The West has praised Gorbachev for not forcefully resisting the demise of the Soviet Union. In reality, it remains unclear to this day whether the Kremlin leader did not in fact sanction military actions against Georgians, Azerbaijanis and Lithuanians, who had rebelled against the central government in Moscow between 1989 and 1991. When Soviet troops violently quelled the demonstrations, 20 people were killed in Georgia, 143 in Azerbaijan and 14 in Lithuania, not to mention the wars and unrest in Nagorno-Karabakh, Trans-Dniester and Central Asia.
Many have not forgotten the tragedy that unfolded in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on the night of April 8-9, 1989, when Russian soldiers used sharpened spades and poison gas to break up a protest march in the city.
Gorbachev claims that he was not made aware of the incident until six hours later. He had not given the military or the intelligence service clear signals to exercise restraint in the smoldering conflict, even though he knew how fragile the relationship was between Russians and Georgians. He also did not call anyone to account later on. Even today, he still says that it was "a huge mystery" as to who gave the orders to use violence in Tbilisi.
But when Gorbachev met with Hans-Jochen Vogel, the then-floor leader of Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), on April 11, two days after the bloody suppression of the protests, he sought to justify the hardliners' approach. He later had the following passage deleted from the published version of the Russian minutes of the conversation with Vogel:
You have heard about the events in Georgia . Notorious enemies of the Soviet Union had gathered there. They abused the democratic process, shouted provocative slogans and even called for the deployment of NATO troops to the republic. We had to take a firm approach in dealing with these adventurers and defending perestroika -- our revolution.
The "notorious enemies of the Soviet Union" were in fact peaceful civilians. Of the 20 Georgians killed in Tbilisi, 17 were women.
A remark made at a politburo meeting on Oct. 4, 1989, in which Gorbachev learned that 3,000 demonstrators had been killed on Tiananmen Square in Beijing that June, shows that he was prepared for resistance to his reform plans and was not necessarily ruling out the need for violent action. Gorbachev said:
We must be realists. They have to defend themselves, and so do we. 3,000 people, so what?
Although the minutes of the meeting were later published, this passage was missing.
'We Will Only Intervene if There Is Bloodshed'
In 1990 and 1991, Gorbachev could assume that very few leading politicians in the West would question his role in the bloody conflicts with the Soviet republics vying for their independence. In those weeks, the only concern of Americans and Western Europeans alike was if the Soviets would really withdraw from Eastern Europe. As a result, they allowed Gorbachev to blatantly lie to them, such as when Moscow tried to stop the Baltic independence movement at the last minute.