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SPECIAL EDITION: CRISIS IN THE KREMLIM : Global View : Waking Up to a World Without Gorbachev : * A giant in global politics, the deposed Soviet president was never able to produce the domestic economic miracle he had promised.

August 20, 1991|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — His reign lasted only 6 1/2 years--barely 1 1/2 terms if measured by U.S. presidential standards--but in that brief span, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev did nothing less than reshape the global order.

He came to power in March, 1985, in a world where East was divided against West in a Cold War that had gone on for so long only dreamers could see beyond it.

Growing nuclear arsenals were the main currency in a superpower struggle that dictated much of global politics. Moscow pushed Communist revolutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America, even though the ideology had failed at home.

For most of those in the West, the Soviet Union was a cold, forbidding place, ruled for so long by a succession of aged, infirm, stone-faced dictators that few could remember the last time one smiled, let alone laughed.

President Ronald Reagan's description of an "Evil Empire" had an echo.

Gorbachev changed all that and more.

More than any other single individual, his bold decisions to break from the past helped end the Cold War, breach the Berlin Wall and bring freedom to the people of Eastern Europe in a series of mainly peaceful revolutions.

He pushed forward with arms control agreements, despite bitter opposition from his military, and, together with his handpicked foreign minister, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, forged qualitatively new foreign policies. He worked for warmer relations with the West, brought Moscow out of its long isolation in Asia by building new bridges to Japan, China and both Koreas. He pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan after nearly a decade-long occupation.

In the Middle East, Moscow worked with the United States for the first time in recent memory, initially presenting a common front in opposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, then working jointly on a broader plan to resolve the longstanding Arab-Israeli dispute through an international peace conference.

Pro-Israeli groups in the United States on Monday urged Israel to reconsider its decision to attend the conference following Gorbachev's ouster.

At home, his policy of glasnost-- openness--brought the free exchange of ideas Gorbachev saw as vital to a successful economic revival. In the process, his policies transformed the basic ground rules of political debate in the Soviet Union, permitting a level of democratization the country had never known.

The fact that his successor, Gennady I. Yanayev, felt compelled to hold a news conference in Moscow only hours after seizing power suggests just how embedded the idea of glasnost has become.

Some believe Gorbachev was unleashing forces he little understood but was somehow compelled to act because he believed there was no other choice.

"He was a great Soviet patriot who understood his country's predicament--that it was in an irreversible decline," noted Michael Stuermer, director of a German government-financed think tank, the Ebenhausen Institute. "He felt he had to act, and he did."

Gorbachev won a Nobel Peace Prize and was easily among the most respected, trusted global political personalities.

But while his goal to create a safer world succeeded, the purpose of that goal--to reform a decaying Soviet economy by using money redirected from massive military spending--failed miserably.

During his years in office, Gorbachev's reforms had liberalized Soviet society but damaged its creaking economy to a point that it hardly functioned.

A brilliant tactician who was repeatedly able to turn short-term crises to his advantage, Gorbachev proved to be an unsuccessful strategist, unable to steer his nation on a coherent, viable path of long-term reform.

Suddenly, glasnost was a mixed blessing, providing a soap box for radical, nationalist voices and for radical conservatives urging his ouster.

Applauded, adored and honored abroad for his many achievements, he was ridiculed and gradually despised by an ever-growing number of Soviets, fed up with promises and reforms--known as perestroika --and a growing lack of foodstuffs and consumer goods.

Willing to junk communism in favor of large-scale political and economic reform in the former Soviet client states of Eastern Europe, Gorbachev was unable to make the same leap at home.

Shevardnadze, one of his closest allies, resigned in December, frustrated and disillusioned in part by the Soviet leader's inability to shake free from the influence of hard-liners. In a dramatic parliamentary speech, he warned of an approaching dictatorship.

Then last Friday, the chief architect of glasnost , Alexander N. Yakovlev, quit the Communist Party, also warning of a Stalinist-style coup.

By clinging to the idea that some kind of reformed communism could cure Soviet ills, Gorbachev became isolated between radical reformers pressing for further liberalization and a conservative party hierarchy and the military who saw his policies as a betrayal of the revolution.

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