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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.”
As the economy nosedives, the public mood threatens to plunge right alongside it — and some of the Kremlin’s more questionable economic moves may come back to haunt the people who made them happen. Maxim Stulov / Vedomosti
Alexey Eremenko, The Moscow Times.
As the Russian economy ambles toward recession, the government grapples with how to explain the downturn — no easy feat after 15 years of slowly mounting prosperity and President Vladimir Putin’s campaign promises of lavish social spending.
So far, the authorities have been inclined to blame external factors, such as sanctions imposed by the West over accusations of Russian meddling in Ukraine and the sliding price of oil, which at least some Kremlin backers blame on a covert deal between Washington and the Gulf monarchies.
The approach is clearly working, with Putin’s approval ratings resting comfortably above 80 percent, and widespread public adoration fueled by a patriotic euphoria over said meddling in Ukraine.
But as the economy nosedives, the public mood threatens to plunge right alongside it — and some of the Kremlin’s more questionable economic moves may come back to haunt the people who made them happen.
The Moscow Times has compiled a list of 10 economic moves currently hitting the Russian business community and/or the general populace that the government has had a hand in. The impact of most items on the list — up to and including the hypothetical risk of “smoker riots” — is expected to be felt in 2015, just around the corner.
1. Falling Ruble
The ruble has lost 38 percent of its value versus the U.S. dollar since the start of the year, and earlier this month the Central Bank stopped supporting the exchange rate, apparently due to shrinking currency reserves. The devaluation is expected to hit all industries with foreign connections in the coming year, including retail, tourism and dining. About 25 percent of the restaurants in Moscow are expected to shut down next year, consumer confidence is sliding, and clothes shopping and travel abroad are becoming less accessible to middle-class Russians.
2. Borrowing Restrictions
The EU and U.S. have limited access to international capital for Russia’s state-owned banks and corporations, including VTB, Sberbank and Rosneft, because of Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine. Other Russian banks and companies are also reportedly struggling to borrow internationally, with foreign lenders increasingly distrustful of Russian businesses in light of a geopolitical standoff.
The end result is obstructed access to capital and rising borrowing costs for Russian companies, which already have a corporate debt of $600 billion as of October, according to Central Bank data.
3. Food Sanctions
One of the most questioned countermoves against the Western sanctions was an embargo on food exports from the U.S. and most European countries. The government promised that the embargo would boost domestic productivity, and that Asian and South American exports would make up for the rest. But dairy and meat imports have shrunk by a third, according to customs data, and food inflation this year has neared double digits, the State Statistics Service said this month.
In what has arguably been the highest-profile corporate scandal since the fall of oil giant Yukos in the 2000s, the government earlier this year voided the 2003 privatization deal for oil company Bashneft, nationalizing the controlling stake and placing its owner Vladimir Yevtushenkov under house arrest.
The selective inspection of a single privatization deal among dozens prompted speculations about its motives — with many commentators referring to it as a takeover attempt by state-run Rosneft. The company denied it, but the move — which highlighted a lack of property-right guarantees in Russia — did nothing to boost investor confidence, which had already taken a hit from political risks in the country.
5. New Business Duty
As falling oil prices ($79.2 per barrel of Brent as of Tuesday) drain the state coffers, the government is struggling for revenue and apparently expects small businesses to foot the bill. Though plans for a sales tax have been shelved, a government-penned bill under review in the State Duma proposes a new duty for small businesses of all stripes, from hairdressers to grocery stores, transportation firms and even public pay-per-use toilets.
The quarterly municipal duty is to vary from 6,000 to 600,000 rubles ($130 to $13,000). Analysts said it would cripple Russia’s already heavily taxed small and mid-sized businesses, which — according to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — account for a mere 20 percent of Russia’s GDP, compared with 50-60 percent in developed countries.
6. Gas Prices
As oil prices plummet, gasoline prices in Russia continue to soar (9 percent since the start of the year, to about 33 rubles, or $0.70, per liter). A hike to 50 rubles ($1.06) per liter is expected in 2015 because of new duties. Given that Russia is a leading oil producer, the government will have a hard time selling the hike to millions of motorists nationwide — and that is without mentioning the negative impact of increased transportation costs on the economy.
7. Property Tax
Russian real estate tax is currently a blip on the radar of public spending, but new rules will cause it to surge 10 to 20 times by 2016, to between 5,000 and 26,000 rubles ($107 to $550) a year for typical Moscow apartments, according estimates by news site Realty.NewsRu.com.
The tax has been in talks for years, continually mothballed over fear of public discontent, especially among apartment owners in the lower income brackets. Given the slowing economy and rising prices, discontent is exactly what can be expected to happen when hefty new bills hit mailboxes everywhere.
8. Pension Freeze
The government has approved a freeze of a combined 540 billion rubles ($11.5 billion) of non-governmental pension fund savings for 2014 and 2015, with the money expected to be spent on more immediate state projects. Simultaneously, it expects to spend the last 3 trillion rubles ($64 billion) from the state’s National Welfare Fund — intended as backup for the flagging, also state-run Pension Fund. The money has been earmarked for state corporations, with Rosneft and Russian Railways having already requested 1.5 trillion rubles each.
Though the official line is that the savings will be returned, and emptying the National Welfare Fund will boost the economy, many observers are skeptical. The state risks running out of emergency savings, while simultaneously incurring the ire of 28 millions of Russians who keep their pension money in those plundered private funds.
9. Social Spending Cuts
State spending on health care and education will be slashed in 2015 by 21 percent and 6 percent year-on-year, respectively, as outlined in the draft state budget. In Moscow, a handful of public hospitals are slated to be shut down — and replaced by malls and high-end real estate — already triggering street protests by medics.
10. Tourism Slump
The Russian tourism industry is in its death throes, with dozens of travel agencies having declared bankruptcy this year, in many cases leaving hundreds of tourists stranded at a time. A story by the Kommersant newspaper in October linked the industry’s turmoil to decreased revenues caused by the government prohibiting about 4 million officials, or 22 percent of all tourists, from traveling abroad over fears that they risked being seized by Western spy agencies. And that was before the ruble’s devaluation and its devastating effect on tourism (see above).
Honorary Mention: Tobacco Tax Hike
The State Duma last week approved a new increase in tobacco excise tax, the second in two years. Cigarette brands used by 80 percent of smokers will become about 10 rubles ($0.20) more expensive per pack, Kommersant said.
While modest, the hike may prove to be the final straw as far as public patience is concerned. In a country where the average salary is 22,000 rubles ($460) and half of the male population is smoking, “smoker riots” are undesirable but possible.