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The XXI century will be a сentury either of total all-embracing crisis or of moral and spiritual healing that will reinvigorate humankind. It is my conviction that all of us - all reasonable political leaders, all spiritual and ideological movements, all  faiths - must help in this transition to a triumph of humanism and justice, in making the XXI century a century of a new human renaissance.

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5 April 2006

Gorbachev: Soviet Union "should have been preserved"

     Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, 75, defends Russian President Vladimir Putin and has a cynical view of U.S. motives in dealing with Russia. USA TODAY editorial writer Louise Branson, co-author of Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin, sat down last week with the man whosereforms precipitated the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. To mark the 20th anniversary of his reforms, Gorbachev has written a new book, To Understand Perestroika. The interview, conducted at The Carnegie Abbey Club near Newport, R.I., was edited for length and clarity.

Question: In 1985, as the new Soviet leader, you gave a televised address that was nothing like the stiff speeches of past leaders. You talked in a conversational way and addressed real problems. The change in style and substance was something amazing for the country and the world. How did you view that speech?

Answer: Actually, I watched myself on TV and I was amazed ... at quite a few things. But very frankly, that was my style. At that time I had been in politics for 30 years. ... But certainly when I became leader, people were paying more attention to what I said. About a hundred times, a thousand times more attention.

Q: In that speech, you likened the country and the communist system to a house that just needed some repairs. Why this approach?

A: On the eve of my election, (Foreign Minister Andrei) Gromyko and I agreed that changes were necessary and that those would be difficult changes. Past attempts at change had turned into a kind of dead end. Nothing happened. We understood from the very start that changes were inevitable, that they would be difficult and, as I said to Gromyko, we have to start and have to take a risk. And he agreed with me.

Q:Did you understand how far the changes you were making would go or how difficult they would turn out to be?

A: Initially, we were under illusions that we could make the system work. But as early as the fall of 1986, all of us had to start shedding those illusions. We had talked of perestroika (restructuring) but nothing was changing. ... But change was not easy. Even new politicians resisted change because they were used to central planning. By 1988 we decided we needed political reform: free elections, the separation of powers, a multiparty system, recognition of market economics as a necessary tool to modernize our society and to create incentives within the economic system. The first elections were, I believe, a great success. But the nomenklatura (the former privileged class) understood that democracy was something that did not work for them, so they began to demand that power be returned to the Communist Party. All of their attempts to try to change the course failed. That's why, in 1991, they arrested me and attempted a coup.

Q:Outside Russia, you are widely seen as a great historical figure for starting the country on the path to democracy. But you are not popular in Russia. Why?

A: That situation is changing. But you are right in the sense that people had been expecting perestroika would just mean a reallocation of wealth. But perestroika was about democracy, free elections, initiative, enterprise. Some people at that moment became real entrepreneurs and took advantage of the changes. But most are only just now beginning to do so. The people who said the pace of change was too rapid were probably right. A country like Russia cannot be quickly changed. It is one thing to say something from the podium, but to implement it takes decades. These changes will take 20-25 years.

 Q:Many Russians criticize you because in their opinion, you gave away the Soviet empire and weakened Russian power. Is this characterization accurate?

 A: The Soviet Union could have been preserved and should have been preserved. ... I wanted to decentralize the Soviet Union and give the maximum amount of rights to the republics as guaranteed under the constitution, while preserving in the center the most important functions such as defense, diplomacy, coordination. That was it.

Q:But it didn't work.

A: Well historically, not everything works. Let's look at the history of any state, including the USA. Did they succeed in everything? No!

Q:You opened up Russia to democracy and a market economy. But President (Vladimir) Putin seems to be rolling everything back, seizing the independent media and even imprisoning an oil tycoon who was a rival. How do you view his presidency?

A: Putin inherited a terrible situation from (former leader Boris) Yeltsin. With Yeltsin, the Soviet Union broke apart, the country was totally mismanaged, the constitution was not respected by the regions of Russia. The army, education and health systems collapsed. People in the West quietly applauded, dancing with and around Yeltsin. I conclude therefore that we should not pay too much attention to what the West is saying. Putin has now stabilized the country. What he has done is not perfect. But Russia needs stability as a foundation for continuing to modernize.

 Q:Are the criticisms from the USA and other Western countries not justified?

A: Perhaps they would just like to keep Russia down as long as possible. The United States wants to continue as the sole superpower that is in charge of the world, and that is why it doesn't want Russia to rise. But this is a mistake. Even the Europeans are afraid. They all speak against Russia, saying we must defend democracy in Russia. But let me assure you there will be no authoritarian regime in Russia. ... In some places in Russia, some authoritarian steps have to be taken. But all of this is in order to keep Russia moving along the lines of democracy. ... President Bush in a recent speech said the USA will continue to engage Russia. This is very important. We want a partnership and cooperation with the United States and perhaps even to become an ally with the United States. This is not just my opinion; this is the opinion at the highest level of the Russian government.

Q:Do you feel that such an opportunity was lost at the end of the Cold War?

A: Yes, I believe that. ... We are paying a price for the lag in world politics. We are paying the price for all these new geopolitical games, for all of this infighting for spheres of influence and for choosing very often force as a method, as a tool, we are paying a very high price for all of these mistakes.

Q:How do you see the Iraq war and beyond?

A: The very moment that I heard the news of the invasion of Iraq, I was in Japan. I said I believe this is a major political mistake, and I still believe that. ... The geopolitics of the world have changed for the worst. The situation in the Middle East has become more complicated. Wherever you look, things have become worse because of the invasion of Iraq.

 Q:When you were a student, you thought about becoming an actor. Why study law instead?

A: In high school, I was in an amateur drama, but that is something that is quite normal and regular at that age. ... Law was a difficult choice because at that time I liked mathematics and physics and still have great interest in them. But I was very active in public life. I became a member of the Communist Party when I was in 10th grade. I believed in communism, I believed in (former premier Joseph) Stalin, I was head of the Komsomol (youth) organization, and ultimately I took the decision that I would go to the law department.

Q:I was sorry to hear about the death (in 1999) of your wife, Raisa, who was seen as a positive role model for Russian women. Your daughter (who was with Gorbachev) looks very much like her.

A: Thank you. Irina is very helpful; she is helping me a great deal. And probably that is why I was able to cope with this blow, with this very, very big blow. She is irreplaceable.

"USA Today", April 5, 2006