he was unaware of what was happening in the Baltics, and vaguely hinting at a conspiracy.

“When it comes to memories of Gorbachev, the Baltic experience is different,” said Kadri Liik, senior policy officer at the European Council of Foreign Relations. “For much of Europe Gorbachev was the one who ended the Cold War, he allowed Germany to reunite, while in the Baltics the memory is that – yes, he launched perestroika, glasnost – but he was against the pursuit of independence in the Baltic states.”

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Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa Gorbacheva with First Secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party Algirdas Brazauskas in Siauliai on January 12, 1990 during a three-day visit to the Soviet Republic of Lithuania. 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, especially in Lithuania.

Earlier this year, families of the victims of the 1991 Soviet crackdown filed a civil lawsuit against Gorbachev. The plaintiffs argued that Gorbachev as Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces in 1991 had the power to prevent the event, but did not.

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

As Gorbachev’s death reopens these wounds, it also accentuates the current divisions within Europe over Russia.

From the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Baltic trio — along with former Eastern Bloc states such as Poland — have embraced an aggressive stance on the war and called for a stronger response from the EU.

Armed with a historic reminder of Soviet control that Western Europe simply does not possess, the eastern members of the EU have rebuked their Western partners for their perceived naivety when it comes to Vladimir Putin.

The east-west divide over how to respond to Putin has permeated every strand of EU policymaking since the start of the war – from the tortured rounds of sanctions negotiations to the need to accelerate Russia’s energy independence – with the Baltic and Eastern European countries repeatedly calls for stronger action.

It is also driving the current impasse over banning Russian visitors from Europe. The Baltic states have urged the EU to introduce a total ban on Russian visitors, a proposal that met resistance from a group of Western European states.

As the comments praising Gorbachev for his role in ending the Cold War and championing a detente with the West are becoming more and more powerful, there is also a remarkable silence from the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Gorbachev’s handling of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 looms large in the history of Ukraine.

The then Soviet leader famously chose to downplay the disaster and inform the general population about what had happened weeks later. Labor Day marches in towns and villages went ahead as planned, even as the radiation drifted over Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Gorbachev’s views on Putin’s war in Ukraine in recent months are not clear – a day after the invasion, he called for a “cessation of hostilities” and for peace talks to begin, though he did not blame Russia.

Gorbachev also supported Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, a takeover considered 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 on Tuesday in his response to Gorbachev’s death.

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 wasn’t that simple.

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

Camille Gijs and Zoya Sheftalovich contributed reporting

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