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Posted by on Aug 20, 2008 in War | 0 comments

Gorbachev Discusses the Georgian Crisis, Blames Saakashvili

In 1988, he was TIME’s man of the year and in 1990—for his role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union– the Man of the Decade. In 1990, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s weighing in on the current crisis. I was curious to see what he had to say.

Before doing so, I thought it would be interesting to start with a ride on the Wayback Pony. It’s instructive to recall how the elder statesmen who emerge to school us in a current crisis were viewed in their glory days. Some younger readers might not remember. Furthermore, the past is not always quite the way we remember it. It was interesting to see how the mainstream media—and is any more mainstream than TIME?—viewed him in the day. (To give further context to what follows, I recommend reading William Kern’s post here.)

Back in the day, he was something of an enigma. In the 1987 cover story on the “Man of the Year,” George J. Church wrote:

Alternately jovial and argumentative, combining sharp intelligence with a homey touch and playing to the camera in the most effective way—by seeming to ignore it—he came across as a Kremlin version of the Great Communicator. Add an attractive, strong-willed wife, and the picture of an American-style politician is complete.

Also misleading. In most of his views, Gorbachev is a thoroughly Soviet, obdurately Communist figure. When he speaks of “democracy,” as he incessantly does, he does not mean anything Thomas Jefferson would have recognized; he promotes freer discussion within the Communist Party only as a substitute for the political opposition he makes clear he will not tolerate. If he voices criticism of Soviet society, it is because that system has in his view strayed from the ideals of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state and Gorbachev’s idol. And although he argues frequently for a new relationship with the U.S., he seems to have an odd conception of America as a Dickensian hell ruled by the military-industrial complex….

[H]e seems to have a streak of what can only be described as anti-Americanism….
Gorbachev, however, need not admire Americans in order to live peaceably with them. Nor is it necessary for the U.S. to enroll in a Gorbachev personality cult in order to recognize the Soviet leader as being a figure of hope, for all his contradictions. His upbringing, schooling and rise to power have produced a man of immense incongruities, stubborn and flexible, a faithful ideologue and a radical experimenter….

…Molded by famine and war, promised a measure of hope after Stalin’s demise and then abruptly disillusioned, Gorbachev is not the sort of man who would willingly drag his country back into the dark days of repression, economic hardship and international obloquy. If there is a lesson in the 56-year education of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, it is that a new unfamiliar kind of leader has risen in the Soviet Union, and that the old rules of dealing with that long-suffering land are suddenly outdated. For the West, the education is just beginning. (TIME)

In addition to winning the Nobel peace prize in 1990, he was also named TIME’s Man of the Decade. Whereas Reagan has been since been reframed as the man who brought down the Iron Curtain, the view was quite otherwise back in the day. By then, Gorby had achieved a sort of rock star stature.

The wall that divided Berlin and sealed an international order crumbled into souvenirs. The cold war, which seemed for so long part of the permanent order of things, was peacefully deconstructing before the world’s eyes. After years of numb changelessness, the communist world has come alive with an energy and turmoil that have taken on a bracing, potentially anarchic life of their own. Not even Stalinist Rumania was immune.

The magician who set loose these forces is a career party functionary, faithful communist, charismatic politician, international celebrity and impresario of calculated disorder named Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. He calls what he is doing — and permitting — a revolution. His has (so far) been a bloodless revolution, without the murderous, conspiratorial associations that the word has carried in the past. In novel alliance with the glasnost of world communications, Gorbachev became the patron of change: Big Brother’s better twin. His portraits, like icons at a saint’s-day festival, waved amid a swarm of Czechs. The East German young chanted “Gorby! Gorby!” to taunt the police…

Gorbachev and his reformist allies in Eastern Europe have managed to suppress at least one monster — the state’s capacity for terrible violence against its citizens. The Chinese and, until last week, the Rumanians were not so lucky. The Chinese students carried portraits of the Soviet leader, and they were shouting, “In Russia they have Gorbachev; in China we have whom?” The yin and yang of 1989: tanks vs. glasnost, the dead hand of the past vs. Gorbachev’s vigorous, risky plunge into the future. Gorbachev is a hero for what he would not do — in fact, could not do, without tearing out the moral wiring of his ambitions for the future. In that sense, as in so many others, the fallen Rumanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu played the archvillain. (More)

