Journalists Reflect on the Legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev

As soon as he arrived with a small motorcade in rural Eureka, Illinois — population 5,400 — he was the center of attention.

“It looks like everyone in this small town is a photographer!” former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev exclaimed through his translator amid the crowd of cameras.

He wasn’t the biggest name to visit these parts, however. That distinction belongs to the man who was both Gorbachev’s adversary and his partner in reshaping geopolitics: former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Well before he was in the White House, Reagan attended Eureka College, graduating in 1932. In 2009, the college invited Gorbachev to accept an honorary degree, nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I diligently followed Gorbachev throughout his campus visit, managing to place myself on one side of a segment of the iconic Berlin Wall, gifted to the college in honor of Reagan, while Gorbachev stood across from me on the other side, reflecting on their historic relationship and the fall of that wall in Europe, both figuratively and literally, as my camera rolled.

“Ronald Reagan said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ And when I am asked what was my impression when he said that, I said that didn’t have much of an impact on us. We knew that Mr. Reagan, in his initial career, was an actor! But I still must say that my feelings about Ronald Reagan remain very high,” Gorbachev said through his translator.

“Mikhail Gorbachev was a patriot of his country, and that was immediately obvious when you encountered him or you listened to him. And to be clear, his country was the Soviet Union,” said Jeffrey Trimble, a former Moscow bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report who covered Gorbachev during the height of the Cold War. He later served as deputy director of U.S. international broadcasting.

“Mikhail Gorbachev was remarkably accessible to the journalistic community. This was the time of glasnost, of course, so it was relatively easy as a foreign correspondent to get direct access to Gorbachev,” Trimble said.

“He appeared genuinely interested in connecting with people,” said Andrew Nagorski, who worked in Moscow as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine. “He did want to be respected. He did want to project a view of a younger generation,” he told VOA’s Russian Service.

That view continued into Gorbachev’s later years, when he delighted in answering questions from college students 60 years younger than him.

“What do you want to most be remembered for?” a young Eureka College student asked Gorbachev in a question-and-answer session during his 2009 visit.

“I reply to this question always the same way: History is a fickle lady,” Gorbachev replied.

“I think outside Russia, he will be remembered as a transformational figure,” Nagorski said.

When asked just how transformational, Gorbachev himself said, while standing near the section of Berlin Wall at Eureka College in 2009, that the global opinion of him might not be unanimous.

“There is still a debate as to what was done right by Gorbachev and Reagan and what was not done right,” Gorbachev admitted. “But no one can deny one very important fact: The Cold War was ended. We started the process of eliminating nuclear weapons, and relations between our two nations at that time turned into an excellent relationship. There was even euphoria in the Soviet Union for cooperation with the United States.”

Euphoria that has since transformed into apprehension amid a continuing war in Ukraine that has put Russia and the United States on opposing sides of a conflict.

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Biden Set to Address ‘Battle for the Soul of the Nation’

In a prime-time televised speech Thursday evening in Philadelphia, U.S. President Joe Biden is to speak about what White House officials characterize as “the battle for the soul of the nation.”

In the address outside Independence Hall, where the country’s Declaration of Independence was debated and adopted, and the Constitution was written by the Founding Fathers, the 46th U.S. president will discuss “how our rights and freedoms are still under attack. And he will make clear who is fighting for those rights, fighting for those freedoms, and fighting for our democracy,” according to the White House.

“It is striking President Biden is going to go there and give a speech, which is kind of an attempt to paint a big-picture view of where we are as a nation,” said prominent neoconservative political analyst Bill Kristol.

Biden should make the address — with midterm elections about two months away amid a highly polarized political environment — “not just a political stump speech, but really a more profound speech to all Americans,” Kristol said in a VOA interview. “I think it’s appropriate for the president to say, ‘Let’s step back here, and let’s be cautious about what we’re risking. And let’s be thoughtful about the way in which we conduct our politics.’”

Dartmouth University professor of government Brendan Nyhan predicts Biden will use the speech to “rally his party in advance of midterm elections that Democrats fear could go quite poorly for their side. But he’s also calling for Americans to reject the anti-democratic forces that have challenged the political system in this country.

“One of those approaches is partisan. The other one is in keeping with his role as president, as head of one of the three branches of government. I hope he can make a sober-minded case for the preservation of our democratic system.”

In recent days, Biden has been rhetorically battling Republican lawmakers, as well his predecessor, Donald Trump, and has sharply attacked the opposition party’s philosophy as “semi-fascism.”

In a speech Monday in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, which was mainly about gun violence, the president criticized Republican lawmakers who he said have been warning of “blood in the street” if Trump is prosecuted.

Should the former president be prosecuted for mishandling classified information, “there’ll be riots in the streets,” U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham predicted on a Fox News program on Sunday.

