SPIEGEL Interview with Mikhail Gorbachev: 'They Were Truly Idiots'

Part 3: 'I Was Tired and at My Limits'

SPIEGEL: You always sought dialogue, probably for too long. When the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus met near Brest in December 1991 and dealt a death blow to the USSR behind your back, the deputy head of the Presidential Chancellery advised you to send out two or three helicopters with a special unit and to place the three men under house arrest. Would that have been an option? You had the results of the referendum to support you.

Gorbachev: It wasn't like that. Yeltsin had discussed the trip to Belarus with me and said that he also wanted to invite the Ukrainian president, (Leonid) Kravchuk, to attend. He said that it would become difficult to convince the Ukrainians to participate in the new union agreement after the Kiev referendum on independence. I argued that this would not stand in the way of their signing the agreement at all. After all, all other republics had already declared their independence, as a sign of greater sovereignty. Then Yeltsin asked: But what happens if the Ukrainians refuse to sign the new agreement? I replied that they would undoubtedly sign it, but that it was a decision for the Ukrainian parliament to make, and that Moscow would not oppose Ukrainian independence. Then I reminded him that after his return, a meeting was to be held, and that I had already invited the presidents of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to attend. Yeltsin and his supporters were in fact acting as secret conspirators against the constitution. When this became clear, I said immediately that three people alone could not dissolve the union.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that you couldn't have used force against the three presidents?

Gorbachev: That might have led to a civil war, which was to be avoided at all costs. Secondly, the country was in a state of shock. The press was silent, and no one went out into the streets to defend the union. The people were confused. They didn't understand what sort of a "Commonwealth of Independent States" Yeltsin and his allies had launched. It sounded harmless, like something that would provide more freedom for the republics in the union. It wasn't until later that they realized that this large country had imploded. Even today, a majority of people surveyed say that they regret the fact that the USSR collapsed. But only 9 percent say that they would want it back.

SPIEGEL: Nowadays most people, including Americans and Germans, claim that they would have supported the preservation of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev: Because they didn't know whether the parts would descend into chaos after its demise. Because what had happened before that? President Bush held back the Ukrainians, even though others in Washington were already rubbing their hands together, even secretly working to bring about our downfall. When I went to the G-7 summit in July 1991 and asked for loans to address the difficult economic situation, the Americans and the Japanese were opposed, while (then German Chancellor) Helmut Kohl said nothing. Only (then French President Francois) Mitterand and the European Commission supported me.

SPIEGEL: Kohl was opposed? That's not what he says today.

Gorbachev: What I said was that he remained silent. (German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich) Genscher was in favor. We expected $30 billion, but it was in vain. Our partners lacked vision.

SPIEGEL: Then came the coup. But the Americans had already warned you against it early enough -- two months earlier, in fact. And they had even named names, including that of KGB chief Kryuchkov. Is that true?

Gorbachev: Bush called me. He referred to information from the Moscow mayor, Gavriil Popov.

SPIEGEL: You didn't believe him?

Gorbachev: The conservatives had announced several times that they wanted to get rid of Gorbachev, and they had already tried it in various committees, but without success. By then, we had the anti-crisis program, which was supported by all republics. The new union treaty was to be signed on Aug. 20, and an extraordinary congress was to reform the party. The opponents of perestroika had suffered a defeat, and then they organized the coup.

SPIEGEL: And you chose to go on vacation in Crimea at a time like that?

Gorbachev: I thought they would be idiots to take such a risk precisely at that moment, because it would sweep them away, too. But unfortunately they were truly idiots, and they destroyed everything. And we proved ourselves to be semi-idiots, myself included. I had become exhausted after all those years. I was tired and at my limits. But I shouldn't have gone away. It was a mistake.

SPIEGEL: What would be better today if the Soviet Union still existed?

Gorbachev: Isn't that clear to you? Everything had grown together over the decades: culture, education, language, the economy, everything. They were building cars in the Baltic republics and airplanes in the Ukraine. We still can't get by without each other today. And a population of 300 million was also a plus.

SPIEGEL: Are there other things that you did that still torment you today?

Gorbachev: My goal was to avoid bloodshed. But unfortunately there was some bloodshed, after all. It also troubles me that I didn't resolve the problem with the Communist Party in time. And that I underestimated the fact that the establishment in the other national republics wanted to decide issues relating to their own lives on their own, without anyone from the central government getting involved. Now they have this possibility.

SPIEGEL: Let's jump forward in time to present-day Russia. When Putin came into office in 2000, you supported him. Had you already known him for some time?

Gorbachev: He helped me when I ran in the 1996 presidential election.

SPIEGEL: You thought he was clever at the time. Now you say that under his leadership Russia came to resemble an African country, where dictators rule for 20 to 30 years. What do you suddenly find so objectionable about him?

Gorbachev: Careful: It is you that is using the word "dictator." I supported Putin during his presidency, and I still support him in many ways today.

SPIEGEL: You asked him not to run for president again.

Gorbachev: What troubles me is what the United Russia party, which is led by Putin, and the government are doing. They want to preserve the status quo. There are no steps forward. On the contrary, they are pulling us back into the past, while the country is urgently in need of modernization. Sometimes United Russia reminds me of the old Soviet Communist Party.

SPIEGEL: Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev want to decide between themselves who will be the next president in 2012.

Gorbachev: Putin wants to stay in power, but not so that he can finally solve our most pressing problems: education, health care, poverty. The people are not being asked, and the parties are puppets of the regime. Governors are no longer directly elected. Direct mandates in elections were eliminated. Everything works through party lists now. But new parties are not being allowed, because they get in the way.

SPIEGEL: Like the social democratic party that you have tried to found several times.

Gorbachev: And yet we need new forces to bring progress to the country. And we need parties that bring together the interests of politics and the economy, can achieve a social partnership and guarantee democratic development.

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bud.hovell 08/20/2014
History will surely treat Mr. Gorbachev kindly and with deep respect as a visionary leader who simply arrived too late.
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