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Inside Putin and Gorbachev’s Love-Hate Relationship

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RUSSIAN president Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences on Wednesday over the death of the last leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom he had shared a love-hate relationship for years.

“Mikhail Gorbachev was a politician and a statesman who greatly influenced the course of world history,” Putin said in a statement posted on the Kremlin’s official website.

“He led our country during a period of complex, dramatic changes and large-scale foreign policy, economic and social challenges,” he added.

Gorbachev had been one of the harshest critics of the Putin government and the late Soviet leader not only differed in age (by more than 20 years) but also in politics given his rejection of authoritarianism, his support for a pragmatic relationship with the West and for nuclear disarmament.

“No one has a monopoly over the truth,” Gorbachev, who died Tuesday aged 91, said in an old interview with the recently closed down Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

At times, Putin did not hesitate to respond to Gorbachev’s criticism, but, unlike other opposition leaders, he never dared to criticize a man with undeniable global prestige.

Odious Comparisons

While Gorbachev (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990) was an idolized figure in the West, Putin has become an adversary of the United States and the European Union.

Gorbachev, whose grandparents were victims of Stalinist repression, tried to provide the USSR with a “human face.” Putin, on the other hand, had tried to rehabilitate the figure of Stalin and revive the Soviet Empire by force.

Gorbachev was known for bringing down the Iron Curtain and ending the Cold War, while Putin does not accept the war’s outcome and seeks to redraw the borders that have been internationally recognized since 1991.

Gorbachev was a shareholder of Novaya Gazeta but Putin is known for his hostility toward the press.

In addition, Putin was brought to power by Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s main rival and Russia’s first democratic president.

Saving the Soviet Union

Putin always blamed Gorbachev for failing to make economic reforms he thought were necessary to save the Soviet Union and highlighted that the situation in Russia in the late 1990s was much more dramatic than in the dying years of the USSR.

At that time, Putin said, the economy had collapsed due to the 1998 financial crisis and the army had ceased to exist amid a rise in international terrorism, separatism and civil war. Russia was on the verge of disintegration, he claimed.

In order to prevent this, Putin launched an anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya, imposed a vertical power structure, shut down the most critical media outlets and restricted fundamental freedoms.

The Kremlin Monopoly of Power

After several attempts to return to the political scene with a social democratic project, Gorbachev remained a figure in the opposition until evidence of fraud was found in the 2011 legislative elections and unleashed the largest anti-government protests in 20 years.

Gorbachev then joined sides with the opposition led by a young Alexei Navalny and even demanded the elections be annulled. In the following months and years, he called for overcoming “authoritarian tendencies” in Russian politics and accused Putin of believing himself to be God.

He also urged constitutional reform to create a “real democracy” through a referendum that would end “the autocracy” once and for all and called on Putin to give up on seeking a non-existent “fifth column” in Russian society.

Months later, Putin returned to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister and did just the opposite.

He started by passing laws that restricted freedom of assembly and then made constitutional changes through a referendum to allow him to remain in power until 2036.

Putin, the Lord of War

The Russian invasion of Ukraine forced Putin and Gorbachev once again to go sideways as the Gorbachev Foundation called for an urgent cessation of hostilities two days after the start of the war.

In 1989, Gorbachev ordered the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Since 1999, Putin has resorted to force in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Ukraine.

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