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Mikhail Gorbachev, first and last president of the Soviet Union, is defiant at 83 over his role in the breakup of the Soviet Union and its ongoing fallout. Pascal Dumont / MT
Ivan Nechepurenko, The Moscow Times.
Many people who send letters to the first and last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, still write on the envelope: “To the Secretary General of the Communist Party, Kremlin.” The Russian postal service is used to this and redirects the mail to the Gorbachev Foundation, headquartered in a modern building about seven kilometers north of the Kremlin.
Some of those letters are harshly critical of Gorbachev, who is regarded as a traitor by many Russians who regret the demise of the Soviet Union and the shocking economic transformation that followed. Some of the more vitriolic missives even encourage him to commit suicide. But at 83, Gorbachev is defiant and determined.
“I live and will continue to live according to my conscience and principles. Everyone else can go crazy,” he told The Moscow Times in an extensive interview this week.
Despite saying he is “already a part of history,” Gorbachev said he cannot simply observe passively what is happening in Russia today.
“I need to participate, and I will. Nobody will shut my mouth, even though people wanted me to emigrate. I don’t want to leave, let those people leave,” Gorbachev said, banging his hands on the table for emphasis.
Gorbachev, who in recent months underwent treatment at a hospital in Moscow, said he has been reported dead at least 10 times.
“I am called a traitor because I destroyed so many nuclear arms. The second treachery is that we built good relations with the U.S.,” he said.
For those who address their letters to Gorbachev at the Kremlin, time has clearly stood still. And today, when President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the West find themselves at odds once again, the time when secretary generals in the Kremlin were engaged in an ideological rivalry with the West seems closer than ever.
Seeds of Discord
During the festivities marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this month, Gorbachev warned that the world risks a new Cold War. As someone who worked his way up through the Communist Party at a time when the Soviet Union and the U.S. were ready to destroy each other in a nuclear war and who then worked hard to eliminate divisions in Europe and the world at large, Gorbachev is better qualified than most to offer insight into the strikingly similar issues the world faces now.
Today, Gorbachev argues that the problems in Ukraine and the world at large are in part due to errors made during the collapse of the old system.
“What is happening now in Ukraine is in many ways due to the mistakes of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Once they decided to dissolve the union, they should have agreed on territories and borders,” Gorbachev said.
“Crimea was Russian, and most people in Crimea voted in favor of joining Russia [in the recent referendum]. I supported this move from the beginning, and I am half-Ukrainian. I worry about what is happening in Ukraine. … It might not be a scientific fact, but we are the same people,” he said.
Gorbachev believes that the Soviet Union collapsed mainly due to the political self-interest of local leaders — above all, the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who, Gorbachev said, wanted to “get rid” of him.
Gorbachev has never communicated with Yeltsin since. “There was nothing to talk about with this usurper who went behind my back,” Gorbachev said.
Gorbachev says he supports Putin, despite having criticized previously. Pascal Dumont / MT
The Gift of Hindsight
At the same time, Gorbachev does not believe that the Soviet Union should have been preserved in its old form as a repressive state.
“We could not live like we did before, when people would make a joke and find themselves in jail the next day. There were so many problems, but society did not discuss them,” he said.”
“People had been breaking each other’s bones in lines for Italian shoes in our country,” he said.
Gorbachev said the union should have been preserved “with a new essence that would consist of independent sovereign states.”
The West, according to Gorbachev, used the resulting chaos in Russia to its own advantage.
“The West, especially the Americans, applauded Yeltsin. A half-suffocated Russia was ideal for them. Much of the mess we are in today is due to what happened then,” Gorbachev said.
“The main thing is that trust has now been broken. Everybody was losing because of the Cold War, and everybody won when it ended,” he said, referring to the ongoing rift between Russia and the U.S.
The U.S. felt triumphant and justified to expand NATO into Eastern Europe, Gorbachev said.
