A responsible leader
By Mikhail Gorbachev
Friday, November 30, 2007
Last month I visited the United States, where I spoke at universities, business associations and nongovernmental organizations. After my comments, people stood in line, waiting for the microphones so they could ask questions.
I refused to answer just one question: Whom would I support in the U.S. presidential race? That is up to the American people, I said. This was not diplomatic evasion. I do believe that we should trust the people’s choice – and not just in America.
Of course I did not avoid questions about my country, and there were many. Here are some of them:
Q: Do you agree with those who believe that during the presidency of Vladimir Putin there has been a retreat from democracy to an authoritarian system?
A: I disagree. Following the chaos of the 1990s it was vitally important to consolidate the powers of the state, to prevent its disintegration.
In a situation like this, a responsible leader had to take certain steps of an authoritarian nature, though some of them were, in my view, avoidable – I am referring to restrictive changes in the election laws, abolishing the election of regional governors and controls over electronic media.
Yet Putin has not crossed the line that would turn Russia’s system into an authoritarian regime. The objective is still to build a free, democratic Russia.
I commend Putin’s decision to comply with the Constitution and not run for a third presidential term. It opens the way to significant changes, moving toward the effective functioning of democratic institutions. Of course, such changes will not happen by themselves. We need the forces that will support movement in that direction. I intend to contribute to it within the emerging social-democratic movement.
Q: How would you characterize your relations with Vladimir Putin? How often do you meet, and what would you say about his declared intention to retain influence after his presidency?
A: Our relations are good, we sometimes meet. If I have an opinion or a view, I make it known – in most cases publicly, through the media.
I see nothing wrong in Putin’s desire to influence the course of events in Russia. Like any citizen, he is fully entitled to it, all the more so since the country owes him a great deal and he earned the support he enjoys.
His decision not to run for president is not a popular one. Had he decided to change or circumvent the Constitution, a majority would have supported and reelected him.
I think he has shown wisdom and courage. Russia will need his experience in addressing the challenges of modernization and continued democratization.
Q: What are the main problems Russia is facing today, and how do you propose to solve them?
A: The problems are many, which is not surprising, for we are only halfway in our transition from totalitarianism to fully sustainable democracy. In the economy, while there is real growth there is also inflation and rising prices for essential products, persistent poverty and a huge income gap.
The economy is still not diversified; it still runs on the export of hydrocarbons. We must act urgently to bring social and economic development to small towns and rural areas, and to provide needed incentives to small- and medium-sized businesses.
Serious problems affect politics. The Parliament has been weakened, while the executive branch has excessive power, and the courts have not become independent. The stranglehold of bureaucracy is becoming increasingly unbearable; the battle against corruption has yet to start, as the Duma has failed to adopt an anti-corruption law.
I am concerned about disturbing developments in inter-ethnic relations and the xenophobia and intolerance that the government does not always respond to promptly. Similarly, the authorities are not doing enough to fight organized crime and to prevent the killings of journalists.
These and other problems can be solved. But to succeed we must pursue a democratic path. We need effective opposition, real elections, accountable government, and a greater role for Parliament and the judiciary.
We also need understanding from our foreign partners. Confronting Russia with unfair criticism and unwarranted demands is not conducive to good relations with the West. It could leave a lasting impact on the minds of the Russian people, giving them a negative attitude toward the West for a long time to come.
I am sure that in the coming years Russia will show that it can make new strides on the path of democracy. It can do so in a manner that befits a world power – without upheaval or “color revolutions,” and with dignity.
Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 until its collapse in 1991, is president of the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (The Gorbachev Foundation).
Mikhail Gorbachev: Putin is Good
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