Gorby: tanned, rested, wary

Russia: The last leader of the Soviet Union looks back at the endgame of the Cold War and its chilling aftermath.

June 27, 1999|By Bob Caldwell

MOSCOW -- On a sweltering afternoon in the first heat wave of Russia's summer, the room at 49 Leningradsky Prospekt is an oven.

The lights are off and, as the shadows of late afternoon engulf the building, the room and its occupants bake in the dark.

This is, as Russians might say, "normal."

Electricity and air conditioning, like government and the economy, are things you can't take for granted in post-Soviet Russia.

These days, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize and loser of the Cold War, works out of an office here, in a hulking, gray building with a discreet hammer-and-sickle emblem over the door, halfway between the Kremlin and the international airport.

In this edifice of the past, Gorbachev -- tanned, tailored and sophisticated -- is more than a little out of place.

But he makes no note of his surroundings as he leads a group of American editors through his version of the history of the past decade.

His account of his political demise and the dissolution of the old Soviet system is equal parts self-justification and self-criticism. He acknowledges, for example, mishandling key aspects of perestroika, the restructuring effort he led within the Communist party and public life in the Soviet Union in the last half of the 1980s.

"We failed, particularly where the consumer market was concerned," Gorbachev said. "People were standing in lines and blaming perestroika. I blame myself. I tried to fight on two fronts. Against the reactionaries among the nomenklatura on one hand and, on the other, the democrats led by [Boris] Yeltsin."

To Gorbachev, the events of August 1991, when the Soviet system collapsed on itself, led directly to the events of August 1998, when the financial house of cards created by the new Russian system fell in.

Now, he says, the Russian nation is in dire straits.

"The situation is bad; I'd even call it very bad," Gorbachev said.

Gorbachev sees a focus on short-term politics and political gain as one of the chief culprits in fumbling away much of the promise of economic and political reform in Russia during the past decade.

The other culprit in Gorbachev's morality play is his political nemesis, Yeltsin.

"Yeltsin, from the very start, was reckless," Gorbachev said. "He thought if Russia was to abandon the other republics [of the Soviet Union], Russia could move very fast in reform. But our union was not like Europe. With the Soviet countries, we were a unit, and [Yeltsin's actions] resulted in a kind of a collapse."

Yeltsin's second mistake, in Gorbachev's view, was to follow Western advice and try to make economic reforms take place quickly.

"It was a kind of neo-Bolshevism," Gorbachev said. "The Bolsheviks said, 'We need to catch up to the West,' so they tried to do it overnight. Yeltsin, in his own way, wanted to do the same thing. He was sure he had God on his side. He pushed by any means.

"The result was the breakup of the country."

Now, Gorbachev and others in Russia worry that Yeltsin will not leave office when his constitutional term expires next year.

He sees the second problem illustrated in the U.S. policy in the Balkans.

For the past several years, starting with its successful drive to remove U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the United States "has been trying to change the entire international equation."

"The U.S.," he said, "is acting arrogantly."

Gorbachev blames President Clinton for pursuing a foreign policy based on "ignoring the United Nations and international law."

There also is that old Russian paranoia about American intentions underlying Gorbachev's assessment of U.S. actions in the Balkans.

"[Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic deserves a lot of the responsibility" for what happened in Yugoslavia, Gorbachev said. "I could name a dozen similar conflicts in the world, but NATO was silent. The U.S. acted here because the administration wanted to show the world who was boss.

"There is only one superpower. NATO is its tool," Gorbachev said.

If a false sense of omnipotence led the United States into the war in Kosovo, it was a sense of inferiority that drove the Russian public reaction to the race to Pristina by a Russian armored column at the end of the war. To many Russians, the move was a simple act of assertiveness -- if not that of a great power, then at least that of a dissenter in the world community.

Gorbachev, out of power and out of the political picture in Russia, was also a spectator at his country's match with the reigning world power.

He acknowledges that being on good terms with America, and with American and European bankers, is the only option for his country. He acknowledges, too, that the United States is the key to peace and stability in the world.

But those things do not translate into an infallible America, or one that is capable of seeing much beyond its own interests. American world leadership, he suggests, doesn't confer the right to dictate the outcome of every argument, every crisis.

To Gorbachev, Russia is quite capable of finding its own way -- even if the path proves difficult.

Bob Caldwell is editorial page editor for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He was in Russia this month with a group from the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

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