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30 May 2016

Perestroika Undone?

Why does Mikhail Gorbachev support the annexation of Crimea?

The first and last President of the USSR, 85-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev has recently drawn attention to himself again. In an interview with the Sunday Times he stated that he was in favor of the annexation of Crimea, and that he would have acted the same way as President Vladimir Putin if he had found himself in a similar situation. After that, officials in Kyiv banned the former President of the USSR from entry into the country for 5 years.

Opposition-minded users of Russian social media have lambasted the pensioner, without compassionate indulgence for his advanced years, as if he could still make any political decisions today. It has become a tradition that many former freedom fighters assume a more conservative position in their old age. For example, Alexander Solzhenitsyn suddenly became bothered about “the Jewish issue” at the ebb of life, and praised President Putin for the “revival of Russia”. However, historically, the famous dissident, fighter against the KGB and author of “The Gulag Archipelago” only really exceled himself at a later age.

Whilst in power, Gorbachev created the conditions for change – “things were really cooking”, and the process turned out to be stronger than its initiator. Mass civil awakening, free elections which had never occurred in the USSR before, and the “the cultural outburst” of the late 1980s seem today, in the new era of “spiritual bonds” and global isolation, events from the history of a different country…

Yes, indeed, it was a different country and a different era, and hence its assessment requires different yardsticks and categories. But recognition of Gorbachev’s global historic role does not exclude assessment of his fatal flaws, which gave birth to many of today’s problems that have entangled to the point of insolubility.

Forgotten referendum

The President of the USSR could have severed the Crimean “Gordian knot” back in early 1991, making the subsequent Russian-Ukrainian confrontation impossible. Let us recall, that on January 20, 1991, the first ever Soviet referendum was held in Crimea. The question put forward was: “Are you in favor of the restoration of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic as a subject of the USSR and member of the New Union Treaty?” Ninety-three per cent of Crimeans gave an affirmative answer. 

The duality of the Crimean situation in the final years of the USSR was manifested in the fact that, on the one hand, the majority of the Crimean population were Russian (67% according to the 1989 census), while on the other hand, the peninsula was fully dependent on Ukraine economically (fresh water, food and electricity came from the “mainland”). The transfer of Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR) in 1954 was dictated by economic and logistic considerations, not “Khrushchev’s capriciousness,” as asserted by today’s Kremlin propagandists.

In the context of early 1991, when Russia and Ukraine had already adopted their declarations of sovereignty, the President of the USSR could have recognized Crimea as an equal subject of the Soviet Union and included its representatives into the Novo-Ogarevo process where parameters of the New Union Treaty were discussed. Essentially, this was precisely what Crimeans voted for during their referendum. However, Gorbachev refrained from such a decision – perhaps fearing a quarrel with the leadership of Ukraine who continued to consider Crimea as their region.

The Ukrainian authorities quickly responded to the Crimean referendum but interpreted it in their own way. On February 12, 1991, the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR adopted the law On the Restoration of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic as part of the Ukrainian SSR. Thus, although Crimea was recognized as a republic, it was a republic of “the second order”, with no sovereign voice at the union level, and this is precisely what laid the foundations for the subsequent Russian-Ukrainian struggle over its status. And if the peninsula had gained the status of a Soviet republic following its referendum, not as part of Russia or Ukraine but as their equal, the fight between the two neighbors for it would have been unimaginable. Crimeans would have determined their future independently, concluding contracts with Russia and Ukraine. And similarly to other Soviet republics following the collapse of the USSR, Crimea would have become an independent state and a UN member. Vasily Aksyonov’s utopian “Island of Crimea” could have come true…

Having failed to recognize Crimea as a separate republic in his days, Gorbachev practically turned it into the object of competition between Russia and Ukraine. Still, obviously, we cannot hold the President of the USSR directly liable for what has happened after the state led by him had disappeared.

Gorbachev as a dissenter

Gorbachev’s role in Russian politics of the 1990s was quite marginal – he had a long-established antagonistic relationships with President Yeltsin. However, he did try to establish dialogue with his successor, following Yeltsin’s resignation. At first they seemed to find common ground, and Putin supported the establishment of Gorbachev’s Social Democratic Party of Russia. However, as early as 2007, the party was refused state registration. Russian “sovereign democracy” became more and more rigid and aimed at pre-defined results.