“It is true that the spirit of these German unification agreements were broken because we agreed that NATO infrastructure would not expand into East Germany, which creates a certain spirit. When they began to accept new countries into NATO in the 1990s. That violated the spirit of the agreements,” he said.
The question of the promise allegedly made to Russia by the West not to expand NATO eastward is often mentioned by Putin in his foreign policy speeches, with NATO expansion used to justify Russia’s actions on the world stage.
Gorbachev said that when he was in office the issue of expansion was not discussed, as Eastern European countries had not signaled any desire to join NATO.
“The main idea was that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would gradually transform from military-political into political organizations,” he said.
“We pledged not to aim to seek military superiority over each other. Is this the case now? No. We destroyed so many weapons, tanks and so forth, and now it is all coming back,” he said.
The tense relations between Russia and the U.S. are also created by certain groups in both countries in favor of confrontation, Gorbachev said.
“There is the same type of public both in the U.S. — including the military-industrial complex that cannot imagine its life without weapons and war — and here in Russia too. Every U.S. president feels obliged to wage a war during his term or, even better, two — as the saying goes. I am serious. It’s not a joke. This idea has survived, and that is very bad.”
Putin the Statesman
Gorbachev, who on Thursday presented his new book about his life after leaving the Kremlin, said he supports Putin and ranks him with the political leaders of his own rule, such as then U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
“He is a statesman. I can say one thing: Despite all the criticism, I strongly supported him, especially during his first term, because Russia was disintegrating. He has done a lot. I said the president is successful. I criticized him too because you have to criticize leaders,” Gorbachev said.
He accused Putin of saying “what suits him” about the Soviet Union’s collapse, which Putin famously described as the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical tragedy.
“Doesn’t he know how it all happened? He knows, but says what suits him,” Gorbachev said, adding that Putin is currently “under attack” by media that are “not free.”
“There are no free media, either in Russia or the West. Everybody is dependent and works for the benefit of their own states. That is beyond doubt. For instance, I was in a hospital, where I had to do everything as prescribed. This reminds me of the press: It is free, but follows orders,” he said.
Pro-Russian militant ride on a tank taken from Ukrainian forces during fighting in August, on their way to test fire in open fields, in the eastern Ukrainian town of Ilovaisk, some 40 kms east of Donetsk, on Nov. 18. © AFP
The Editorial Board, The New York Times.
The crisis in Ukraine has reached an impasse. The cease-fire signed in Minsk, Belarus, in September never really took hold, but at least it provided a cover for efforts to reduce the level of fighting and focus on stabilizing and reforming the Ukrainian economy as a prelude to a serious, long-term search for a resolution of the crisis. Now even the fig leaf of cease-fire is gone. Russian armored vehicles are rolling into eastern Ukraine — disowned, of course, by Moscow.
Gunfire is exchanged constantly in and around Donetsk, and Kiev has basically disowned residents of territories claimed by separatists by cutting most government services, benefits and pensions. And though elections to the Ukrainian Parliament on Oct. 26 brought in a new, pro-Western legislature, Kiev is still far from forming a government or producing a viable program of reforms.
The United States and the European Union have made clear, and correctly so, that they hold President Vladimir Putin of Russia largely responsible for this state of affairs. He was snubbed at the Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia. Then Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, once the European leader deemed most cautious in relations with Moscow, assailed him for reviving a Cold War atmosphere 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell.
There is no question that by annexing Crimea and arming separatists in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin has done great damage to East-West relations — and to his country, which finds itself isolated and in economic trouble. The decision on Monday by the European Union to add more separatist leaders to the list of Mr. Putin’s allies barred from Europe may be largely symbolic, but along with the cold reception in Brisbane, it does let the Russian leader know that the West is not about to let him off the hook.
That said, it is important to acknowledge that officials in Kiev, and more specifically President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, have responsibilities they must live up to. Ukraine has been plagued by corruption since it became independent, and the current crisis has made it even more imperative for the leaders to form a government and come up with a credible economic and political strategy.
