Accessibility links

Russia: Gorbachev Is An Irrepressible Optimist

  • Jeremy Bransten



Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was in Prague this week, at the invitation of Czech President Vaclav Havel, to help commemorate the start of Czechoslovakia's 1989 "velvet" revolution. As Havel himself put it, without Gorbachev there might not have been a revolution -- and certainly not a velvet one -- anywhere in Eastern Europe.

During his visit, the Soviet Union's last leader spoke to a small group of journalists, including from RFE/RL, on a broad range of issues, ranging from the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, to current Russian politics, to his views on economics and international politics.

Prague, 17 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Gorbachev was first asked how he assessed his role in Eastern Europe's 1989 revolutions. The topic, it is clear, is one he enjoys discussing. While his Soviet policies might be more controversial, Gorbachev's decision to allow the Soviet satellite states to go their own way will ensure his historical legacy. Gorbachev was keen to emphasize that he decided to implement this "new thinking" as soon as he became the Soviet general secretary, in 1985.

"I have to say, to praise myself a bit, that on the day of Chernenko's funeral, and a few hours after being elected general secretary of the Communist Party, I spoke with the leaders of the Warsaw Pact. And I told them: Friends, I want to confirm that we won't allow any interference in your affairs. You are independent countries, you are sovereign, and you bear full responsibility for your own policies.

I think they didn't pay the necessary attention, since similar words or thoughts were probably expressed by [Yuri] Andropov after [Leonid] Brezhnev's death and by [Konstantin] Chernenko after Andropov's death. So they probably thought -- ah yes, the general secretary, to look respectable, makes such statements. But time will show. They were skeptical. But we really didn't interfere in anyone's affairs. Yes, there were consultations, there were conversations, discussions, but our Politburo never ordered them to do things one way or another."

By the time 1988 and 1989 rolled around, Gorbachev says, nervous Warsaw Pact leaders were almost begging him for advice. His answer: You are on your own.

"There came a time when they (Warsaw Pact leaders) began to knock on our door and come over. [Czechoslovak Communist leader] Gustav Husak came, seeking advice on political appointments. And I told him: I trust you. You're very experienced. If you feel you need a change in leadership, I accept it, since it comes from a man who thinks about the Party and its future. I fully trust you to resolve this problem."

Two years after Eastern Europe's revolutions, the winds of change struck home with unexpected force. The Soviet Union fell apart. Gorbachev was asked whether he foresaw a similar fate for the Russian Federation:

"There will be no breakup of Russia because, despite all the problems, there is general agreement on retaining a common state both in the republics and the regions. One mustn't forget that 83 percent of Russia's population is made up of ethnic Russians, after all. This is very important. I think it won't get to that."

Gorbachev admitted that for Russia and most of the former Soviet Union, the past decade has seen many hopes disappointed. The transition to a successful market economy has so far failed. The former Soviet leader blamed corrupt leaders, a lack of democratic traditions, the loss of markets, and other difficult starting conditions. But he added that Western governments and financial institutions must also share the blame.

"That reforms in Russia and Ukraine have not succeeded is a fact. That these past 10 years have not been fully used to create the conditions for modernization and a smoothly functioning economy is also a fact. You have to understand that the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe -- those velvet revolutions -- coincided with a period when the West was enamored with extremely liberal or neo-liberal monetary fundamentalism. Now they themselves are turning away from it. If even George Soros writes about it, then it must be so. Although independent experts, democratic experts, have long spoken about this issue."

Gorbachev saved particular criticism for the International Monetary Fund (IMF):

"Take the World Bank -- things have finally taken another turn. One of the main experts, a vice president of the bank -- [Joseph] Stiglitz is his name -- recently cast doubts over the IMF's policies. He said that without the role of the state, the problem of innovation cannot be tackled and without that we will not be able to move towards the 21st century because heavy capital investment is needed to develop new technologies -- and without the state we won't resolve the issue of funding scientific research, education, all this intellectual capital."

In the end, Gorbachev noted, the transition from a planned to a market economy, being attempted by so many countries in the region, is unprecedented. As such, many mistakes have been made and more can be expected. There are no ready-made recipes to follow. These must be compiled along the way.

"What we are undertaking -- this transition from totalitarianism to democracy, to a market economy, to a completely new society -- is an unprecedented turn. And to believe that it could be smooth was just not serious. So to some degree I want to justify this difficult transition. It's not even an issue of planning, when it is said that the transition wasn't planned well enough, wasn't thought out enough.

"Concerning the freedom of choice at the outset: Every country and every government has it. But when it comes to mapping out the whole process and composing an exact menu or a precise train schedule, so to speak, for modernization, that's nonsense!

"It's not a scientific task. The right choice must be made for freedom and democracy, a market economy and openness. That's true. This is what will help the country to move in the right direction, but the rest is decided by the process of history. And here things depend on the level of society, its political experience, its experience of democracy, its traditions and the state of the economy. This is where the difficulties emerge. So it's impossible to draw up a bill, primitively, like an accountant."

Crises in the Caucasus have dogged Russian leaders since Tsarist days. While in office, Gorbachev experienced his share of Caucasian troubles, struggling to cope with conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. The renewal of war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya has once again focused the world's attention on the region. Gorbachev was asked about his view on the Kremlin's Chechnya policy. The question engendered a passionate response.

"This is the result of the Russian leadership's policies over the past decade. It decided to get rid of the nomenklatura head of the Supreme Soviet, Doku Zavgaev. Instead, they installed a man they thought they could manipulate like Zavgaev and they put in General [Dzhokar] Dudaev. And after a year, he called a meeting of locals, based on the principles of Islam, and declared independence.

