How Gorbachev's 'perestroika' resonated on the African continent

·3-min read

The late Mikhail Gorbachev is praised in the West for helping to end the Cold War and a bipolar world in which Soviet-allied African countries found themselves at the mercy of strategic struggles between Washington and Moscow. Released from the 'bear-hug', some states faired better than others.

Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, died on 30 August aged 91.

His reformist policies of "glasnost" (openness) and "perestroika" (restructuring) precipitated the end of the Cold War in 1991, but also the breakup of the USSR.

"It was above all the end of a bipolar world marked by rivalry between the US and the USSR," says Hugo Sada, researcher with the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

The radical change in international politics also had a significant impact on the African continent.

"The decline in the USSR’s international influence led it to withdraw from countries where it had a strong presence, notably Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia," he told RFI.

“The end of this bipolar world helped open up politics in Africa, beginning with international conferences and then electoral processes.

"That’s the highlight [of the end of the Cold War] – an exhausted bear withdrawing from the African continent.”

Sink or swim

The USSR’s disappearance from the African scene forced Soviet-allied regimes to either reform or fall.

Mozambique and Angola entered into processes of democratisation that went on to end their protracted civil wars.

Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, nicknamed the “red negus”, was overthrown in 1991.

With the end of the Cold War, the US's approach to the African continent also changed, becoming less geopolitical and more economic.

Its great Congolese ally, Mobutu Sese Seko, had to open up the political system. But without US subsidies, Zaire (as he renamed the country) would fall apart over the next few years.

In South Africa, the collapse of the Soviet Union also helped topple the system of apartheid, with the country's first multiracial elections held in 1994.

Wind from the East

The spirit of perestroika and glasnost spread to several French-speaking countries such as Mali, Togo, Niger and Benin, where there were already calls for change.

In the wake of the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall and Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, the president of Benin Mathieu Kérékou officially announced the country was no longer “Marxist-Leninist”.

He went on to lose elections and stepped down in 1991.

In Gabon and Niger, students launched protest movements.

Whether they were directly influenced by events in the Soviet Union or not, the West liked to believe they were.

In January 1989, the French minister for cooperation, Jacques Pelletier, wrote an article in Le Monde daily where he referred to "the wind from the East shaking the coconut trees".

Sada says the end of the Cold War did help open up African civil society.

“These authoritarian leaders found themselves left to their devices to face protests and demands for democracy,” he comments.

“Thanks to this rupture we saw, in the space of a few years, a continent where elections were an exception turn into one where elections became the norm.”

Respect for Africa

For Russian writer Vladimir Fedorovski, a former diplomat under Gorbachev, the late Soviet leader had "great respect for the African continent" and considered it "the continent of the future".

“Gorbachev said that the interests of the various nations must be taken into account and that a balance had to be found, including, and perhaps first and foremost, those of African countries,” Fedorovski told RFI.

“We are wasting staggering amounts of money on war, forgetting that Africa is threatened by famine.”

Return of Russia

The spirit of perestroika was, however, shortlived in some African countries.

“We’ve seen a perversion of the democratic process, a fair number of authoritarian regimes kept in power, and dubious elections," Sada admits.

More than four decades on, Russia is becoming influential on the continent once more, notably in Mali and the Central African Republic.

“We’re in a new phase where Russia is trying to regain influence [...] There’s a kind of nostalgia and return to a policy of Russian influence on the African continent.”