His compatriots did not of course necessarily view him as acting in their best interests and this led to his fall from power. According to a CNN profile:

He also seemed to have had a blind spot for the power of the nationality issue: Glasnost created ever-louder calls for independence from the Baltics and other Soviet republics. He was successful in foreign policy, but primarily from an international perspective. While his arms control agreements with the United States could be seen as in the Soviet interest too, the peaceful breakaway of the countries of Eastern Europe, followed by German unification and NATO membership for the new Germany, appeared to old-line Communists more a sell-out….

In August 1991 hard-liners had had enough. With Gorbachev on vacation in the Crimea, they staged a coup. However, they failed because of incompetence, lack of support from the military and massive street protests in Moscow. After the coup, Gorbachev lost the political initiative. This now belonged to the leaders of the various Soviet republics, in particular the president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. At the end of the year, Gorbachev was forced to resign as president of a Soviet Union no longer in existence. Since that time, he has been blamed by many Russians for their current political and economic predicament. In the West, he remains the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped end the Cold War.

So you can see where he might be taking the so-called “New Cold War” a little personally.

In today’s New York Times op-ed, Gorbachev lays the blame for the trouble squarely on the Georgian president’s surprise attack on the capital of South Ossetia:

THE acute phase of the crisis provoked by the Georgian forces’ assault on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, is now behind us. But how can one erase from memory the horrifying scenes of the nighttime rocket attack on a peaceful town, the razing of entire city blocks, the deaths of people taking cover in basements, the destruction of ancient monuments and ancestral graves?

Russia did not want this crisis. (NYT)

He also gets in a little jab: “The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war.” (NYT; emphasis added) Hmph.

Paul J. Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center, and senior adviser to the undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs from 2003 to 2005, has commented in an op-ed on Saakashvili’s role in provoking Russia to move in on Georgia. There seems little doubt that Gorbachev is telling the truth about one thing: the attack on South Ossetia reduced the city to rubble. (see BBC video)

But Russia’s brutal and disproprortionate response has shocked the west.

Gorbachev complains of unfair media coverage and a propaganda war on Russia. He argues that the Russians were being blamed even before they responded to the attack on South Ossetia.

The news coverage has been far from fair and balanced, especially during the first days of the crisis. Tskhinvali was in smoking ruins and thousands of people were fleeing — before any Russian troops arrived. Yet Russia was already being accused of aggression; news reports were often an embarrassing recitation of the Georgian leader’s deceptive statements.(NYT)

He also said:

“This was the use of sophisticated weapons against a small town, against a sleeping people. This was a barbaric assault,” said Gorbachev, the last president of the former Soviet Union. (CNN)

But then there’s this:

It is still not quite clear whether the West was aware of Mr. Saakashvili’s plans to invade South Ossetia, and this is a serious matter. What is clear is that Western assistance in training Georgian troops and shipping large supplies of arms had been pushing the region toward war rather than peace. (NYT)

Pot? Meet Kettle.

And he never justifies Russia’s (as seems agreed by everyone who was there for it) disproportionate response.
He does warn about the danger of oversimplifying the situation in the Caucasus. That is certainly consistent with the view of Professor Charles King (discussed here).

Those who rush to judgment on what’s happening in the Caucasus, or those who seek influence there, should first have at least some idea of this region’s complexities. The Ossetians live both in Georgia and in Russia. The region is a patchwork of ethnic groups living in close proximity. Therefore, all talk of “this is our land,” “we are liberating our land,” is meaningless. We must think about the people who live on the land.

The problems of the Caucasus region cannot be solved by force. That has been tried more than once in the past two decades, and it has always boomeranged.

And he adds:

What is needed is a legally binding agreement not to use force. Mr. Saakashvili has repeatedly refused to sign such an agreement, for reasons that have now become abundantly clear.(NYT)

The various western alliances are discussing how Russia should be chastised. Gorbachev bluntly expresses what you could call “The Russian side.”