"And at this time -- just imagine what a senseless, stupid policy this was -- Russia left all the weapons it had on Chechen territory to Chechnya. On what basis? No republic had its own weapons. Not the Tatars, not the Bashkir, nowhere. Why did they give them to Chechnya? They armed them with two hundred units of heavy artillery -- even with airplanes! So, after getting rid of Zavgaev, and leaving the weapons, they stopped worrying about Chechnya and Chechnya turned into a black hole for money laundering, for contraband. Airplanes landed in Grozny and there were no border controls. You could do whatever you wanted.

"They made a total mess of this part of Russia. And when they wanted to bring order, they could think of nothing better than to send in troops. They delivered a 48-hour ultimatum. And I said at the time that this would lead to a bloody conflict or to a Caucasus war. Well, there was no Caucasus war, although the situation remains tense there and very dangerous.

"The fact that 100,000 people perished by one count or 200,000 by another -- it's hard to know exactly -- is a fact. So, they ended the war, signed the Khasavyurt accords, and what was the next step? Again, they forgot about Chechnya. Nothing was done. It was a destroyed republic, full of unemployment. They didn't care. And people once again, in order to find the means to feed themselves, started to act like bandits. I have to say that neither [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov nor the Russian president have come out of this looking very admirable. And as a result we got the situation with Daghestan, etc. It was waiting to happen."

Gorbachev called for negotiations to end the current conflict, but he gave guarded support for the current government's military incursion.

"And now, undoubtedly, an end must be put to banditism and terrorism. I think even in Chechnya, the overwhelming majority of people favor this. But this task must be accomplished without turning it into a war against the people of Chechnya. Because if that's what happens, then we'll end up with an even graver situation than in 1994 and 1995."

The former Soviet leader expressed his greatest bitterness towards the United States, saying Washington's attempt to craft a new world order, in which it is the sole superpower, is feeding reactionary forces in Russia. But more than that, Gorbachev said he sees U.S. policy as a personal betrayal -- a failure by the United States to live up to its end of the post-Cold War bargain.

"If the Americans are to be faulted for something, it's for their failure to understand that they are launching new geopolitical games. They cast aside the Paris Charter, and the Paris Charter was about creating a united Europe and a common defense system for all of Europe. As soon as the Soviet Union ceased to exist, everything was thrown aside. And NATO was resuscitated, which the Americans themselves and the other NATO members had talked about transforming from a military into a political organization, along with the Warsaw Pact.

"There were three meetings on this subject and NATO's doctrines were changed. And the process would have continued. But the Soviet Union vanished and they again began to play at geopolitics, again the struggle began for spheres of influence. This is a fact. I have to say that this was confirmed at NATO's 50th anniversary, when it decided, with absolutely no embarrassment, to say before the United Nations that it was assuming responsibility for maintaining peace.

"So what existed because of the United Nations, what existed even during the Cold War years -- and some of these structures played a positive role, that is to say, the Security Council and all the other structures -- all this was declared unnecessary.

"And why unnecessary? It turned out they were unnecessary because in all the other international organizations, Western countries and foremost among them the United States, imposed their own rules. In GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, precursor to the World Trade Organization), the WTO and other international organizations, the rules of the game were devised by the major Western powers. And here in the UN you've got the veto, you've got the roles of China and Russia, which are guaranteed under all circumstances. And that is inconvenient.

"Ruud Lubbers wasn't convenient as NATO secretary-general, so they installed Javier Solana, who initially demonstrated against Spain's entry into NATO and then became its most ardent supporter -- more Catholic than the Pope. These are the people they need. [Former UN secretary-general] Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposed a reform program for increasing the effectiveness of the UN.

"Where is Boutros-Ghali and his program today? Neither of them is around. Instead, Kofi Annan appeared, conveniently. They need puppets. But they see that despite this, in this forum, they can't have their way, they can't sidestep Russia and China. So what do they do? They act through NATO and they announce a new doctrine allowing them, when necessary, to get involved anywhere in the world. And who will determine when such action is necessary? NATO. And who gave them the mandate? This, I think is dangerous."

Globalization based on U.S. hegemony or Western domination makes an unstable and dangerous model for the 21st century, Gorbachev warned.

"This is not what is needed for the 21st century, when we live in a global world, dependent on each other. We can't get away from each other. What are these geo-political games? It's a waste of time when we should be building a new world order based on the principles of balanced interests, patience, tolerance, respect. Western countries can then have a good basis for cooperation in all spheres with us. But it's not convenient for some. I think this could lead to a new arms race, and this may already be starting. This is all bad."

The former Soviet leader said he fully understands the desire by Central and Eastern European states to re-orient themselves towards the West. But he appealed to countries like the Czech Republic not to forsake cooperation with Moscow.

"These countries became so sick of us that they probably need to live on their own for a while. Live! Live as you wish! There will be no interference. But why destroy cooperation? We had such broad cooperation and compatibility -- linguistically, and on a personal basis. To create such an environment, you need decades! And we, all of a sudden, destroyed this colossal capital without a thought."

Gorbachev, who announced plans to found a new Social Democratic Party, said that ultimately, Russia must put its own house in order, if fruitful ties with other countries are to be developed. But as has been proved so many times by his ability to bounce back from adversity -- most recently after his wife's death -- Gorbachev is an irrepressible optimist.

"I'm sure the situation is going to change for the better. But for this, things have to change, primarily in Russia, after upcoming elections to the Duma and the presidency. Much depends on Russia."

At times, anger, hurt, and disappointment all play across his face. But the indulgent smile soon returns. The eyes sparkle. You can almost hear the wheels spinning inside his brain, crafting new plans, new ideas for Russia. "No, they haven't seen the last of Gorbachev," he chuckles. And with that, this most unusual statesman -- a leader who ruled an empire, let it go, and lived to tell the tale -- heads off to dinner.

XS
SM
MD
LG