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Russia: Gorbachev Speaks About Democracy, Authoritarianism

Gorbachev at RFE/RL in 2001 (RFE/RL) Mikhail Gorbachev will turn 75 on March 2. On the eve of his birthday, the last leader of the Soviet Union spoke to Murat Temirov, a correspondent for RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, about the significance of Khrushchev's secret speech, neo-Stalinism in Russia, and President Vladimir Putin's performance in office.

RFE/RL: How do you plan to celebrate your birthday?

Mikhail Gorbachev: There are two days left. I'll probably survive until then. It won't be a big deal, just a friendly get-together. I've invited the people I've been close to in recent years. In other words, I won't be seeing anyone I otherwise wouldn't want to see. We'll be in a restaurant; there will be music, alcohol -- now that the antialcohol campaign is over. I mean, people drink bucket-loads these days, but I think we'll have reasonable limits.

RFE/RL: I'd like to talk about out main topic, the 20th Congress [of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] . We recently marked the anniversary of the "On the Cult of Personality" report and its consequences. You participated in a roundtable discussion. In recent years, we have seen something of a Stalinist revival. In some regions in Russia, people are trying to erect Stalin statues or museums again. Do you think there is a threat of historical revisionism in favor of Stalin?

Gorbachev: This is a serious problem. The main accomplishment of the 20th Congress and of [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev himself was the bravery in making that report. The decision to make the report was, after all, reached by consensus within the politburo. It was a very serious report, one that prompted serious analysis of everything that had happened to us since the revolution.... Whatever people say, the 20th Congress was one of the first steps towards humanizing society. It was a step towards basic freedoms and fundamental values. Some people think that the 20th Congress was the first act of betrayal and perestroika was the second. And it's undeniable that indeed there were advantages to the Soviet system. Look at you and me, for example. You're from an "aul" [a village in the Caucasus region], I'm from a village. Yet we both became educated under this system, we were given some opportunities. Nevertheless, the communist model was historically defeated. To this day, I preach the ideas of socialism, democratic socialism, socialism with a human face, where human life is valued most, with its freedoms and rights, the ability for one to feel himself a dignified citizen. These are all great values. At a conference devoted to the 20th Congress that I recently attended, we talked about all these issues and asked ourselves the question: What is happening now? Yes, indeed, there are people in poverty today who think, "Stalin wouldn't have allowed for such a thing," or the same with corruption. This is an attempt to exploit people's ignorance -- we have political leaders who try to do such things. In any case, we cannot stray from the path of democratization. We must develop democratic institutions, a sustainable market economy, spiritual freedom. We are still looking for a path that would lead to a dignified life and a dignified society, and in order for us to do so, we must eradicate Stalinism.

RFE/RL: Even taking into account what you've just said, is neo-Stalinism possible in Russia?

Gorbachev: From what I've observed, I would say no. I've been in many political situations and I can empathize with President Putin. He adopted a system that was rife with chaos and managed to -- despite occasional errors -- drag the country out of this chaos. Our country was in danger of falling apart as a result of what happened during the first years of democracy. We must develop what we have now: economic growth, democratic institutions, etc. What can we say? It's obvious that the government must be active. I think any extreme is flawed. There are some that say the government must not in any way interfere with the forces of the free market, and others who go as far as saying we need to revert back to a planned economy. Neither option will help us. I think we should follow a social-democratic course, like many countries do. Social democracy stresses the importance of human and civil rights, which is very important. I think this movement is important in that it takes into account Christian values, as well as the values of freedom, democracy and justice.... I think that in our country, as a country in transition, it is inevitable that some freedoms are impinged on and that some mistakes are made. But I am convinced that our president is not trying to install any sort of authoritarian rule.

There are simply circumstances, certain pressures that make it necessary to sometimes make exceptions to democracy, but in the end, our country should be, and is, heading in a direction away from the radical left. It was forced upon us and we still haven't managed to completely free ourselves from it. Our path is democracy, and we must not tolerate corruption, we must not tolerate power collecting in the hands of oligarchs -- they've stolen enough already. I think that when we finally adapt our democratic system to harmonize with our mentality, our history and our culture; when we digest all these things, then we will have what we need. We shouldn't be afraid of authoritarianism. Even in developed nations it is sometimes necessary to resort to authoritarian methods.


RFE/RL: What about the appointment of regional leaders? How does this relate to the principle [of federalism and democracy]?

