In anticipation of the upcoming Earth Dialogues 2008 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, GCI Founding President Mikhail Gorbachev gave the following exclusive interview to Brazilian weekly newsmagazine, Veja.
For a Global Glasnost
In 1971 you were named member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 2007 magazines published your picture near the vestiges of the Berlin Wall for an advertisement for Louis Vuitton bags. In 36 years the world has changed a bit. You provided a helping hand to this transformation. What is the difference of the man Mikhail Gorbachev then and now?
I am still the same person as I was then. The only difference is what I have learned and experienced since then has shaped who I am today. And among the things that I have learned is the simple principle – live up to your convictions. Louis Vuitton launched a campaign in support of climate action and my advertisement was done in support of this campaign, in order to contribute to world efforts in this area and to support Green Cross International, the international organisation I founded. And for me this was not an advertisement but a natural step in the promotion of an important agenda, that of action against environmental degradation.
Is it acceptable the thesis that you promoted glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) to correct errors of the Soviet system and not its destruction?
The most important thing for both human beings and nations is not to lie to oneself and that is why we need glasnost and perestroika. They are both tools for an open discussion on where we stand, instruments to open the eyes and minds of the people, so they are open to change. Given the international problems, we need a global glasnost that will align the political, international, national and civil society interests in order to answer challenges.
In 1996 you ran for president of Russia but garnered less than 1 percent of the vote. How do you explain that you enjoy far more popularity around the world than in your own country?
I do not regret my 1996 election bid. Yeltsin’s regime cut off access between the media and me. As a candidate in the 1996 presidential campaign, I got the opportunity to speak in 22 regions of Russia and make my opinion known to the people. As far as the election results are concerned, they were doubtful, there was evidence of falsifications. In 2005 when we celebrated the 20th anniversary of perestroika, 50% of those polled had supported the idea that perestroika should have been launched and 53% of those polled positively evaluated the activities of the president of the Soviet Union.
How do you evaluate the leaders of your time in government? Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand? How do you perceive those who came after? Bill Clinton, George Bush and Tony Blair? What you do have to say about Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama?
I was lucky to have counterparts in many nations that were ready and up for the challenges we faced. Without their partnership, it would not have been possible to conclude the cold war and transition to a new world. The succeeding generations of leaders have dealt with multiplying problems of a different nature. Current politics has been lagging behind the pace of world change; we surely have a deficit of leadership. The world demands new political vision, compatible with the unprecedented challenges and capable to adequately adjust the existing mechanisms of international cooperation.
Who is in command in Russia today? Vladimir Putin or his successor, the president Dmitry Medvedev?
According to the Russian constitution, the President is the head of state. But I do not think it is productive to juxtapose the President and the Prime Minister, luckily they work as a team.
What does democracy mean for Russians compared with the West notion of it?
Democracy is both a value and a political instrument. As a value it is universal but as far as political instruments are concerned, every country adjusts them in line with its history, peoples mentality and traditions. There is a US form of democracy, a French version, a Japanese version and perhaps in the future a Chinese version. Russia has to develop its own model of democracy. It is in the middle, possibly even still at the beginning of the process. To answer your question, I draw on the answer I give Americans when I am asked this questions. “I am flattered that you think we can do in 200 days what took the US 200 years to achieve”.
Can we imagine one day that the church, the political parties and the press would be less servile and dependent on central power in Russia? Is there any hope that the Russian liberal intelligentsia would speak on behalf of people suppressed by an autocratic state? Alexander Solzhenitsyn called the Russian intellectuals people only with diplomas, good jobs, privileges and comfort.
I am surprised at the extent Russia is sometimes perceived in black and white. Travel to Russia, stay a while and you will see there are independent political parties, a free press. Parting with the past is a long journey, there is a lot of room for improvement but I do not accept or share the quote you gave on Russian intellectuals. Many Russian intellectuals have paved the way to reforms, paying with their freedom and sometimes life. After all Alexander Isaevich himself was part of the Russian intellectuals as was Sakharov and many others.
Are the oligarchs and the mafia in Russian society just a phenomenon of the early stage of capitalism or a historic pattern that is there to stay?
Yes we have a big problem here, in large extent inherited from the abrogation of Yeltsin’s “reforms”. It has resulted in a high level of corruption that has become a huge obstacle to normal development. It is rooted mainly in how privatization was implemented in the country. Privatization was carried out in the interest of several powerful groups sending the majority of population into poverty. But I am sure that within the process of continuing reforms, we will be able to bring the situation under control.
How should the West do better business with Russia, particularly the fast growing developing economies like Brazil?
The current financial crisis has not only shattered the basic international economy but also revealed the inadequacy of the current development model based on ultra radical economic liberalism and the ideology of the Washington consensus. There is no doubt that we need urgent stabilization measures but the most important thing is to change the system itself. The economic system should be oriented to the needs of the people, normal functioning businesses, environmental concerns, the mitigation of social differentiation in societies and decisive measures to fight poverty. The two big nations, Russia and Brazil, have a great potential in shaping this agenda. We have to concentrate on the agenda that is really connected to human needs and the challenges we face – water, renewable energy, climate change.
In 2006 you collaborated with Russian billionaire and former lawmaker Aleksandr Lebedev to purchase half of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, known for its willingness to challenge Kremlin policies. Last September it was announced that you and Lebedev were forming a new political party, the United Russian Social Democratic Party, which is scheduled to make its debut in the 2011 State Duma elections. You are also president of Green Cross International, an international environmental organization with branches in 29 countries, included Brazil. Where does your main interest lay?
Let’s not put everything in one pot. I founded Green Cross International, the Gorbachev Foundation, the World Political Forum and the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. I am glad that I am capable to contribute and try to make the world a better place. Being a Russian citizen and former President, I cannot detract from Russian politics. I see that the current political system is “lame on one foot,” its political system lacks the necessary centrist support element. I hope, the Independent Democratic Party that we want to create will fill this gap and open the way for younger generations to join in the political process.
Your reminiscences often begin with the phase “Raisa and I”, a reference to your wife, Raisa Titarenko Gorbachev. Can you describe the importance force of love behind a political mission?
Raisa had been part of my life, if not life itself for almost 50 years. Our life was not idyllic but I can tell you that there were two major underlying driving forces for my political choices and development of my personality: Raisa and Moscow University. Today, of course I lack tremendously this feeling of support and understanding that I had felt during our life together. I can only reiterate the Christian dogma, it is “love that drives life” on Earth.
You affirmed once that you were not an accidental leader. How do you want your place in history to be remembered in the future?
History is a very capricious lady; I do not want to irritate her so let’s leave this question to her.