Archive for Thursday, September 25, 2008

Gorbachev reflects on Russian transition

September 25, 2008

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On Thursday, Mikhail Gorbachev received the prestigious Liberty Medal at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center. The former Soviet president was praised for advancing the cause of liberty by introducing reforms that led to the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union.

The same day, in a speech on U.S.-Russia relations in Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denounced Moscow's invasion of Georgia and warned that Russia had reverted to "paranoid, aggressive" behavior.

The disconnect between those two events could not have been more dramatic. Yet the Philadelphia ceremony was a reminder, as U.S.-Russian relations grow colder, of how closely our two nations cooperated under Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush.

Bush the elder was on stage with Gorbachev, and the emotional bond between the two was clear. "President Bush was my best partner ... and made it possible to put an end to the Cold War," Gorbachev said. "We brought change to the point of no return where the clock could not be turned back."

So what went wrong?

I asked Gorbachev this question in an interview in Philadelphia. (For the record, Gorbachev has blamed the Georgians for provoking the Russian invasion by sending troops into the separatist enclave of South Ossetia. The story is much more complex: The Russians had troops poised on the Georgian border clearly looking for an excuse to cross it. The Georgians did, however, choose to march into a trap.)

"Does the current Russian government want to be part of the West, or not?" I also asked. Like most Russians, Gorbachev views the current tensions through a totally different prism than do most people here.

"Russia has been a European country always and wants to remain a European country," he insisted. "There is no longer an ideological division. Russia has no intention of fighting anyone."

He recalled the amazing days when he, as Soviet leader, gave the green light for Eastern Europe to choose its own future and Germany to reunite. Then, he said, there seemed a chance of getting rid of NATO as well as the communist Warsaw Pact. He repeated his plea, made since the 1990s, for a common security organization for all Europe.

Instead, he said, we see a "new struggle for spheres of influence" between NATO and Russia. He recalled the words of the first secretary-general of NATO in the late 1940s, about the purpose of the trans-Atlantic organization: "To keep America in, keep Germany down and keep Russia out."

Of course, neither "Old Europe" nor, more so, the "New Europe" of ex-communist nations trusts Russian intentions sufficiently to want to dissolve NATO or to break security links with Washington. That mistrust has intensified because of the extensive Russian invasion of Georgia, even among Europeans who believe Georgia brought its troubles on itself.

But Gorbachev reflects an understandable Russian anger that the West betrayed promises it made to him in the early 1990s. "America took advantage of the breakup of the Soviet Union," he said with emotion, "and (it) rejected decisions taken and signed by the United States.

"Secretary (of State James) Baker said that NATO would not move to the East. Where is NATO today?" He referred to NATO's decision to invite former East European countries into its ranks and the pending decision about whether to admit Georgia and Ukraine.

There was bitterness in Gorbachev's voice as he recalled Western disrespect during the 1990s, when Russia was in a state of collapse. "We Russians didn't like it," he said. "I didn't hear words of sympathy from our Western partners. They came to applaud."

This sense of grievance clearly colors Russia's political decisions and thinking. Gorbachev says the Western press was "acting on instructions" because it did not report that the tragedy in Georgia was all the fault of Georgia's government.

It's unclear whether Russian behavior today would be different if the West had paid it more respect since 1990. Would former President Vladimir V. Putin have chosen not to reassert authoritarian rule and control of the press? Would he not have made threats against neighboring countries?

And would Putin have refrained from trying to monopolize control of pipelines carrying energy from Central Asia to Europe? Gorbachev described the ongoing pipeline battle in the Caucasus thus: "The name of the game is competition." But Russia's idea of competition seems to be to block the building of pipelines it cannot control - by any means.

And yet, Gorbachev raises valid questions about the best way to move forward with Russia. Escalation of public rhetoric boxes each side into a corner from which it's hard to escape.

While slamming Rice's remarks as "rash and irresponsible," Gorbachev pointed to the "somewhat different statements" of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in London, also on Thursday. Gates called for a united NATO strategy that would reassure Russia's neighbors, without provoking more hostilities. Russian leaders may now recognize they overreached in Georgia, frightening off foreign investors and alienating the European public. Their rhetoric is softening.

"We need to do a lot of work," Gorbachev says. His embrace of George H.W. Bush is a reminder of the cooperation that was once possible. Perhaps - if the West sets firm red lines but is judicious about NATO expansion - such cooperation may be possible again.

- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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