Gorbachev’s Cognitive Dissonance

gorbachev1203.jpgFrom a great article in WSJ today: As liberty recedes in Russia, Mr. Gorbachev’s stance raises a question: Is the former Soviet president a savvy politician who sees democratic instincts in Mr. Putin that his critics have missed? Or has he been seduced by the Kremlin’s attentions into becoming an apologist for the former KGB agent who is undoing the revolution Mr. Gorbachev began? “It’s very much to the benefit of the Kremlin to use Gorbachev, and he allows himself to be used this way,” says Lyudmilla Telen, a journalist and Gorbachev friend who edits a small Internet news site. “He will keep balancing as long as he can.” The former president says he isn’t being manipulated. “I think Putin is a democrat,” he says in an interview. Some “authoritarian” steps were needed, he says, to restore order after the chaos of the 1990s. He credits Mr. Putin with rebuilding Russia’s living standards and international prestige. “This isn’t the democracy that we will ultimately get to — it’s a transitional democracy.” Mr. Gorbachev’s support of Mr. Putin may surprise many in the West. But that cognitive dissonance reflects the gap between how Russia’s past 20 years are viewed at home and abroad. Many outside Russia see the 1990s as a time of democratic promise for Moscow. Inside Russia, it was seen as a decade of deprivation and chaos. Like millions of Russians, Mr. Gorbachev wanted the end of communist totalitarian rule, not of the Soviet Union itself. He believes the West took advantage of Russia’s weakness in the 1990s and is now uncomfortable with Mr. Putin, who has returned it to strength. Interview excerpts after the cut.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Interview: Gorbachev on His LegacyAhead of Russia’s Elections, Gorbachev Gives His Take On Democracy Under PutinMikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader from 1985 to 1991, spoke with The Wall Street Journal’s Greg White in Irving, Texas, in October. Mr. Gorbachev denied President Vladimir Putin was taking the country away from democracy and discussed his own legacy. The interview was conducted in Russian. Below are edited excerpts, as translated by The Wall Street Journal’s Svetlana Rubalskaya. (See related article.)* * *WSJ: Recently, U.S.-Russian relations have become rather tense. Do you personally feel that tension when you address American audiences?[Mikhail Gorbachev]Mr. Gorbachev: Yes, people have been asking more and more questions. At first, when Putin had just started [his presidency] people asked me, “Who is Mr. Putin?” Later on, after he was elected for the second term, these questions transformed into: “What will Putin do next?” I don’t think that Putin is contemplating something tricky, some secret action. Russia needs another quarter of a century to really get back on its feet, to rebuild, so that people could have a decent life. Minimum a quarter of a century. To provide the necessary infrastructure for the whole country, we’ll never do this on our own. This is our role, we have a lot of natural resources, but all this requires development.Lately, I think, Putin began to understand that he has to develop efforts aimed at the strengthening of democratic institutions and the press. I wouldn’t say that our press is completely unable to do anything. During our perestroika times, a publication was immediately followed by an action, inquiry, conversation, investigation. Now it is often left without any attention* * *Mr. Gorbachev: To sum up, I’d say that Putin has made it as a president. After all, I supported [former Prime Minister Yevgeny] Primakov. It happened that they bet on Putin — probably because at that time Putin was more suitable than Boris Yeltsin. Yet, he made a good president. Similarly, when they ask me what do I think about the president of the U.S., I answer, “You have a president, and that’s all.” And with regards to the politics and zigzags, to a great extent I attribute all this to [President Bush’s] entourage: [Vice President Dick] Cheney, [Paul] Wolfowitz and others — I’d rather not enumerate them all.Once I had a conversation with Cheney. I told him that we should move away from toughness, and instead to build relations based on real partnership, and he answered: “Reagan took a hard line and he got what he wanted,” — meaning something like they put us on our knees. I asked him, “Do you really think so?” He said yes. Then I told him, “I think that you are wrong.”It happened during the celebrations of the 80th birthday of Bush senior, so it was pretty long ago, but he couldn’t care less. Cheney’s some kind of spawn. How can he talk about Russia like that? After all, it hurts. There is Putin, we elected him, he is our president, everyone has [the president] he deserves.I’d say the following about Putin: Like [the former Soviet leader, Leonid] Brezhnev, Putin has been lucky to get such money for oil. It rarely happens here. In the second year of perestroika, we had oil prices of $10-$12 a barrel. That really did a number on our plans. Things probably wouldn’t have turned out the way they did. Nevertheless, Putin somehow managed to put together a country that was falling apart.WSJ:Was the retreat from democratic reforms necessary for that?Mr. Gorbachev: I wouldn’t say that it’s a complete retreat: It isn’t. Without any doubt, some retreat was necessary. For example, the stabilization of this vertical [of authority from the Kremlin] — although no one explains what is meant by this. Generally speaking, the idea was that to introduce some kind of discipline in the country by creating these federal districts and presidential representatives. Everyone was satisfied with that, and succeeded in doing it. So the more he was criticized abroad, the greater support he received at home.