But Walter Shaub, a former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said Wednesday on Twitter, “If Trump doesn’t get prosecuted, it will mean the government thinks a former president is above the law, because you or I would absolutely be prosecuted for doing what he did.”

Trump, who lost to Biden in the 2020 election, is the subject of a federal investigation. He could face charges for retaining highly classified documents after he left office in January 2021 and related obstruction of justice charges, according to legal filings made by the Department of Justice.

A search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and private club in Florida by the Federal Bureau of Investigation prompted threats against the bureau’s agents. One man tried to breach the FBI’s office in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 11 before being fatally shot after an hourslong standoff with police.

“It’s sickening to see the new attacks on the FBI, threatening the life of law enforcement agents and their families for simply carrying out the law and doing their job,” Biden said in Monday’s speech in Pennsylvania.

Trump, who is considering another presidential run in 2024, has accused the Biden administration and the FBI of targeting him for political reasons. Before that, Republicans are hoping in this November’s midterm elections to wrest control of Congress from Democrats, who control the Senate and the House.

It is unclear if Biden in the Thursday evening address will mention Trump by name. He has accused the former president and his supporters of following an “extreme MAGA philosophy,” choosing “to go backwards, full of anger, violence, hate and division.”

MAGA refers to “Make America Great Again,” a slogan Trump popularized in his successful 2016 bid for president.

The stakes are high for Biden’s speech, according to Nyhan, who is also co-founder of Bright Line Watch, a watchdog group monitoring the status of American democracy.

“I believe U.S. democracy faces the greatest threat it has seen since we became a full-fledged democracy after the Civil Rights Movement [of the 1960s]. We’ve seen a violent insurrection that attempted to overturn a presidential election, and now we’re seeing threats of violence in response to efforts to enforce the rule of law,” Nyhan told VOA on Wednesday.

“Americans would be very clear-eyed about what they were seeing if they saw it in another country. And I think we need to recognize that the threat we see here at home is significant,” he said.

Trump, on his own online media platform, Truth Social, this week has continued to falsely insist he was the real winner of the 2020 election, demanding “immediately” a new presidential election — something that is not possible under the U.S. Constitution.

“What former President Trump is calling for would be an extra-constitutional step that would undermine the system of government we have in place, especially given that he was defeated in a free and fair election that has been shown to be free of the widespread fraud that he and his allies have falsely claimed,” explained Nyhan. “It is very worrisome to have a defeated president calling to be illegally reinstated in power.”

Kristol agreed, stating “it is revealing that Trump’s overheated rhetoric tosses aside one of our most basic constitutional norms.”

Unlike countries with parliamentary systems, the United States does not have snap elections.

“We don’t have votes of confidence where governments fall, presidencies fall,” noted Kristol, who was chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. “We have a presidential system with a four-year term.”

Trump contended this is justified because the FBI allegedly thwarted its own investigation into compromising information contained on a laptop of the president’s son, Hunter Biden.

A whistleblower claims FBI officials instructed agents not to investigate the laptop ahead of the 2020 election, saying the bureau was “not going to change the outcome of the election again,” according to Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican senator, who this week sent a letter to the Justice Department’s inspector general demanding immediate steps be taken to investigate the FBI’s actions or lack of them regarding the computer.

“Every credible review, including by numerous judges — many of whom were appointed by Trump himself — repeatedly and emphatically rejected the claims of the Trump campaign,” Nyhan said. “There simply is no credible case against Joe Biden’s victory.”

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As Boris Johnson Departs, Britain’s Next Leader Faces Daunting Challenges

Britain will have a new prime minister next week, nearly two months after the resignation of Boris Johnson in July, following a series of scandals. As Henry Ridgwell reports, Johnson’s successor faces a series of daunting challenges — while Britain’s allies, including Ukraine, are watching closely.

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To Ukrainians, Gorbachev Remains an ‘Imperialist’

Mikhail Gorbachev could have been celebrated for involuntarily opening a path toward Ukraine’s independence, but his support for Crimea’s annexation and silence in the face of Russia’s invasion have stained his reputation there.

Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, triggered its demise in 1991, which led to the formation of 15 new independent countries including Ukraine.

But it is no accident that the Ukrainian government is still mute, a day after the death of Gorbachev, whose mother and wife were of Ukrainian origin.

Ukrainians walking through the streets of Kyiv on Wednesday did not mince their words about the leader of the “occupying” and “imperialist” Soviet power.

“I’m very happy he died. The more enemies and their supporters die, the happier I’ll be,” said 32-year-old Oleksandr Stepanov.

Katerina Boyuk, a 17-year-old student, is convinced that Gorbachev “did not really care” about Ukraine and that the country’s independence has “nothing to do” with him.

