'The American And Russian People Don't Want A New Confrontation'

With U.S.-Russian relations probably at their lowest point since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev dropped in on the White House this week for a little schmoozing. The two countries have been at odds over arms control, media censorship and espionage. But on Monday, both Bush and Gorbachev were upbeat. "I am naturally an optimist," Gorbachev told reporters. "Today, I am even more an optimist." On Thursday, Gorbachev sat down in New York with NEWSWEEK'S Jonathan Alter. They covered a wide range of subjects, including Gorbachev's relationship with Ronald Reagan, President Putin and Gorbachev's new environmental initiative. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How are you holding up since your wife's death?

Mikhail Gorbachev: I thought that with time I would feel less emotional and less sorrow, but so far I have not yet felt that time heals all wounds. My friends, my daughter tells me-and they're right-that the tragedy is real, but you have to move on, you have to live for yourself, for your children and grandchildren. I agree with them, but it's still very painful. I'm an optimist, I love life, I'm trying to travel a lot, to talk to people, but wherever I go, when I'm alone, the memories come back again.

Is democracy under siege in Russia right now?

No. No. We've had some setbacks, but Russia is moving along the path of democracy. Even at the moments when there seems to be a danger of a rollback, those moments pass, and it turns out that perestroika produced the kind of results that enabled democracy to take root. Right now it's very important to make sure that the process of improving democratic institutions continues.

But it's not continuing. You have seen independent media such as NTV and NEWSWEEK'S partner, the magazine Itogi, snuffed out. How can the Russian people know what's going on in their government and society when this is happening?

You're right. My position is the same. What is more, in my conversation with the president [Vladimir Putin] I said perestroika wouldn't have happened without glasnost, and he wouldn't have been able to continue the process of change successfully without a free press. He said to me, "Yes, I agree. Without a free press, a responsible press, we would not be able to cope with our tasks."

Do you believe him?

Yes, I believe him. The most important point, which is underestimated in Russia and just isn't known abroad, is the difficult legacy the president inherited. Once, in our conversation, he said to me, "I inherited chaos-in the economy, in the affairs of the federation, in the area of laws, and in decision-making." So one of the tasks is to try to pull the country out of chaos. The important thing is that President Putin should not slide into an authoritarian system.

But isn't he moving in that direction?

I think he is under very strong pressure from various segments of [Russian] society. It's very hard for President Putin to break with the clans and the "family" [the Kremlin elite under Boris Yeltsin], and he is moving gradually to break with them. They still have a lot of influence, and one year is not enough for him to turn a country like Russia around. That doesn't mean he has done everything right. He has made mistakes, he has acted late in certain situations and he is criticized a lot. Nevertheless, the same people who criticize him also support him. They realize that the year that was spent trying to stabilize Russia will ultimately serve as a basis for moving ahead. And now, very soon, it will become clear where our country is headed. The debate is very heated right now. Some people are ready to support the president without reservation; others demand to know what kind of Russia is he committed to. A lot will be decided this year.

If in 1988 or 1989 you had had more tolerance for bloodshed and moved the Soviet Army into Eastern Europe, for example, could we be sitting here in 2001 with you still in office and communism still intact?

In the name of what?

In the name of ruthlessness.

Ruthlessness in the name of what? After all, none of that has anything to do with people who are committed to freedom, democracy and humanism. The main thing is that in the top office of one of the superpowers there was a person, Gorbachev, who was committed to these values. Before me, the people who gained power one way or another wanted just one thing-to consolidate that power. I started to reform that power, to decentralize that power, and ultimately that resulted in pulling the country out of the totalitarian system and moving it toward democracy. I did that for my people, I believed that my people deserved it. The society we lived in was rejected at a cultural level by the people.

But you could have imposed it even though it was rejected.

It could have been imposed, but the country was pregnant with perestroika and reforms. Look at Khrushchev and Kosygin; they made attempts to reform the country before. The key was that this kind of expectation by our people and our society coincided with the moment when the main office in the country was occupied by a person who understood the challenges of the times.... Once we made that decision for our country, should we say that the Czechs and Poles are inferior people? The Hungarians, the Bulgarians? And the Germans, when they wanted to reunify? I told the leaders of those countries at the very beginning of my tenure as leader, "We will not interfere in your affairs. You pursue the policies that you want, and you are responsible for your countries." They thought this was just more of the same from another [Soviet] general secretary. I never violated that pledge.

How much of a role did Ronald Reagan's arms buildup play in the collapse of the Soviet Union?

I don't think it played a role. The Soviet Union was a victim of the political battles within the country itself. We saw that the country was not adapting to the challenges of science and technology, that it missed the boat on structural reforms, that was the main reason. The second reason was that people were not free, they were unhappy, and this couldn't be ignored. The arms race was not decisive.

It wasn't Ronald Reagan declaring, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"?

[Makes dismissive gesture] Not that. Former president Bush was right when he said, "I will not be dancing on the wall." Some people thought he was not very active when the wall was crumbling. But let me tell you that President Bush and I followed up on what was done with President Reagan, and the process of addressing international conflicts went very fast.

What are the prospects for genuine arms reductions with the new President Bush?

I believe the United States needs to carefully consider the problems of missile defense, NATO expansion and nuclear nonproliferation. After all, these are issues of concern not only with Russia and China but also between the United States and its allies. So I ask, what is it all for? Rather than covering yourself with defense, it would be a lot better to enter a new phase of cooperation and partnership. If the United States goes further in the wrong direction, I won't even venture to say what would happen, because it could cause a new arms race. We have doves and hawks in both of our countries, but the American and Russian people don't want a new confrontation, they don't want an arms race, they face so many problems.... I had a chat with the president [George W. Bush]. He is a lively person-he makes a better impression in person than on TV. It's very important that U.S. leadership is aimed at a more stable world, more justice in relations between countries.

Did the Chernobyl disaster influence you to focus on environmental problems as you are now?

Today [April 26] is the 15th anniversary! Through a combination of circumstances, I became involved with the environment years ago, during the Brezhnev era, when I was working in the Caucasus. I saw that our rivers and lakes were in bad shape, and when I became leader of the Soviet Union, this became a priority. The environmentalists were the first to make use of glasnost. We closed down 1,300 factories in the Soviet Union for environmental reasons. I proposed at the United Nations and the nongovernmental forum on the environment that we needed to create a global organization to unite our efforts in dealing with environmental problems.

What is the No. 1 environmental problem?

We need to change the paradigm of economic development. If we continue to move ahead with a technological, industrial orientation, then in 30 or 40 years, according to prominent scientists, we will see irreversible changes within the biosphere. So the most important thing is to change the direction of our development; we need to normalize the relationship between man and nature. We need a new global consciousness, an environmentalization of consciousness. This is precisely the main task of our Green Cross International. Having worked in this area for seven years, I've seen a gradual change of attitudes in the world in favor of the environment. Recently there was a Gallup Poll that asked Americans what they thought the top priority should be, and 52 percent said the environment. So consciousness is the main problem, because it will affect politics, business, the legislative process and culture.

Is there any connection between the Green Cross and the original idea of the Red Cross?

When I spoke at the U.N., I said we needed a global organization like the Red Cross, and let's call it the Green Cross. In 1992 representatives of the world's countries met [at the Earth Summit] in Rio de Janeiro, they decided to create Green Cross International, and they invited Gorbachev, who had stepped down by that time, to be responsible for it. So I believe that the environmental challenge is the No. 1 problem on the [international] agenda. If we don't succeed, then no theory, no system will matter, all the current disagreements will seem like peanuts compared with the destructive impact of the conflict between man and his environment.

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts