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Interview: Criticizing Russia's Ruling Tandem, Gorbachev Calls For Democratic Revival

Interview With Mikhail Gorbachevi
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February 15, 2011
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Lyudmila Telen, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has criticized Russia's ruling tandem of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Gorbachev said that restoring the mechanism of free elections is the top priority for democratic progress in Russia.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Lyudmila Telen, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has criticized Russia's ruling tandem of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Gorbachev said that resto

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WATCH: In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev says he is "ashamed" of a system in which two leaders agree who will head the country without participation of the population. (video by RFE/RL)

MOSCOW -- Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has leveled some harsh criticism on Russia's ruling tandem of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Lyudmila Telen, Gorbachev says he is "ashamed" of a system in which the two leaders agree who will head the country without the participation of the population.

He says that restoring the mechanism of free elections is the top priority if Russia is to proceed on a stable path of democratic development.

RFE/RL: What do you think of the political system in Russia today?

Mikhail Gorbachev:
Just look at how the present leadership is formed. They select their acquaintances, people with whom they studied, their former neighbors who they played soccer with, people they messed around with and continue messing around with. That is the main thing -- personal loyalty, acquaintanceship, friendly relations. I reject this approach. Absolutely.

Gorbachev tends the fish in his office.
RFE/RL: But such people won't betray you, while your inner circle betrayed you in August 1991.

Gorbachev:
And it doesn't matter that they betray the people instead? Skimming off property and quietly sending money out of the country? Instead of a war on corruption, an imitation? And what is the result? The same pants, only with the zipper in the back, as the people say.

RFE/RL: What is your main complaint about the current authorities in Russia?

Gorbachev:
It is too slow in resolving the problems of democracy.

RFE/RL: Slow? That seems like a gentle way of putting it.

Gorbachev:
Well, something is being done. Although, yes, there is regression. But you have to look at the process in the context of what is happening around the world. By the end of the 20th century, authoritarian or dictatorial governments in more than 100 countries had exited the political stage. But just a few years later, authoritarian leaders are again beginning to win support among voters.

RFE/RL: Do you have Russia in mind?

Gorbachev:
Yes. Look at us -- from the point of view of democracy, we have
From the point of view of democracy, we have everything. We have a parliament; we have courts; we have a press. But the results are vanishingly few.
everything. We have a parliament; we have courts; we have a press. We have everything. But the results are vanishingly few.

RFE/RL: In your opinion, why is this?

Gorbachev:
We like manual control. And in order to do this, our leaders have to follow fitness programs, build up their muscles, and break things....

RFE/RL: Why are the people who have come to power in Russia so far away from what are normally called the "ideals of perestroika?"

Gorbachev:
Because they weren't elected. Those weren't elections.

Since 1989 and 1990, when the union republics held their first democratic elections, we haven't had any genuinely free elections. Remember 1996? They say that [Communist Party leader Gennady] Zyuganov won and that he was even informed of this, But he was frightened off.

RFE/RL: But Vladimir Putin won elections. Even if you concede that some vote-padding was thrown in, there is no doubt that the majority voted for him in 2000 and in 2004.

Gorbachev:
Well, if all election campaigns were genuinely free, then among his opponents there would be significantly more representatives of the opposition. Elections would be genuinely competitive, and then it would have been a completely different story.

Back in the day: Gorbachev signs a nuclear agreement with then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1987.
Take a country with a developed democracy -- there, they have three or four parties represented in parliament, and none of them have more than 40 percent of the seats. Those who have a plurality have to compromise with the opposition.

RFE/RL: Why is the Russian government historically drawn to authoritarianism?

Gorbachev:
Well, that depends on who comes to power.

RFE/RL: On personalities?

Gorbachev:
Yes. On the person, on his personal qualities, on his experience. What kind of experience do our leaders have? Manual control and the habits of ruling through fear. We have, as Viktor Cherkesov [former head of the Federal Antinarcotics Service] once said, a chekist system.

RFE/RL: Do you agree with that?

Gorbachev:
Chekists do dominate. This is not normal. The domination of the special services, their ability to decide political matters, their active interference in the lives of citizens -- this is unacceptable.

That is why I say today: the main problem, problem No. 1, is that we need a renewed electoral system that would give the people the chance to make real choices.

RFE/RL: But you recently predicted that Vladimir Putin would again become president of Russia in 2018. What kind of "restoration" is that?