“He was just the ruler of the USSR, and he couldn’t manage to keep his throne,” she said.

“I think he’s as much of an aggressor as the current Kremlin leaders,” said Vytalya Formantchuk, 43, adding that Gorbachev “put a lot of effort into destroying Ukrainians, their culture and their language.”

The visible hostility of Ukrainians toward Gorbachev also stems from his silence regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Gorbachev, mostly popular in the West, never publicly commented on what has turned out to be the worst conflict in Europe since World War II.

One member of his close circle, Russian journalist Alexei Venediktov, said in July that Gorbachev was “disappointed, of course.”

Even worse, Gorbachev said he “approved” Moscow’s annexation of Crimea to Russia in 2014.

He argued that “the people” had spoken in the referendum on the unification of the peninsula to Russia, widely regarded as a sham.

Kyiv never forgave him for that.

Gorbachev is perceived in Ukraine “with a lot of skepticism — we do not share the enthusiasm we’ve been seeing in obituaries all around the world,” said Volodymyr Yermolenko, philosopher and editor-in-chief of the website.

“His destiny is the same destiny as many Russian reformers who want reforms, but only up to a certain point: when people start questioning Russian imperialism and decolonization,” he said.

Gorbachev was Soviet leader in 1986, when Chernobyl’s No. 4 nuclear reactor exploded, causing the world’s worst nuclear accident and spreading radioactive contamination across Europe.

Moscow first tried to downplay the extent of the disaster, which delayed evacuation of locals.

Gorbachev is widely blamed for this and for the decision to maintain the May 1 parade in Kyiv five days later.

Thousands of people, including many children, marched through the city holding flowers and singing songs, blissfully unaware of the radioactive cloud surrounding them.

Gorbachev “was an ordinary Russian imperialist. He simply did everything he could to save the USSR and restore the Russian Empire, which is now waging war against us,” popular blogger and activist Yuri Kasyanov posted on Facebook.

Disliked by Russians, rejected by Ukrainians, Gorbachev still regularly talked about his Ukrainian roots.

“I am, after all, half Ukrainian. My mother was Ukrainian, and my wife, Raisa, was too. I spoke my very first words in Ukrainian, and the first songs I heard were Ukrainian,” he said in a 2015 interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel.

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American Nun, 83, Abducted by Jihadists in Sahel is Free

An 83-year-old American nun who was abducted by jihadists in northern Burkina Faso in April has been released, the Catholic Church said. 

Sister Suellen Tennyson, a nun with the Congregation of Marianites of the Holy Cross, had been kidnapped in the parish of Yalgo, where she had worked since 2014. 

In a statement, the bishop of the diocese of Kaya, Theophile Nare, announced “to all, that with great joy and gratitude to God,” Tennyson “has been released by her kidnappers.” 

She is “currently in a safe place … [and] in good health,” Nare said, in the statement that reached AFP on Wednesday, adding that he had no details about the conditions of her release but was “deeply grateful to all those who worked for it.” 

In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesman confirmed “the release of a U.S. citizen in Niger who had been held hostage in West Africa.” 

The spokesman did not identify the individual, but Tennyson was the only known American hostage in the region. 

“This individual will soon be reunited with loved ones. It is the wish of the individual to remain private at this time, and we ask that all respect that wish,” the spokesman said. 

Yalgo lies between the towns of Kaya and Dori, in the heart of a region of northern Burkina Faso that, like neighboring Niger, has been plagued by jihadists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. 

Thousands of people have died and nearly 2 million people have fled their homes in the 7-year-old insurgency. 

In April 2021, three Europeans who had been reported missing after an attack in eastern Burkina — two Spaniards and an Irishman — were “executed by terrorists,” the authorities said at the time. 


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Mississippi’s Capital Enters Second Day Without Running Water

Frustrated residents in Mississippi’s state capital faced a second day without drinking water and the prospect of long lines for bottled water handouts after a neglected treatment plant failed this week.

Many businesses were shuttered again in the city of Jackson, while local schools and Jackson State University, a historically Black college, resumed classes online. Store shelves once packed with bottled water stood empty as residents waited for cases of water to be distributed later in the day.

“Jackson is in a water crisis and we do not trust what water we get to even bathe in,” said Cassandra Welchlin, 49, a social worker. She said her family of five was fortunate because they could shower at her sister’s place outside the city.

As a stop-gap measure to restore pressure to the water system, crews scrambled to install a temporary pump at the O.B. Curtis plant, which stopped operating on Monday and left the city of about 180,000 people without running water.

The plant, long plagued by inadequate staffing and maintenance problems, broke down from complications after a weekend of heavy rain and flooding, angering residents of a city that is about 80% African-American.

Mayor Chokwe Lumumba told CNN he expected water to be restored to residents by the end of the week.

