5 September 2022

Senate Motion – Condolences

I rise in support of the motion moved by the Leader of the Government in the Senate and to associate the coalition parties with the words and sentiments expressed by the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

There can be no doubt that Mikhail Gorbachev was one of the towering figures of his era and one of the most significant world leaders of the 20th century. The importance of his role in bringing to an end the Cold War, which had cast a shadow over the world for half a century, cannot be understated. As one editorial opined, ‘On assuming leadership, Mikhail Gorbachev assiduously turned his attention to one herculean chore—dismantling the machinery of repression that his predecessors had so proudly and methodically erected.’

Mikhail Gorbachev was the first leader from the East who was able to work with the leaders of the West after what had been decades of distrust and military threat. The fact that Mr Gorbachev could work to overcome this history of distrust through his relationship with then US president Ronald Reagan and with other world leaders reflected his commitment to his people and their own hopes for a more positive future. It was his meeting with then UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher in London in 1984 which prompted the then British leader to declare of Mr Gorbachev: ‘I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together.’ That marked the beginning of the West’s recognition of Mikhail Gorbachev as a new brand of Kremlin leader, a leader with whom the West did indeed do business—and meaningful business at that.

In what many have described as a breathtaking series of reforms, Mr Gorbachev lifted the iron curtain that had drawn a line between the East and the West, freeing a continent from totalitarian rule. He secured agreement on disarmament treaties, notably nuclear disarmament, with Cold War enemies. He freed political prisoners and allowed exiles to return home. He allowed his people for the first time to hear foreign news, when he ordered an end to the jamming of foreign radio broadcast frequencies. He liberalised the arts and swept away decades of ideological restraint. And it was Mikhail Gorbachev who introduced free elections. Just consider how foreign that concept was to the people across the USSR at the time he did that. It was these very reforms that, in the years that followed, would ultimately give states in Eastern Europe the impetus to break free of Moscow.

To the world outside of the old USSR Mr Gorbachev will be remembered as a reformer who brought greater openness to his country through policies, the names of which are intrinsically linked to the man—a new era of openness through ‘glasnost’ and of economic restructuring through ‘perestroika’. As Mr Gorbachev himself said in 1988 of his reforms: ‘The winds of the Cold War are being replaced by the winds of hope.’ For indeed they were.

For his work, especially in the reunification of Germany and the pursuit of nuclear disarmament, Mikhail Gorbachev was, rightly, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. His reforms became household terms and brought an awareness across the globe to the history of the states of the USSR and to the repression of generations. People across the former Soviet states seized the opportunity to reclaim their own nationhood, reflective of their own independent histories, languages and cultures. Thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, they were able to do so without fear of military retribution: Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians leading the way to an independence that ultimately all 15 former Soviet states would seize. The relatively peaceful dismantling of the USSR and the relatively successful development of a number of the former Soviet states stand as a powerful legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev.

However, in the end, not all of Mr Gorbachev’s reforms have been enduring. Many were more popular outside his own country than they were within. Despite that, Mr Gorbachev’s commitment to his people and to those across former Soviet states was never diminished. Nor was his relationship with world leaders and champions of democracy who were able to work with Mr Gorbachev towards peace in a part of the world to which the concept had become alien, cast aside. The failure of a bid for Russian president in 1996 did not dampen his commitment to causes he held dear. He continued his global work, including a focus on environmental causes.

For anyone who was witness to the Gorbachev era, the strength of the relationship with his wife Raisa was abundantly clear, as was the extent of his grief at her death from leukaemia back in 1999. It has to be said, as we in the Australian Senate today pay tribute to a reformist leader, just how stark Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision of the USSR contrasts to what we see today in Russia both domestically and through its unlawful invasion of Ukraine.

Mikhail Gorbachev died just days after Ukraine’s 31st Independence Day and, sadly, also days after the six-month anniversary of Russia’s attempted full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the days following the death of Mr Gorbachev, it was reported that he was dismayed by the new era of Russian authoritarianism, of military aggression, and the overturning of media, religious and other freedoms that he had helped to deliver for the Russian people. Having fought so hard to bring glasnost to the Russian people and those across the old USSR, it must have been particularly devastating to see Russia now positioned as being at least as, if not even more, distrusted and isolated and seen as a disrupter on the world stage than it was before Mikhail Gorbachev’s reign as its leader.

While it is a sad reflection that these current events make Mr Gorbachev’s work towards peace in Eastern Europe and across the globe seem even more elusive, we should not forget his achievements. The peaceful establishment of many nations, the reduction of many nuclear warheads, and a significant period of greater peace, stability and openness are legacies that Mikhail Gorbachev should be remembered for. While not all hopes from 30 years ago have been realised, it is these challenges which remain that make it more important than ever that we honour the life and contribution of the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev and that we all continue to strive for the peace that he worked for.