The Charismatic Mr Gorbachev

 

Not all that long ago the idea of conferring the freedom of the city of Dublin on a man who made his name as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would have caused outrage throughout the land.

Mr Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, however, was no ordinary General Secretary. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s he had become the most charismatic politician in virtually every country in the world except his own.

His refusal to accede to a request by the East German party boss to send in Soviet troops to crush opposition to his rule in 1989 began a process that led to the fall of the Berlin wall and true self-determination for most of East and Central Europe.

The demise of Moscow as a superpower was a major factor in his becoming extremely unpopular at home to the extent that in the presidential election of 1998 he gained just 0.5 per cent of the votes. To Westerners in whose eyes he was a hero, the Russian attitude is difficult to understand.

He did, after all, start his country on the road to individual freedoms that had not previously existed. It is often forgotten that under Tsarist as well as Communist rule freedom of expression was ruthlessly curbed. Mr Gorbachev, through his policy of Glasnost, lifted the lid on a cauldron of discontent in the world's largest state. The pressure under that lid appears to have been considerably greater than Mr Gorbachev anticipated. His attempts to restrain the forces he had unleashed were unsuccessful not least because his rival, Mr Boris Yeltsin, consistently and with western support, pushed for greater reform at a faster pace.

With Mr Yeltsin in the background the western powers felt it unnecessary to support Mr Gorbachev in his struggles against more traditional and unreconstructed members of the Communist Party. The resultant explosion came in August 1991 when, led by his one of his closest and long-standing colleagues Mr Anatoly Lukyanov, the hardliners staged a putsch to oust him.

Paradoxically the main beneficiary of the coup's failure was Mr Yeltsin who proceeded to dismantle the Soviet Union and take power as president of the Russian Federation.

Like many others before him Mr Gorbachev saw his political career end in apparent failure but the history books are likely to regard him as a far more significant leader than the man who succeeded him in the Kremlin. Glasnost was his great contribution to Russian society and for that reason alone his inclusion later today with Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa in the list of freemen of Dublin is to be welcomed.