The Ukrainian economy is in terrible shape — the currency has lost almost half its value against the dollar in 2014, the industrial centers of Donetsk and Luhansk are in separatist hands, coal mines have shut down. The International Monetary Fund has provided emergency aid, but the hard fact is that the European Union and the United States cannot be expected to make substantial commitments until Ukraine provides a clear reform plan and priorities for outside investment. Johannes Hahn, the new European Union commissioner for enlargement, is right to insist that the union will not hold a donors’ conference without this.
In addition to an economic strategy, Kiev needs to prepare a plan for loosening central control in a way that might satisfy residents of the eastern provinces. The decision by President Poroshenko to cut government benefits and pensions to residents of areas under the control of Kremlin-backed separatists, though understandable in the circumstances, has left those unable to flee feeling betrayed by Kiev, creating a vacuum for Moscow to fill.
There is no question that ordering painful reforms when a country is already on its knees is asking a lot. That is why it is imperative that Western leaders make clear that they will give Kiev substantial assistance only after it embarks on a serious program of economic and political reform. After all, that was what the Ukrainians who took to the streets in December 2013 fought for.
Medical volunteers unpack individual first aid kits similar to those used by NATO during a ceremony where they were donated by Kiev’s Mayor Vitaly Klitschko in Kiev Oct. 31. Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters
Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, The Moscow Times.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Tuesday voiced what Russia wants from the West over Ukraine: guarantees that the former Soviet republic will not join NATO, an outcome that political analysts agree was already unlikely in the year-long conflict that has already claimed 4,000 lives.
“We would like to hear that NATO will stop drawing closer to Russia’s borders, that NATO will stop its attempts to disrupt the balance of power,” Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with the BBC. “Unfortunately, we have not heard these assurances, and that forces us to worry, since NATO is gradually moving closer to our borders.”
Putin cited the threat of further NATO expansion as one of the reasons for annexing Crimea from Ukraine in March, a move that infuriated the international community.
Russia’s distrust of NATO is long-standing. Putin has used many platforms to express his stance on NATO expansion, including the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest.
“A military bloc showing up at our borders would be regarded as a direct security threat,” Putin told reporters at the time. “Assurances that these moves are not aimed against us will not be accepted. National security is not built on promises.”
Ukraine’s current circumstances seem, at first glance, to already constitute a guarantee that it will not join the alliance. The country does not fulfill the alliance’s political, military and economic membership requirements. The current territorial disputes over Crimea and the Donbass also put it at odds with NATO’s charter.
Ukrainian authorities have not kidded themselves about the prospect of membership, recognizing that the country does not fulfill the organization’s criteria and that the alliance would not be willing to accept Ukraine into its fold.
“Even if we sent a request to join NATO, the bloc itself would not be ready for this,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told Bild, a German daily newspaper, on Monday. “Only when we implement reforms in Ukraine and meet the criteria will we be able to ask the population whether they want to join the alliance.”
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty recognizes an armed attack on a member as an an assault on all of them. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday that Russia was orchestrating a military buildup on its border with Ukraine, as well as on Ukrainian territory, after the alliance released satellite images it said showed Russian forces engaging in military operations on Ukrainian territory earlier this year. Had Ukraine been a member of the organization, NATO would have had to go beyond mere statements.
But circumstantial guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO in any foreseeable future are insufficient for Russia, pundits told The Moscow Times.
“Russia feels that it has been lied to by the West in many instances,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies think tank. “It doesn’t want this to happen again, especially on a sensitive issue it said it was once cheated on: NATO eastward expansion. I assume Russia would request an official document with binding obligations.”
Peskov could not be reached Wednesday for clarification of the nature of the guarantee Russia had requested.
Russian authorities have claimed it was agreed during German reunification negotiations in 1990 Russia that NATO would not expand eastward. NATO denies that there was any such agreement and released a statement in April saying that “no evidence to back up Russia’s claims has ever been produced.” In the last 15 years, 12 European countries — including the three Baltic former Soviet republics — have joined the alliance.
