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Russia: Gorbachev Reflects On The Legacy Of The Coup

Gorbachev announcing his resignation as president of the Soviet Union, just four months after the August coup (ITAR-TASS) PRAGUE, August 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) --Fifteen years after the failed coup that triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union and transformed his own life, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev talks to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service about the events of August 1991 and their legacy.

RFE/RL: In his annual address to the Federal Assembly in 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." Do you agree with such an interpretation of our recent history?

Mikhail Gorbachev: I have said this on many occasions, and I will say it again: I agree. When, during a period of widespread reform, glasnost came along and lit up the darker corners of the situation in our country, it seemed as though all of society started moving and talking. It turned out that the people had something to say and that they had someone to speak to. At this time I had already been saying that the way of democracy, glasnost, and economic reform was the way to go.

Yet I also warned against the destructive nature of what was happening. Things certainly needed to change, but we did not need to destroy that which had been built by previous generations. We had to deprive ourselves of some things, yes, but this was the unfortunate cost. After the putsch, when the real danger of the country coming apart arose, I continued to speak out in the same vein. I emphasized that the dissolution of a country that was not only powerful, but that, during perestroika, demonstrated that it was peaceful and that it accepted the basic principles of democracy, would be a tragedy. The end of the Cold War presented us with an unprecedented opportunity to pursue a new, peaceful policy.

A photo gallery presentation of the August 1991 events (Flash required)

MORE: Coverage of the coup from RFE/RL's Russian Service in Russian.

RFE/RL: Some observers think that the State Committee for the Emergency Situation (GKChP) was the natural result of events then going on in the country, an effort to restrain the destructive processes that had arisen as a result of a systemic crisis of state management that, in turn, was created by ill-considered and sporadic reforms. Many of the participants of the so-called GKChP insist that this was the case. In you opinion, how fair is this point of view?

Gorbachev: It is nonsense. The natural result of events was the well-tuned process that was already under way in the spring of 1991. There was already the crisis that arose when people had to wait in long lines to purchase basic everyday goods. But in the big picture, after a long period of deliberation and debate, the anti-crisis program had finally started to materialize. Interestingly, it started out as a program initiated by the cabinet ministers, but then it was joined by all the republics and even the Baltic states, with their own special views on certain questions. The Baltic states didn't actually sign the document, but they decided to implement it anyway. By this time, we had found new solutions and ways of dealing with the situation, and we were ready to move forward.

This was natural for the democratization of the Soviet Union, and it was also natural for correcting the mistakes we had made earlier, particularly our delay in reforming the Communist Party and the federated union. The goal of the putsch was to interrupt this process. The putschists were at the top of the reactionary nomenklatura -- remember, many in the nomenklatura went ahead and worked with us, struggled with us. So this is my response to the common cliche that you were referring to. These people were unable to publicly overthrow the government, so they took a clandestine route, which they failed in, because difficult as the times were, nobody wanted to return to Stalinism.

RFE/RL: According to many public opinion polls, perestroika remains more popular abroad -- particularly in Europe and the United States -- than in the overwhelming majority of countries of the former Soviet Union. How would you, as the author of that initiative, explain such a difference in its reputation?

Gorbachev: The difference between the reputation perestroika has in Russia and abroad is explainable. Central and Eastern Europe gained independence. All of Europe got rid of the nightmare of potential confrontation -- moreover, a confrontation that could have developed into nuclear war in which Europe would suffer the most damage.

Gorbachev taking the oath of office as the first president of the Soviet Union on March 15, 1990 (TASS)

Your question mentioned the CIS countries. Without going into detail, I can tell you that neither the majority of their people nor their political elite desire a return to the way things were, or have any regrets about exiting the union. Recent polls have shown that the percentage of the population in these countries in favor of a return to the Soviet Union is only about 5-7 percent.

Russia is a special case. The reason I say this is because Russia lost the most as a result of the break-up, in terms of geopolitical stature, in terms of historical merit, in terms of political power it had by virtue of controlling other republics, and finally in terms of economic strength, having ceased to be the center of a major economic complex with a population of nearly a quarter-billion people. [Former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin and [former acting Russian Prime Minister Yegor] Gaidar's reforms destroyed the industrial potential of the country and reduced millions of people to poverty. Privatization was carried out in such a way that instead of contributing to a growing private sector, it only resulted in corruption and mass theft. The country was in shock, so people naturally looked back to the Soviet Union and the social guarantees that it offered. The guarantees were modest, but at least they were guarantees. Now, even though things are improving under Putin, I would still estimate that about 50 percent of our people live in poverty."

RFE/RL: In Russia, it is popular to argue -- and you hear this at the highest political levels -- that the end of the Cold War destabilized the modern world order; the solid bipolar international system was replaced by an unstable monopolar domination. Do you agree with this view?

Gorbachev: I've heard this view before -- that the Cold War supposedly offered a level of stability. I'm not sure where this view comes from -- whether it is part of someone's agenda or simply rooted in ignorance of the situation that developed in the mid-1980s. I was touring the country at the time and from all sides I heard the same question: "Will there be war? Please, do anything you can to not let it happen. Do anything, we'll live through whatever it takes, but just don't let it happen." Of course, many people forgot about this when the fear of war subsided.

The stability of the Cold War was a false one. It was tricky and dangerous. We in the Russian and U.S. governments knew better than anybody what the true situation was and what it could develop into, because we knew what point we were at in the arms race. We knew that the kind of technology that we were operating was powerful enough to put the fate of civilization in question should there be some sort of slip-up. We also knew that the arms race was leading to an unprecedented depletion of national resources.

RFE/RL: How do you assess the state of democracy and freedom of speech in Russia today?

Gorbachev: There are frequent accusations that democracy is being suppressed and that freedom of press is being stifled. The truth is, most Russians disagree with this viewpoint. We find ourselves at a difficult historical juncture. Our transition to democracy has not been a smooth one, and we must assess our successes and failures not in the context of some ideal, but in the context of our history. When Putin first came to power, I think his first priority was keeping the country from falling apart, and this required certain measures that wouldn't exactly be referred to as textbook democracy.

Yes, there are certain worrying tendencies. We still have certain stipulations and restrictions that cannot be explained by real dangers, or by the realities of life in Russia. However, I would not dramatize the situation. In the past 20 years, Russia has changed to such an extent that going back is now impossible.

RFE/RL: Let's turn the clock back 15 years. You suffered a horrible betrayal on the part of the people you considered your comrades-in-arms, as well as, perhaps, your personal friends. Not many people have experienced this. What personal lessons have you learned?

Gorbachev: We need to follow the path of democracy. We need to respect the people, and not turn them back into the herd that was bullied for decades and centuries in our country. We cannot resolve problems through coups. We need the people to participate in the changes that are being enacted in the country. Democracy needs to be effective. The law needs to be efficient. Thieves and corrupt officials should not feel safe. We need to follow the path of democracy toward a free, open, and prosperous country.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev in RFE/RL's Moscow bureau in August 2001 (RFE/RL)

AN UNCERTAIN LEGACY: According to a recent Harris poll, some 59 percent of European Union residents regard former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as the best Soviet/Russian leader. Just 12 percent named Russian President Vladimir Putin and 4 percent picked former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Within Russia, the situation is quite different, with only 12 percent of Russians saying they have a positive impression of Gorbachev in a recent poll.
Gorbachev has been a frequent guest in RFE/RL's studios, offering his assessment of key domestic and international events.


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