Gorbachev at 80

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The end of the 20th century witnessed an apparently irreversible wave of democratization in several parts of the world. But until the recent dramatic events in Egypt, democratization seemed to have waned - even given way to a new wave of authoritarianism around the world. Except in the promotional plans of professional democratizers, the "romance" disappeared from the news and commentary pages of most American newspapers. Now it has returned, along with a good deal of historical amnesia.

Usually forgotten is that the "wave of democratization" in the late 20th century began in a place, and in a way, that few had expected - Soviet Russia, under the leadership of the head of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev. Indeed, the extent to which Gorbachev's democratic achievements during his nearly seven years in power (1985 to 1991) have been forgotten or obscured is truly remarkable.

The amnesia began almost immediately after the Soviet Union ended, in December 1991, when the U.S. political and media establishment began attributing Russia's democratization primarily, even solely, to its first post-Soviet leader, Boris Yeltsin. According to the quickly prevailing Washington narrative, Yeltsin was the "father of Russian democracy, "the leader who began Russia's "transition from totalitarianism" and under whom its "first flickerings of democratic nationhood" occurred.

Lost in this historical misrepresentation are Gorbachev's two greatest achievements. By 1991, he had led Russia closer to a real functioning democracy than it had ever been in its 1,000-year history; and the parliamentary and presidential elections he introduced from 1989-91 - in the then-Soviet system - remain Russia's freest and fairest to this day.

Getting this history wrong not only dishonors Gorbachev, who turns 80 Wednesday, but also deletes from our thinking how the democratization of Soviet Russia began and how the process might yet unfold in other countries. It did not begin with protesters,violence and bloodshed in the streets, or with the overthrow of the existing regime. Instead, it came from above, from inside the ruling Soviet elite and in the person of a man who had spent his entire political career inside that profoundly authoritarian bureaucracy.

It's especially important to remember this history now, when there is renewed talk in Washington about "democracy promotion" and the need to "shepherd" countries along the presumed democratic path opened by events in Cairo. Gorbachev's evolutionary democratization reminds us that whatever the merits of various U.S. pro-democracy programs aimed Russia, they played no role in the onset or unfolding of democratization in Moscow. Indeed, later, in the post-Soviet 1990s, they might have inadvertently contributed to democracy's undoing.

Consider the process and achievements of what Gorbachev described at the time as a transformation "revolutionary in content but evolutionary in methods and form." His approach represented a sharp break with Russia's long tradition of transformations imposed from above - in which some scholars put Yeltsin's "shock therapy" of the 1990s. When Russians say their country had more democracy under Gorbachev than later, they point out that Yeltsin's election as Soviet Russian president in June 1991 was the first and the last time in the Soviet Union's history that the Kremlin allowed executive power to pass to an opposition candidate.

Glasnost, or the ending of seven decades of Soviet censorship, was Gorbachev's other signature democratic reform. Having worked for a few months at the leading glasnost newspaper, Moscow News, I still remember vividly how, step by step, from 1985 to 1991, the mechanisms and taboos of censorship were dismantled.

Here, too, the result was astonishing - virtual freedom of the press, both print and broadcast, at least in the national media. Russian journalists I have known since those times still compare their freedom under Gorbachev more favorably than with what followed under both Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin - oligarchical control and corruption of the media, a resurgence of state interference in their work and the killing of journalists. (Though the killing of journalists is usually associated with the Putin era, of the 76 killed since 1992, 41 were murdered during the Yeltsin years.)

Indeed, the conventional U.S. view that Russia's de-democratization began after Putin became president in 2000 is contested by many Russian commentators and historians, and a few American specialists. They argue that it began under Yeltsin - particularly when the Russian president used tanks in October 1993 to disband and destroy Russia's most freely elected parliament. Since that fateful event, the Russian Duma has increasingly become a "puppet" parliament, unlike those opposition-filled, raucous legislatures elected under Gorbachev.

Whether or not one views Soviet democratization under Gorbachev as Russia's lost opportunity, as some historians do, the former leader remains a poorly appreciated, perhaps tragic, but nonetheless essential figure in the modern history of democratization. As he turns 80, having outlived the historic breakthroughs he introduced by 20 years, and having watched many of his democratic achievements squandered, Gorbachev, always an optimist during the 20 years i have known him, says he is no longer sure if Russia's democracy glass is half full or half empty.

It may be that actuarial realities have made him melancholy or even despairing, or he may be discouraged by developments in Russia. In a recent interview in Novaya Gazeta, the country's leading democratic opposition newspaper, of which he is part-owner, Gorbachev spoke out more bluntly than ever against the Putin-Medvedev leadership for undermining the free media and elections he introduced two decades ago. Gorbachev even warned that Russia's growing authoritarianism might result in an Egypt-style uprising: "We have democratic institutions but . . . they're used to cover arbitrary rule and abuse," he said.

Only history will determine Gorbachev's ultimate reputation. In his own country, he is still reviled by a majority of Russians, who blame him (along with Yeltsin) for destroying the Soviet Union and for the economic and social misery that followed. Other Russians, however, view him, as I do, as a leader of extraordinary vision and courage. If democracy eventually returns to Russia, Gorbachev will be remembered as the greatest reformer in that nation's tormented history.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company