Russian pundits agreed it was highly unlikely that Russia would obtain a written guarantee from the West that Ukraine would not join the alliance.
“Russia doesn’t trust NATO, and NATO doesn’t trust Russia,” political scientist Vladimir Yevseyev said. “Nobody trusts anyone else right now. This type of guarantee would increase mutual trust and predictability in these tense circumstances. I would view this as a positive development.”
NATO enlargement is only one of the issues Russia has used to justify its stance on Ukraine, and analysts said a Western guarantee on keeping Ukraine out of the alliance would have no effect on other lingering issues.
“A guarantee on Ukraine not joining NATO would not be enough,” Makarkin said. “It will not improve the situation in the country, nor ease tensions. There are a series of other demands Russia has made of the West regarding Ukraine, including the adoption of a special status for the east of the country. These other issues will not change regardless of any official guarantee against Ukraine joining NATO.”
Armed search of the Mejlis building lasting 12 hours.
Who else could achieve a return to the worst forms of Soviet repression in less than 9 months? How can remembrance of the victims of a terrible crime against humanity be banned and the use of words like ‘annexation’ and ‘occupation’ be termed ‘extremist’? Why is Vladimir Putin’s only response to the disappearances and abductions of Crimean Tatars a claim that it’s all news to him?
Vladimir Putin asserted that Russia’s effective invasion of the Crimea was to protect people and save lives. The first death was of Reshat Ametov, a Crimean Tatar peacefully protesting against Russian annexation. Since then all deaths, disappearances and abductions have been of Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian opponents of Russian rule.
The Crimean Tatars were not alone in opposing the annexation, but as the largest indigenous people of the Crimea the refusal by the Mejlis, or Crimean Tatar representative body, to support the pseudo-referendum on March 16 was a major embarrassment for Russia. It was one that the Kremlin and its puppet government in the Crimea have not forgotten.
The Soviet tactics began almost immediately. On April 22, veteran Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemiliev was handed a 5-year-ban on entering his homeland. This came two days after the 71-year-old former Soviet political prisoner and Ukrainian MP, on his first return to Simferopol since annexation, insisted that the Ukrainian flag be reinstated over the Mejlis building.
Since then a similar ban has been imposed on the current head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov. A major offensive has been launched against the Mejlis itself with the occupation regime clearly trying to crush a body which it has tried and failed to force into submission.
On the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the Deportation of the Crimean Tatars, the occupation regime banned all public events and used riot police, paramilitaries and soldiers to prevent Crimean Tatars from gathering in the centre of Simferopol as they had for the last 23 years. Even military helicopters were used over prayer gatherings on the outskirts of Simferopol and Bakhchysarai.
FSB [Security Service] surveillance and a hunt for ‘extremists’ began almost immediately. The first warning about ‘extremism’ issued to the Mejlis newspaper ‘Avdet’ was because it used such impolite terms as ‘annexation’ and ‘occupation’. Later it was again accused of extremism in reporting the Mejlis’ call to boycott the Sept 14 elections.
With such a broad understanding of ‘extremism’, anything can be expected and over recent months Russia and its puppets in the Crimea have been proving that anything will be tried. There have been a number of searches by armed men in masks of private homes, mosques and religious schools, with these most ominously coinciding with unfounded claims of radicalization of Crimean Muslims.
There have also been a number of disappearances and abductions of young Crimean Tatar men. According to Ali Khamzin from the Mejlis, Russia used such disappearances, allegations of radicalization and armed searches at the beginning of armed conflicts in Chechnya to justify more aggressive measures by the Russian enforcement bodies against particular groups.
The occupation regime has shown no real effort to find the killers of Reshat Ametov, or three civic activists in opposition to Russian rule who disappeared back in May. Quite the contrary, it is seeking to have a law passed which would provide a past and future amnesty for the so-called ‘self-defence’ paramilitaries who played a large, and often bloody, role in establishing Russian rule.