In recent days, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush have been promising to isolate Russia. Some American politicians have threatened to expel it from the Group of 8 industrialized nations, to abolish the NATO-Russia Council and to keep Russia out of the World Trade Organization.

These are empty threats. For some time now, Russians have been wondering: If our opinion counts for nothing in those institutions, do we really need them? Just to sit at the nicely set dinner table and listen to lectures?

Indeed, Russia has long been told to simply accept the facts. Here’s the independence of Kosovo for you. Here’s the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and the American decision to place missile defenses in neighboring countries. Here’s the unending expansion of NATO. All of these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership. Why would anyone put up with such a charade? (NYT)

Gorbachev argues that the US and Russia can still find a way to a genuine partnership. I wonder if Putin would agree. But here is Gorbachev’s take:

There is much talk now in the United States about rethinking relations with Russia. One thing that should definitely be rethought: the habit of talking to Russia in a condescending way, without regard for its positions and interests.

Our two countries could develop a serious agenda for genuine, rather than token, cooperation. Many Americans, as well as Russians, understand the need for this. But is the same true of the political leaders?(NYT)

The picture of Saakashvili as something of a loose cannon may well be accurate. As usual, he responds to Gorbachev with maximum emotion. He certainly wears his feelings on his sleeve.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who also appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” Thursday, said he was “profoundly shocked” that Mikhail Gorbachev would use a television appearance “for basically vindicating lies and deceptions.”…

Saakashvili expressed disappointment with the sentiments from Gorbachev, who he said he once respected.

“This is the man, Mr. Gorbachev, who helped to, you know, bring down KGB kingdom. And he is the one who is, you know, justifying what the KGB people are doing right now in my country,” Saakashvili said.

“Shame on him. Shame on you, Mr. Gorbachev, for perpetuating the very regime you helped to defeat and you fought against as the head of the Soviet Union.” (CNN)

But some Georgians seem disposed to blame Saakashvili as well along with Russia.

Some Georgians, however, are indeed furious with Saakashvili for his handling of the South Ossetia crisis. “He brought this on us,” said Nana, a downtown Tbilisi storekeeper who declined to give her last name. “What was he thinking? Couldn’t he just stay quiet and stop poking Putin? He can speak about NATO all he wants, but Russian tanks are on Georgia soil now. People are dying and suffering. What did he do to avoid this? What did NATO do?” (Eurasia.Net)

As to the current situation, the Russians claim they are withdrawing as fast as they can. Eurasia net reports:

While NATO may not have responded to the Russian invasion with the troops desired by many Georgians, the alliance on August 19 has set clear indications of its terms. Terming Russia’s actions the “occupation” of an independent country, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned that the alliance cannot conduct “business” with Russia until Moscow acts on its signed agreement to withdraw its troops from Georgian territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Assistance with restoring Georgia’s air traffic system and assessing its current armed forces needs are among the items on offer to Tbilisi from the alliance.

At a news conference in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov struck back. The withdrawal from Georgia, Lavrov claimed, will take several days, but has already started. NATO’s overtures to Georgia and statements in support of Saakashvili, he continued, are simply an attempt to “save the collapsed regime” in Tbilisi. (Eurasia.Net)

But those on the ground don’t seem encouraged by what they are seeing.

Despite official Russian assurances to the contrary, little sign of a pullout has been seen on the ground. On August 19, Russian troops took from Poti a reported six US-owned Humvees, the Georgian government said, along with several Georgian soldiers sent to defend the port against additional Russian attacks. The vehicles had been used in joint military exercises in late July.

The government also reported movement of Russian troops northwest of Gori, in the center of the country, towards the town of Sachkere. The information could not be confirmed.A prisoner exchange at Igoeti, where both sides have checkpoints, marked the only semblance of a decrease in tensions: 15 Georgian soldiers for five Russian servicemen, according to the Georgian government.

The exchange was followed by a PR punch from the Georgian side, however. Protestors at the village later demonstrated against Russian forces, yelling “Victory to Georgia” and brandishing posters in English that called for the Russian army to take its “bloody hands” off the country. (Eurasia.Net)

And I suspect that Russia’s continuing failure to leave will prevent Gorbechev’s arguments—all good in their way—from conveying much credibility.

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