Governor Tate Reeves has declared a state of emergency for Jackson and surrounding areas and called up the state National Guard to assist in efforts to bring relief to the city.

Late on Tuesday, President Joe Biden’s administration approved an emergency declaration and ordered federal assistance to supplement the state’s response. The Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will coordinate all disaster relief efforts in the state, the White House said.

In addition to bottled drinking water distributed at several sites, the state trucked in 10 tractor-trailers of non-potable water and was expecting another 108 trucks in the coming days, Stephen McCraney, the state emergency management director, told reporters. The non-potable supplies are intended for flushing toilets and washing clothes.

The city is likely to see some relief with the installation of the temporary pump which would boost the plant’s capacity, which had already been boosted to 40% by an emergency team.

Even so, the system was still short of sufficient water pressure to guarantee service citywide.

Even before the crisis, the city had been under a boil water notice for the past month due to “elevated turbidity levels,” which makes the water appear cloudy. That followed a string of disruptions to the city’s water supply in recent years caused by high lead levels, bacterial contamination and storm damage.

Reeves, a Republican, has alleged that the water treatment plant suffered from years of city mismanagement, while Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has accused the state of failing to support efforts to maintain and update the plant.

Each side had been offered differing accounts of why the treatment plant failed, though they appeared to agree on significant facts by Tuesday afternoon.

The governor, who previously blamed pump failures, conceded that a scenario earlier presented by the mayor was correct: that floodwaters had entered the plant and altered the chemistry of the water. That rendered the existing treatment inadequate, forcing the plant to shut down.

Many Jackson residents say that the lack of investment in Jackson’s water infrastructure reflected the racial makeup of the city, which is more than 80% Black or African American, according to U.S. Census data.

“Extreme racist politics are being put before the people. It’s time that we put that to the side,” said Danyelle Holmes, a Jackson resident and social justice organizer.

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Namibia Plane Crash Kills Family of German Tourists

Authorities in Namibia have confirmed a family of four German tourists and their pilot were killed when their plane crashed Tuesday during take-off in the country’s northern Zambezi Region.

Namibia’s Ministry of Works and Transport says it is investigating what caused the six-seater Cessna 210 to crash shortly after take-off, killing all five people on board.  

The ministry says the plane crashed on Tuesday afternoon near Impalila Island, on the Zambezi river in the Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area.

The plane was carrying four members of a German family on holiday. Namibian media report the pilot was South African.

Ministry spokesman Julius Ngweda told VOA the plane belonged to a local company, Scenic Air, but could provide no further details.

Scenic Air Managing Director Michael Bottger said in a press release the cause of the crash is not known.  

“Everyone at Scenic Air is devastated by this tragic event,” read the release, “and our deep and heartfelt condolences go out to the families and friends who lost loved ones.”

Namibia’s Police Chief Inspector Elifas Kuwinga told VOA authorities would release the names of the deceased after their next-of-kin were notified.

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Borrell Says EU Members Agree on Suspension of Visa Deal for Russians

The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, says the bloc’s 27 members have agreed to suspend an agreement with Russia, which had made it easier for Russians to obtain tourist visas, as a sanction for Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Borrell announced the decision, which falls short of the total ban on visa issuance some countries sought, on Tuesday after the second day of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in the Czech capital.

A 2007 visa agreement to ease EU entry requirements for Russians was partially suspended in late February, targeting people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, such as Russia’s official delegations and holders of diplomatic passports. But it left so-called “ordinary Russians” untouched, allowing them to continue to enjoy EU visa-facilitation benefits, such as reduced waiting times and costs and the need to present fewer documents when applying.

Countries that share borders with Russia — the Baltic states, Poland, and Finland — have led the drive for more restrictive bans on visas for Russian tourists. With air service barred by the EU on flights from Russia, most travelers are using their land borders to travel on to other EU countries.

Borrell said the agreement is aimed at stopping Russians from “visa shopping” by applying for their travel documents with countries in the bloc where the rules are not as strict. Once granted a visa to an EU country, the holder of the document can then travel freely within the EU’s Schengen Area.

The suspension of the pact makes the EU visa process more complicated, more expensive, and more bureaucratic, as well as increasing waiting times for approval, according to European Commission guidelines.

Germany and France have led the other side of the debate, saying the limiting of visas to Russians would be counterproductive as the EU tries to fight for the “hearts and minds” of those Russians who don’t support Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine.

Kyiv has called for the bloc to ban issuing visas to all Russians except political dissidents.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told RFE/RL in an interview on August 30 that “calling this war a ‘Putin problem’ and not the problem of the Russian society that mostly supports its president is self-deception.”

All 27 EU members had to agree to any measure adopted that would limit the issuance of visas throughout the bloc.

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