In stark contrast to this, arrests are still taking place on trumped-up charges dating back to the peaceful protest on May 3 when Mustafa Dzhemiliev was prevented from entering the Crimea. Three men were recently remanded in custody for 2 months with the prosecution and court seeming unclear whether the men were accused of ‘extremism’ or of an alleged incident back in early May.
It seems ominously clear that Moscow is trying to intimidate the Crimean Tatars into silent submission or into exile.
With world-renowned Crimean Tatar leaders banished from their homeland; disappearances and abductions of young Crimean Tatars; armed searches of mosques, religious schools and private homes and dodgy prosecutions, how could western countries even consider easing sanctions against Russia?
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. on Friday of endangering global security by imposing a “unilateral diktat” on the rest of the world and shifted blame for the Ukraine crisis onto the West.
In a 40-minute diatribe against the West that was reminiscent of the Cold War and underlined the depth of the rift between Moscow and the West, Putin also denied trying to rebuild the Soviet empire at the expense of Russia’s neighbors.
“We did not start this,” Putin told an informal group of experts on Russia that includes many Western specialists critical of him, warning that Washington was trying to “remake the whole world” based on its own interests.
“Statements that Russia is trying to reinstate some sort of empire, that it is encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbors, are groundless,” the former KGB agent declared in a speech delivered standing at a podium, without a smile, in a ski resort in mountains above the Black Sea city of Sochi.
Listing a series of conflicts in which he faulted U.S. actions, including Libya, Syria and Iraq, Putin asked whether Washington’s policies had strengthened peace and democracy.
“No,” he declared. “The unilateral diktat and the imposing of schemes [on others] have exactly the opposite effect.”
Putin, 62, has stepped up anti-Western rhetoric since returning to the Kremlin as president in 2012, helping push up his popularity ratings since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March.
Even so, the speech was one of the most hostile Putin has delivered against the West and it appeared partly intended to show Russian voters he will stand up to the rest of the world and defend their interests.
The criticisms of a world order dominated by Washington, more than two decades after the Cold War, recalled a 2007 speech in Munich in which Putin shocked the West by lambasting Washington’s “unipolar” world view. The speech prompted many Western leaders to reassess their view of Putin.
Shifting the Blame
The annual meetings of what is known as the Valdai Club have rarely featured such open, direct and tough language in their debates on Russian policy.
Critics say the meetings have become a showcase for Kremlin policy, with the session attended by Putin shown live on state television and little discussion of Russia’s record on human rights and democracy, which is criticized in the West.
Putin rejected criticism over the Ukraine crisis, in which Moscow has sided with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and threw the West’s criticisms of Moscow back in its face.
Repeating accusations that Western governments helped pro-Western groups stage a coup d’etat that ousted a pro-Moscow president in Kiev in February, Putin said: “No one wanted to listen to us, and no one wanted to talk to us.”
“Instead of a difficult but, I underline, civilized dialogue they brought about a state coup. They pushed the country into chaos, economic and social collapse, and civil war with huge losses,” he said.
Dismissing U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed on Moscow as a mistake, he said: “Russia will not be posturing, get offended, ask someone for anything. Russia is self-sufficient.”
He made only passing references to the decline of Russia’s $2 trillion economy, which is in danger of sliding into recession as its currency tumbles along with the price of oil, its main export item.
But he said in a question and answer session after his speech that Russia would not burn though its gold and foreign currency reserves thoughtlessly to prop up the economy.
Putin has increasingly sought to shift blame for the economic crisis onto global problems, the sanctions and the oil price. He and other Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have also used increasingly tough language to blame the West for the Ukraine crisis.
A cease-fire has been in force in Ukraine since Sept. 5, but it has been violated daily and the West says Moscow continues to have troops and weapons in east Ukraine. Russia denies this.