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Reading Gorbachev's Mind

Is Gorbachev supporting Putin's agenda?
Is Gorbachev supporting Putin's agenda?
Things are rarely what they seem in the highly stage-managed world of Russia's managed democracy. In a commentary published today, RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mikhail Sokolov persuasively outlines the Kremlin's tactics for managing the domestic political scene and preventing any real opposition movement from gaining any traction. The latest gambit in this ongoing drama seems to be the formation of two "democratic" movements headed by two of the least popular political figures -- Anatoly Chubais and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Chubais is a pseudo-liberal technocrat who is reviled throughout Russia as the architect of the 1990s privatization that drained every bank account in the country straight into the pockets of the oligarchs. (He kept plenty for himself.) He is also remembered for his role in debasing democracy itself during the 1996 presidential election. He was long ago co-opted into the Vladimir Putin system as the head of Unified Energy Systems and, now, of the Russian Nanotechnology Corporation.

And then there is Gorbachev, who has announced that he will head a new party funded by billionaire banker Aleksandr Lebedev. Still quite popular and respected in the West for his Soviet-era reforms and his handling of the demise of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev is nonetheless extremely unpopular in Russia, especially since his social liberalizations have been rolled back and the theme of regaining Russia's superpower greatness is a constant mantra of the propaganda machine. When he ran for president in 1996, he was widely ridiculed and received just 1 percent of the vote.

Sokolov's piece ends with the question of why Gorbachev, still a statesman of stature, would agree to participate in a Kremlin scheme to stifle political pluralism. Of course, Gorbachev's true motives are known only to him. But it is clear that he has long been extremely sympathetic to certain aspects of Putinism, including its growing anti-Westernism. It seems more than likely that he feels personally betrayed by the West because of the assurances that he was given by U.S. President George Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, that NATO would not expand if the Soviet Union endorsed the reunification of Germany. "Old grievances are a heavy burden," Gorbachev wrote in a "Washington Post" commentary supporting Russia's military intervention in Georgia in August.

Gorbachev believes his sincere overtures to the West to create a truly inclusive international security framework were not only rejected, but abused. And that cost him the respect of the Russian people, for whom he did so much. It seems likely that now he sees NATO expansion and U.S. policies in general as a real threat to Russia, one that justifies helping Putin control the domestic front so he can devote his attentions abroad.

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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