Gorbachev:
I never said that. What is worth talking about is how the leaders of the country discuss the presidential elections among themselves. By the initiative of one or the other, they will discuss their futures among themselves. They say there will come a time when they will sit down and decide who will participate in the election.

This is shameful! I am ashamed of them. They aren't acting humbly. As if we have no society, no constitution, no system of elections, and so on. The two of them will decide. The duumvirate. And what about the 140 million of us out here? I've said many times -- I don't like this. They have already claimed they are the saviors of the country. But I think we are far from that.

RFE/RL: Some people say that the Communist Party "gold" was sent to firms created by the KGB in various countries around the world. Then those companies were privatized by people tied to the secret services. That is how it came to pass that so many rich Russians emerged from these structures.

Gorbachev:
I think that our oligarchs and billionaires appeared as a result of the well-known "grab-it-izations." [Eds.: This is a play on the Russian word for "privatizations"]

But here's an interesting fact. When [Boris Yeltsin] was president, he paid an American firm $5 million to locate the accounts of the new nomenklatura, about two dozen people were on that list. And all of them were from the government of [acting Prime Minister Yegor] Gaidar and its entourage.

RFE/RL: And today's authorities, in your opinion, don't have business interests?

Gorbachev:
They are hiding stuff, hiding, hiding. They are hiding everything in offshore structures. But everything is written there, and the beneficiaries are governing here.

RFE/RL: Don't you think that such political regimes must end according to the Egyptian scenario?

Gorbachev:
Some end up worse than that.

RFE/RL: Do you think such a scenario is possible in Russia?

Gorbachev:
Yes, if we waste time. If we don't resolutely defend our rights as citizens. If we don't create an effective parliament that is capable of controlling the executive branch.

Back in Stavropol, we considered the worst collective farm chairman the one who was always running around, giving orders, telling everyone else what to do.
You might ask, why don't they control it? After all, they have all the necessary authority. That means that there must exist super-mechanisms or sub-mechanisms that are at work. If everything remains the way that it is, then I think the chances [of an Egypt scenario] will increase.

RFE/RL: What are you counting on?

Gorbachev:
Once Lenin was asked by journalists, "When will your revolution happen, Mr. Lenin?" And he said, "That is a matter for future generations." That was in January 1917. And the revolution came in February. You see?

RFE/RL: Would you predict the development of political events in Russia?

Gorbachev:
No, no.

RFE/RL: Not even, say, 10 years ahead?

Gorbachev:
No. The main thing right now is to begin work on reliable democratic mechanisms. Mechanisms that won't allow people to assault political liberties and property rights.

Such a system must begin working -- that is the task. And not a system like we have now. Back in Stavropol, we considered the worst collective farm chairman the one who was always running around, giving orders, telling everyone else what to do.

RFE/RL: Are you drawing a parallel?

Gorbachev:
No parallels. Just something that popped into my head.

RFE/RL: When you allowed [physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei] Sakharov to return from internal exile, it was seen as a sign of changing times. Do you think the release of [jailed former oligarch Mikhail] Khodorkovsky could be a similar sign?

Gorbachev:
Try as I might, I can't figure out who is telling the truth in this. I don't have sufficient information to make any conclusions.

RFE/RL: Don't you think that Khodorkovsky is in prison because Russia's leaders see him as a potential political leader and a possible political competitor?

Gorbachev:
I don't think he's a leader. And if they are afraid of him, that is their affair.

RFE/RL: You planned to create your own, social-democratic party. Why didn't this happen?

Gorbachev:
I was told, "Why bother doing this when we won't let you register anyway?"

RFE/RL: You mean someone dared to say that to you, Mikhail Gorbachev?

Gorbachev:
[Vladislav] Surkov [deputy head of the presidential administration] said it. He told me personally, in conversation. And then he helped create a movement -- the Union of Social Democrats.

RFE/RL: And after he told you that and you made this public, no one among Surkov's bosses corrected him? This was sanctioned from above?

Gorbachev:
Well, of course. They probably thought, what is the point of Gorbachev having a party? And Surkov doesn't have to report about how sick he is of Gorbachev.

Remember how Yeltsin, already in retirement, made some critical comments about the authorities while in Leningrad? Putin reacted calmly. "Boris Nikolayevich is retired," he said. "Let him rest and we wish him good health." And so on. The essence, though, was: don't mess with our business.

