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What Makes Gorby Run? - An Analysis

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, May 13 (RFE/RL) - Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Say the name in Washington and you'll get expressions of admiration. Say the name in Berlin, where he is an honorary citizen, and you'll get smiles of gratitude. Say the name in Seoul - and you'll get high words of praise. Say the words in Moscow and you'll get a shrug of contempt.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is running for president of Russia. When he campaigns around his native land he is liable to get slapped. Last week, when a well-wisher in Volgograd threw him a bouquet of flowers, news agencies first reported that Gorbachev had been assaulted. And no one initially doubted it.

Russia's czars have their supporters in today's Russia, so does Lenin, so does Stalin, so does Zhirinovsky. But you'll be hard-pressed to find any fans of Gorbachev.

Everyone holds a grudge against him - from the communists and nationalists who accuse him of losing an empire, to the leaders of today's liberal intelligentsia, who dismiss him as an unreconstructed apparatchik.

But Gorbachev's former supporters in the intelligentsia have an additional reason for resentment. Whereas they were the heroes of 'glasnost' and 'perestroika,' today they are again on the margins of society - displaced by entrepreneurs and the new rich who now set the tone in Moscow.

So Gorbachev is shunned. Some say this reflects a long tradition in Russia of bowing to those in power, but spitting at those who fall from grace. Perhaps truer would to paraphrase the venerable French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, who once remarked that giving people a taste of freedom does not satisfy them for long. They inevitably seek greater liberties and at the same time become highly sensitive to perceived injustices around them. If the reforms that accompany greater freedoms are painful, as most inevitable turn out to be, disappointment and resentment quickly set in.

Gorbachev opened the eyes of Russians. He opened their eyes to new freedoms of thought and movement as well as to new freedoms of commerce. But he also opened their eyes to the fact that the Soviet Union was a sick country and he helped precipitate its collapse. Crime, economic uncertainty, diminished global status were the inevitable consequences and these quickly dampened the euphoria of the early Gorbachev years.

Russia grew up under Gorbachev. It is now facing all the trials and uncertainties of adulthood. But it is unwilling to countenance any more patronizing advice from a man it feels no longer understands its problems.

Gorbachev, ever lecturing and always referring to himself in the third person, has failed to grasp this. His actual program of moderated reforms could have been expected to appeal to a large sector of the electorate who neither want the Communists nor another term under Boris Yeltsin.

But programs are not what appear to drive Gorbachev's campaign. What appears to drive Gorbachev are his boundless ego and a desire for praise and recognition. That is something he can get around the world and perhaps even in textbooks a generation from now. But not, it would seem, in today's Russia.