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Russia: Mikhail Gorbachev Discusses Mideast, NATO, And Putin

At 71, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev remains in the public eye, although on a considerably more modest scale that in the waning days of the Soviet Union, when he took the first crucial steps toward opening the country to the West, instituting policies of "glasnost" and "perestroika" -- literally, openness and rebuilding. Meeting yesterday with journalists, the history-making former leader shared his views on a wide range of issues, including Russia's possible role in resolving the Mideast conflict, NATO, and what current President Vladimir Putin has achieved in his two years in office.

Moscow, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In a question-and-answer session with journalists held at the Ekho Moskvy radio station, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was asked to describe Russia's current geopolitical role.

He began by discussing the conflict in the Middle East. He said the United States will not be able to resolve the conflict without the participation of Russia, with its strong links to the Palestinians and the Arab world overall.

"Do you remember [former U.S.] Secretary of State [George] Schultz? A good friend of mine, with whom I still have contacts. (Schultz served under former President Ronald Reagan.) There was the so-called 'Schultz plan' on how to settle the situation in the Middle East. He went there often. He went there so many times, but in the end he came to Moscow. And this happened to be a decisive visit. [Schultz] came [to Moscow] to say that [the U.S.] had arrived at that conclusion that, without the participation of the Soviet Union, it was impossible to find a solution to the Middle East problem. After that, we were able to organize [the first Middle East peace conference] in Madrid, [in 1991]. And now, I must say that without Russia, it is impossible to reach any results [in the peace process]. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that [former U.S. President] Bill Clinton tried in vain to solve this problem for eight years without us. The reason for this is simple: [Israel] is traditionally linked to the United States and [the Palestinians] to us. Furthermore, Russia has great respect in the Middle East and in the Arab world."

Journalists then asked Gorbachev what kind of agreement NATO might be able to reach with Russia during its 28 May summit in Italy. Russia and the military alliance are expected to announce the details of a permanent joint council that will allow Moscow limited participation in NATO decision making on issues such as antiterror efforts and peacekeeping operations. Gorbachev said he is optimistic that Russia's increased cooperation with the alliance will prove beneficial for the country.

"[The agreement between Russian and NATO] will be a substantial one. This is an attempt to find a mechanism that will permit Russia to take part in discussions concerning security issues and also to participate in decision-making processes. If earlier [Russia and NATO] talked about reaching an agreement on only two or three issues, now they are talking about seven issues on which Russia will have the right [to decide]. It will be to some extent similar to the position of France, when it left NATO but remained within the political [mechanism of NATO]. This is important. It is a further step [forward]. [Russia] can take decisions on issues concerning security problems, the fight against terrorism, about peacekeeping operations. This is very serious. Instead of having the [formula proposed earlier, of] 19 countries plus one, we have now 20 countries and this is different."

Asked to comment on President Vladimir Putin's two years in office, Gorbachev says he was impressed by the positive results Putin has managed to achieved in such a short period.

"I never thought [Putin] would be able to do what he did in just two years. Some time ago, I was in his place -- and it was a very hard time. I know what it means to be president, and I know what it means to take the country out of a critical situation. In one of our conversations, [Putin] said that he inherited chaos. I think he should be given credit for stabilizing the country, and making it more governable, with people starting to respect the constitution. These are all positive changes."

RFE/RL asked Gorbachev to comment on Putin's attitude toward independent media, which has been criticized as unnecessarily oppressive. The former Soviet president said it is difficult for a country still emerging from 70 years of communism to quickly embrace Western values like press freedom.

"You [Western countries] started 200 years ago to head toward the democratic path. And now you want us to reach [your level of democracy] in 200 days. We still have a lot to learn. A person who has just been given freedom and the right to choose can't in a single day become experienced [in democratic principles]. Yes, the president left his mark on the situation [concerning press freedom]. When the situation with NTV [being taken over by the state-controlled Gazprom fuel company] changed, I talked with President Putin -- and our points of view were then publicly known. I told him that without press freedom, Russia cannot be a free and democratic country and he said he agreed with that. He said: 'I want NTV's editorial staff to be preserved. But they should decide by themselves.' But our positions about it were different. I didn't understand his decision to not take part [in the NTV dispute]."

Gorbachev said Russia will achieve press freedom only when democratic institutions become stronger and the role of civil society in the country grows. Gorbachev said he believes Russia will continue along the path to democracy. But Russian-style democracy, he stressed, will have its own particular qualities, as Russia's history differs too markedly from that of the West. In any case, the former Soviet president said, "nobody has the right to blame Russia for being the way they are -- just as you can't blame Americans for being the way they are."