RFE/RL: Would you wish it for Russia that Putin becomes president again in 2018?

Gorbachev:
No. I think in general we should establish that no one may occupy that position for more than two terms.

RFE/RL: Do you think real political competition is possible for the 2012 election?

Gorbachev:
So far, I'd say no. But I have the feeling that we are already seeing the emergence of a bloc of people who can find and put forward a person who is capable of vying for the presidency.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: focusoninfinity from: Southport, N Carolina USA
February 15, 2011 21:11
"Gorbie" was one of my quasi-heroes. Glad the old man is still alive. But then, Khrushchev even had his good (much less) points too. I'm still searching for Stalin's.

Gosh, I wish I could remember that observant, sage Frenchman's name, and the name of his circa 1830's journey-across-young-America book that I once read--and relished so: that reading? Following that mental meal; was a less known desert; a similar journey across Russia; circa the same time, by another Frenchman.

Both Frenchmen closely observed, and commented upon; the character of the emerging aspiring young nation's, and ossifying too long established nation's; respective peoples, practices, and democracy--or lackings there-of.

I wish a man such as Gorbachev who as experienced, and hopefully understands, the contemporary minds of both nations now; and seeing historically through their words, the minds of these once insightful Frenchmen; such a contemporary author of both our nations, could fairly and insightfully perceive, and explain; the comparisons between these two nations peoples then; their potentials, progress, false paths (segregation in the USA?, impractical ideals of communism in the USSR?) that diverted that potential in their respective progress; and the two nation's people's characters compared today.

...and do all this without long, drag-on sentences; in either language.
In Response

by: Moderator from: Prague
February 16, 2011 10:57
I think you're referring to Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy In America" (1835, 1840) and Marquis de Custine's "Empire Of The Tsar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia" (1839). Cheers.
In Response

by: focusoninfinity from: Southport, North Carolina
February 23, 2011 04:50
Correct: I wish someone could compare 1830's American and Russian character as seen between these two astute French observer-reporters. Likely both men knew of each other; but did they ever meet?

Circa 1970 or 1971, I was an Eastern Air Lines employee who made an Italian airline , Milan-Moscow, Winter reservation a year in advance so I could bid my vacation to fit. The Italian Communist Party booked all the other seats. Upon landing, they all flipped their Lenin medals out; I without one, I felt suddenly naked.

I did not then know it, but at the Writers Union, the Italian party would censure the Soviet party over it's ill-treatment of Solzhenitsyn. My last day in Moscow, at the "open-book" store (because it looked like an open-book up-ended), I met in a somewhat dramatic way, a man who understood everything I said (in English), did as I requested, yet never spoke. He'd eyed me closely from behind, so I asked him to help me find a book in English; which dramatically he did, pulling my arm into his, the tall man guiding me as if a parent.

As I was going to leave, I very sincerely told the man looking into my eyes as if in search of a soul; that I'd come not as an enemy, but simply as a friend; to observe and compare our respective systems. Yet I'd not really not met, heart-to-heart American style; or soul-to-soul Russian style:....so met a single Soviet citizen. Or even shaken hands with one. I felt I'd failed.

If he did not mind, could I shake his hand; simply citizen-to-citizen?

I stretched my arm out. He looked at my hand out; then to my eyes, then hand, then into my eyes--I began to feel foolish.

Suddenly--with both of his hands he took mine, shaking it firmly with with fervor. A year later I read a thin book; it said when at the WWII front, Solzhenitsyn's commanding officer called the artillery officer to his quarters to, meet the NKVD concerning letters about "the man with the mustache" . His pistol taken, officer's epaulets removed; "S" started his journey into the Gulag.

"S's" commanding officer said...wait; and putting forth his hand before both "S" and the NKVD, the commanding officer told "S"; he just wanted "S" to know he was the best artillery officer he ever had. The book said "S" never forgot that hand held out towards him.

I've long wondered these decades since reading that; who was that man so moved by such a simple, though sincere gesture on the mezzanine of that once Soviet book store on Kalinin Prospekt (spelling?) that day: now long gone?