[Russia Archive] ’90S FLASHBACK• Mikhail Gorbachev: Rewards and Regrets (10/25/99)• Fading Beacon: On Gorbachev’s Legacy (12/13/91)* * *WSJ:Were there any cases when you discussed something with him and then there was an effect?Mr. Gorbachev: No, it doesn’t happen that way. I simply expressed my opinion, like many other people did. Naturally, there is difference between what I say and what other people say, but nevertheless, we have absolutely open conversations.WSJ: How frequently do you meet with him?Mr. Gorbachev: Very rarely. When he wishes, more frequently. We met recently. We had a big, substantive conversation and it was mostly about the upcoming new stage. I supported him in his decision to act in compliance with the constitution and not to agree to, because there were such well-wishers in Russia who want to let the president stay for a third term.WSJ:And now it looks as if he’d be prime minister?Mr. Gorbachev: But he acts in accordance with the constitution.WSJ: But it doesn’t look very pretty.Mr. Gorbachev: Politics isn’t about beauty. But everything is in accordance with the constitution. Let’s wait and see how it works out. I think that it won’t be worse. It’s as if he isn’t leaving. And later, after his party wins most seats [in the Duma], plus some partner, they could make some amendments into the constitution and decrease the presidential powers, and then it could be a presidential-parliamentary rule, roughly speaking, like it is in France.WSJ: But then it would be done for one particular person.Mr. Gorbachev: But it will still suit all others who will come to power in future. Because today the president has such a power that it frequently resembles autocracy, and everything is eventually resolved by him. After all, it’s bad for him, too. First of all, he’ll be unable to tackle all problems and is already unable to do this. Secondly, he is blamed for all mistakes. This process has just started. I don’t think that we know everything. Let’s wait and see what happens.WSJ:When you met with him in summer, did you get the impression that this is a retreat from democratic principles? Or does he look at it as a temporary measure?Mr. Gorbachev: He doesn’t accentuate on this the way you and I do. He knows that the process of administration in Russia is the most important thing, and that the worst possible thing is if the country gets out of control. I think that as long as it goes on this way, there won’t be more.WSJ:So, we’ll see neither a return, nor further retreat…Mr. Gorbachev: I think that this will hardly happen.WSJ:What would be a red line for you?Mr. Gorbachev: I have the same wish as the people do. Yesterday when they asked me in which country I’d like to live I said, “In a free and democratic country.” What else one could wish? As regards institutions, this is a matter for the political elite. Therefore I think that to create an authoritarian regime… No, I think that this will not happen. Putin is a modern person.WSJ: Some people think that your legacy — perestroika and glasnost — are already under threat.Mr. Gorbachev: No, I think it’s already impossible for anyone to do anything [to reverse them]. People already know what [democracy] is and they are for free election. All opinion polls demonstrate that people want gubernatorial elections to be restored.* * *Gorbachev’s spokesman: Speaking about glasnost: If we take two sides of glasnost — freedom of speech and transparency of state authorities — Can we say that there is glasnost in this sense?Mr. Gorbachev: Yes, there is, but not enough.WSJ:Less (glasnost) than under your rule?Mr. Gorbachev: I don’t know how much glasnost there was then. I think that everything was transparent then. But these are extremes. Everything should be well balanced. I like the formula which Putin himself follows — although I don’t know how he manages to do this, because it doesn’t depend only on him. He says: I am for the freedom of media, press must be also free, but responsible.WSJ: But it looks as if his understanding is rather narrow…Mr. Gorbachev: I think that during our lifetime everyone in Russia will be trying to clarify such matters. For us it’s such a period, without any doubt, after all institutions are being restored, legislative base is growing. I didn’t like it then. I even wrote a special article for Rossiiskaya Gazeta, you might have read it, about his impingement on electoral rights, which were significantly reduced.WSJ:Yes, we see that the democratic field is shrinking…Mr. Gorbachev: If we sum up everything that we’ve discussed with you, I think that both glasnost and freedom of speech are left intact and this is a great step forward. Boris [Yeltsin] in general behaved like a star and I think that he has demoralized a lot of people. A lot was written against him, but he never responded to anything. He didn’t persecute the press, we can say this, but there was no positive effect from this. Therefore I think that now this is a very different country with a different press, with an absolutely different press.* * *Mr. Gorbachev: I think that Putin is a democrat.WSJ:What does that mean?Mr. Gorbachev: It means that within the framework of Russia he conducts democratic policies. This isn’t the democracy which we’ll ultimately get to, it’s a transitional democracy. It’s not without reason that I say that we are halfway there. And you want us to complete everything by 200%. A hundred years under communist rule taught everyone that it’s better to keep silent, not to get involved in a conflict. Especially when there is no food, no work. People are afraid that they will be punished for this. We politicians and especially the press, we put democracy in the first place, while all opinion polls demonstrate that people don’t. I think that step by step an environment is being created in which questions can be democratically raised etc. But it remains a question how to transform it into reality.WSJ:You used to criticize the United Russia, but after Putin decided to head it, what do you think?Mr. Gorbachev: I am sure that now it will become better. I can only wish that he seriously approaches this task. Sometime in the past he said that if he managed to create a party he would deem his work useful.WSJ: But he closed several parties.Mr. Gorbachev: No, it wasn’t him. In your country you created the court which ignores everyone’s opinion — American judges and courts, I think, are something interesting — although even they began to lose their positions because of such freedom and independence. But I am once again creating social-democratic movement. As long as I live I’ll be doing this many famous people whom you know have joined me.* * *WSJ: What’s it like for you dealing with stars (in your charity work)?Mr. Gorbachev: Normal. They want to talk. If the brand doesn’t work, the stars don’t talk. I’m the kind of person that has nothing but the brand to offer.