Mikhail Gorbachev: We, not the West, are responsible for our country
The first and the last USSR president, Mikhail Gorbachev, who stepped down on December 25, 1991, gave an interview to Interfax special correspondent Vyacheslav Terekhov ahead of the 30th anniversary of that event.
Question: Do you feel any resentment that many people did not understand or recognize your good intentions to give people more freedom, more initiative, better conditions for creative work? Why did people did not counter separatism at the decisive moment?
Answer: Resentment is the last thing a politician should feel. You cannot harbor a grudge against the people. Let me reiterate: the results of perestroika were not limited to the dissolution of the [Soviet] Union. These were more than just 'intentions.' The country made a huge turnaround. People really did acquire rights and freedoms that they still enjoy. Freedom of speech, assembly, press, an end to censorship, freedom of religion, the law on entering and leaving the country, freedom of entrepreneurship – could all of these be canceled out? As for separatism, the reason is that very many problems built up over several decades of a super-centralized state and we were late reacting to them. This added up to economic difficulties. But there was a referendum in March at which a majority favored preserving and rebuilding the Union. I think that had there not been the August putsch that thwarted the signing of a new union treaty, then the country could have been preserved.
Q.: According to information that you have now, did the West facilitate the dissolution of the USSR? What was the benefit of establishing personal relations with Western leaders?
A.: We had information back then that there were people in the West, including in governing circles, who rubbed their hands when they saw our difficulties. There was a whole faction led by Defense Secretary Cheney in the cabinet of George Bush. They said that Gorbachev was a hopeless Communist and that all bets should be placed on Yeltsin. They did not conceal their joy after the dissolution of the Union. But first of all, we and not the West are responsible for our country. Secondly, new relations with the West, including personal relations with Western leaders, were needed. It would have been impossible to end the Cold War, the arms race, and to resolve regional conflicts raging in the world. We then started to interact on global issues, such as ecology, energy and so on, as well. This is as relevant as ever today. Only together can we cope with the pandemic and the climate problem.
In general, this experience was priceless, and I think that it should be put to use now. Serious talks on nuclear weapons, strategic stability and European security have finally begun. It is necessary to broaden the agenda and to continue the dialogue even at difficult moments. I am sure that it will bear fruit.
Q.: This year Interfax re-published news about the last months of the USSR. In your opinion, what lessons should be learned from the events of that period in both domestic and foreign policies?
A.: It is good that you started that project. People should know the facts, as the situation cannot be assessed by speculation. And the facts are as follows: I fought for the Union right to the end and I warned about the consequences of recklessness. Yeltsin told me then, don't go frightening people. Of course, I was in a difficult situation after the putsch. But I thought it was my duty to warn of the consequences.
As for the lessons. I think the main lesson is that statehood needs to be preserved. It was amazing, the lightness, I’d say the recklessness in which the state’s destiny was held back then, and by almost everyone, both Communists and Democrats. Three men meeting in Belovezhskaya Pushcha declared that the Soviet Union no longer existed! This means there was no constitution, no laws, nothing of what governs defense, borders, and finance. No agreement was made even on nuclear weapons. There was total uncertainty about this for months, until a protocol was signed, and where? In Lisbon! And the obligation to remove [nuclear] weapons from the republics [of the former Soviet Union] to Russia was not fulfilled until 1996.
Many people thought then that it would be easy to build new statehood, not to mention that the economy would miraculously blossom in a matter of months. But miracles don’t just happen, not in such a complicated area as reforms. Reforms were needed, but they had to be well-conceived, not 'shock' ones.
And one more lesson deals with ethnic relations. Separatists promised that everything would work out very quickly and the rights of everybody would be upheld in the independent republics. And what did we see in reality? Stateless people appeared, 'second-rate citizens,' ethnic conflicts flared up again, and bloody conflicts and wars began. And I must remind you again, I warned those who fomented the conflicts, warned the leaders, intelligentsia, people... Nobody benefitted from not listening to me.