Gorbachev: I think this is avoidable. However, in one of our talks, President [Putin] said, "I've heard that you disagree with my approach." I said, "Yes, if you needed certain mechanisms by which you would exert influence over the governors, then you could have simply expanded your own authority over this element of government." He replied that the influence of mafia groups and other such elements is so strong that elections become buyer-seller situations. This was bad, he continued, because you can't have democracy and fight crime and corruption if criminal elements are able to infiltrate the ranks of the government in such a way. So this was his motivation. If you remember, [Kazakh President] Nursultan Nazarbaev also didn't have elections at first and then implemented them. What I think is wrong is that first we gave people the right to vote and then we took it away. The president acknowledged this, but you have to understand the amount of work he has already done to make the existing mechanism as effective as possible. Of course, many elements of the democratic process are being violated here, but this is being dealt with. Nonetheless, I think the president knows best what he's doing -- after all, he's the one in the middle of all this.

RFE/RL: As you know, one of Russia's main problems is the conflict in Chechnya, which has been going on for over 10 years now, and which affects the whole North Caucasus region. How do you stop the bloodshed?

Gorbachev: You know, I heard an interview with [Chechen resistance figure Movladi ] Udugov, in which he revealed that the goal of his movement was not necessarily to liberate Chechnya alone, but to create an Islamist republic that would span the other former Soviet republics in the region. We cannot allow this, because it would lead to the destruction of our federative state. But the international community must also not allow this to happen. If the situation in the Caucasus deteriorates, so will world peace.

I look positively on the developments that have been unfolding in Chechnya so far, like "Chechenization," but I believe that Russia should grant Chechnya if not an independent, then at least a privileged status within the Russian Federation. We must look to the roots of what is happening in the republics today. The roots are such that these republics need extra assistance. There are problems with unemployment and poverty, which undermine the whole political situation. This allows all sorts of people -- failed politicians, extremists, etc. -- to exploit the situation. We must take this into account when we're analyzing the problem. But we have to solve this problem, because there is great potential for friendship and cooperation in the region. Not everything is ruined there. If we give people back their land, let them feel like they truly govern the land of their ancestors in a dignified way, then I think we will achieve that cooperation.

RFE/RL: Nevertheless, some actions taken by the federal government can be seen to be destructive.

Gorbachev: Yes, there's plenty of that. Many people go out and claim they're vanguards of this cause or that and use political situations like this one to their own personal advantage. To me, it just seems like political profiteering.


RFE/RL: We have South Ossetia, Abhkazia, Nagorno-Karabakh -- there are a lot of frozen conflicts there, and Russia has been dragged into them, because many citizens of those territories are Russian citizens. Georgia, on the other hand, insists that [some of] these territories regain their sovereignty and independence from Russia. What is the solution here?

Gorbachev: You know, I respect your radio, and I'm glad it is a participant in our choir of radio voices. I'd like to say, on your radio, that it's important that we retain friendly relations between different peoples and it's important to do everything in our powers to maintain that, be it Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, or Belarus. We must have a very clear understanding of how necessary it is to have a commitment to these friendly relations. After all, we are coming out of the shock that was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks divided the country in such a way that there would always be conflict, so that they would become indispensable as peacemakers in these conflicts. Now, we're going through a transitional phase, where we're having to deal with problems like ethnic conflicts, migrations, economic, and territorial issues. I don't think it's right for people in Ukraine and in Georgia to try and add fuel to the fire in terms of international conflict. Putin has been trying very hard to preach the idea of cooperation and wholesomeness between the former Soviet republics, but he respects the sovereignty of those republics. Those territories are still divided...

RFE/RL: So what should be done about these problems?

Gorbachev: Time has to pass and we have to do some work ourselves. All the while, we must not lose our sense of friendship and respect towards one another. I think the current Georgian government is not very independent. It seems to be pursuing someone else's agenda and really messing things up. I mean, how can you call Russia a "fascist regime"? It is pure provocation.

RFE/RL: Who called Russia a "fascist regime"?

Gorbachev: A minister. [Georgian Conflict Resolution Minister Giorgi] Khaindrava, I think he was called. And he's still in the government and he recently visited Moscow. I think we shouldn't even have let him in after that. I mean, we have up to 2 million Georgians living in Russia, living and earning money. I go to various public events and I see them everywhere -- and people from other republics too. So on a national level, there hasn't been any alienation between the ethnicities. But there are always people trying to cause trouble.

RFE/RL: Many people find alarming what is happening to the media and freedom of speech [in Russia]...

Gorbachev: Look, I travel the world and I have to say that what is happening in Russia right now -- the number of newspapers and magazines, the things they write about and how -- I think we have enough. Although, there are nevertheless some abuses of free speech. Also, I think the Russian media is still very much dependent on corporate ownership.

RFE/RL: Who do you trust in the media?

Gorbachev: I trust myself. I think there are lots of newspapers with lots of different opinions, so I think we have enough freedom of speech. At the same time, some of the things I stood for have been damaged. For example, what happened to NTV or REN-TV. But I still watch REN-TV and they still have their own agenda -- they haven't lost their voice. But, of course, we have to fight for these things. I was talking with the president and we agreed that there should be a free and responsible press.

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