The initiator of perestroika then seemed to find a new lease of life against the backdrop of the gradual “tightening of the screws”. At age 80, he expressed views much more radical than those of the young opposition members. For example, in his interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in February 2011, Gorbachev answered the question of why the ideals of people who have come to power in Russia are such a far cry from those of perestroika in the following way: “Because they were not elected. People who did not truly rely on democratic processes and democratic institutions came to power. There have been no free elections here at all since 1989 and 1990, when the first democratic elections were held in the Soviet republics for the first time”.

Also in 2011, Gorbachev appealed to Putin to retire from politics: “I would advise Vladimir Vladimirovich to leave now. He came up with three terms in office: two of them as president, one term as prime minister – three terms in office, that’s enough”.

This scathing criticism by the Noble Peace Prize winner could not go unnoticed by the Kremlin. The Press Secretary of the President of Russia Dmitry Peskov stated that “Russia no longer needs any perestroikas”. Further, the statement by a major functionary of “United Russia”, Sergey Neverov, is especially noteworthy: “We owe it to Gorbachev that Russia has almost lost its sovereignty”. Despite this, it was precisely in Gorbachev’s time that Russia proclaimed its Declaration on State Sovereignty in 1990. Obviously, for members of “United Russia” sovereignty is not about free development of the country, but about hostility to the outside world as an end in itself.

Revanche of “the old thinking”

It is still more surprising that some three years later Gorbachev himself has suddenly grown closer to his detractors in his opinions. Those who disapprove of his recent interview in support of the annexation of Crimea seem not to remember that he was in favor of this annexation immediately after the “referendum” held under the guns of armed, “polite people.” Back then, he called it a “rectification of the mistake of the Soviet days”, despite being the aforementioned 1991 Crimean referendum – legitimate and non-violent – which attempted to rectify that mistake. But perhaps Gorbachev either forgot, or does not want to acknowledge his own mistake from those days…

Interestingly, the Soviet president has shared this evolution from the 2011 democratic protests to 2014 “Crimea-is-ours-ism”, with many “white ribbon protesters” who have subsequently also supported the neo-imperial policy of “the pan-Russian world”. However, it has been very sad to see that not only young dissenters but also such an experienced politician as Gorbachev have been caught in a Kremlin trap, set by political technology – Gorbachev has begun making anti-Ukrainian and even anti-American statements, although the end of the cold war with the USA was the main result of perestroika in terms of foreign policy.

However, Gorbachev also has quite a trait rare in politicians – self-critical irony. He said the following about Putin in late 2014: “He has started picking up the same illness which I suffered from earlier – self-confidence. He views himself as second only to God and in charge of I don’t even know what”.

Moreover, Putin’s self-assuredness seems much more dangerous. In his day, Gorbachev believed he would be able to “rebuild” the country, with its centuries’ long imperial tradition, and integrate it into the contemporary world within several years, whereas Putin has brought it back into confrontation with other countries amid a new version of global messianism. According to Gorbachev, this is fraught with the threat of nuclear war, something which people had already seemed to have stopped being afraid of in the days of his rule.

At the same time, he accuses Western countries of heating up tensions, tactfully ignoring the fact that it is Russia destroying the world order established as a result of perestroika. Today’s Kremlin has in fact rejected all of the perestroika era’s foreign policy principles – “new thinking” founded on international law, the priority of fundamental human values, the idea of a “pan-European home”. An opposite trend is in fashion now: Russia sees itself as the USSR prior to perestroika, and not even the Russia of Brezhnev’s era with his “fight for peace”, but one openly nostalgic for Stalinist expansion.

In his day, Gorbachev tried to create a “contractual state” and establish equal, agreement-based relations with other countries. The current paradox is that by defending the stance of the Kremlin, the initiator of perestroika is himself in favor of the violation of international agreements. However, it is not only his own inner conflict, but a dilemma for all of Russian society. 

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