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
February 16, 2011 02:07
Nice interview, but do most Russians cringe when they hear that their government is being criticized by someone like MG?

by: SBeach99PHX from: Phoenix, AZ
February 16, 2011 05:09
Thank you for this deep, thoughtful interview with President Gorbachev. As the man who set the whole machine into motion it is disheartening to see how things have taken such a different course. While there are those who feel that the "Egyptian Experience" can rise up in any repressive regime around the world, I am pessimistic of its chances in Russia where strong rule from a chosen few is so pervasive in its history.

Please continue to provide such voices as the Russian media certainly is not interested in sharing this point of view.

by: Catherine A. Fitzpatrick from: New York
February 17, 2011 01:02
My family is personally grateful to Gorbachev because my children's father who was a political prisoner in the Soviet Union was one of those first released by him. And he let Eastern Europe go. Even so, I used to write lots of "glasnost half empty" sort of pieces because these sorts of perestroika liberals are only capable of the "half measures" (as Yeltsin used to thunder, remember?). Still and all, when one looks at the political landscape today in Russia, with the loons and the goofs and the opportunists, and the tiny bands of liberals repeatedly thrown in jail and unable to get a following, the managed social democratic variant looks a lot better than most things. Gorbie has been good about speaking out against racism and remembering the Stalinist past. Soviet liberalism (only by constrast with the horrors of post-Soviet Russian illiberalism) may be an awfully slender reed (certainly as slender as Boris Kagarlitsky) -- but it's better than a stick in the eye. You know, I may write Mikhail Sergeyevich in as a write-in candidate in the next US election, if nothing else.

by: Nuri from: uk
February 17, 2011 04:58
MG should be tried and hanged in public, in Red square, for selling USSR to Americans. The Russian 2ndWW veteran, who fought for USSR freedom from capitalist’s parasites, sitting in front of Louis Vuton etc. etc. in Moscow, war medals hanging from his torn coat, begs for few dollars to buy a loaf of bread to feed himself. The traitor MG has audacity to talk about democracy. Is this his democracy? The blood of innocent people from Azerbaijan, Tbilisi, Latvia, Luthvenia, Moldova, Estonia etc. still dripping from his fingers. He still has audacity to talk about freedom and human rights. People of these countries were wanted the same thing in 90s etc. independency and freedom to choose their own future, but Mr MG crushed them like flies with death squad from KGB special brunch. While he was receiving his Nobel Peace Prize, his blood sucking army massacring the children and women in the street of Baku, in Azerbaijan on 19-20 January 1991, what is now called "Black January". Western media portray him as an angel but he is the evil devil in an angel mask.
In Response

by: Taxpayer from: USA
February 18, 2011 03:15
Nuri,

I agree with your post for the most part. However, I think you are misinformed about the events in January of 1990 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The pogroms of Armenian minority in that city were started by Azeri-Turk mobs on January 13th of that year. These were well prepared killings of Armenians including elderly, women and children. These pogroms were well organized and supported/tolerated by local Azeri-Turk authorities and police. The mobs had lists of Armenians living in each apartment building and committed murders, rapes, robbery, etc. Overall number of Armenians who were killed between January 13 and January 20, when the troops were finally brought in reached 400 people. Thousands were severely wounded and 200,000 (!) Armenians left the city in a matter of days leaving all their property behind.

Gorbachev's fault in this is that he was trying to scare Armenians from independence movement and used these pogroms as to warn them of what will come next in Karabakh. That's why there was a week long delay in bringing in troops and evacuation of Armenian refugees.

By the time the troops entered the city, the Azeri-Turk mobs got their hands on Army and Fleet armories and used the weapons to kill soldiers. Most of these who are buried at the "Shakhids" Alley in Baku are murderers who have been killing Armenians the week before.

by: Daria Kirilenko from: Washington, D.C
February 18, 2011 21:43
Eurasia Foundation held a panel "Conlicts in Eurasia: Is Resolution Possible?" on February 3rd at the Embassy of Finland. The discussion was moderated by David Ignatius of the Washington Post and highlighted the strategic importance of the Caucasus and Central Asia regions for the major international challenges faced by the U.S. - from energy security to arms proliferation to trafficking and terrorism. Regional experts Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Piece and Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution gave their feedback and answered questions about the political situation in Eurasia. Please read full report here: http://www.eurasia.org/ebulletin/home.aspx

by: Fedir from: Ukraine
March 02, 2011 09:42
Happy Birthday, Mikhail Sergeyevich! - http://bit.ly/eGL5Er

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