Georgi Arbatov : A Kremlin Insider as an Independent Critic

<i> Robert Scheer, a Times national correspondent, interviewed Georgi Arbatov at the Madison Hotel in Washington</i>

Georgi Arbatov, the Soviet Union’s consummate political insider, probably holds the record for attending superpower summits. For three decades, as a close adviser to Soviet leaders Leonid I. Brezhnev, Yuri V. Andropov and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the 67-year-old Arbatov has helped shape and explain Soviet foreign policy in a skeptical world.

The Institute for the Study of the U.S.A. and Canada, which he directs, has long been a major Soviet window on the Western World and has been central to the development of the Soviets’ “new thinking.”

Arbatov and his wife, Svetlana, have an adult son, Alexei, also a foreign-policy specialist. The elder Arbatov began his government service as a Red Army artillery captain in World War II; he was wounded and decorated. The author of a score of books and monographs, a ubiquitous panelist at think tanks and television talk shows globally, Arbatov is an intimate of Western as well as Soviet leaders. He has been a member of the Communist Party Central Committee for the past 12 years.

Always managing to defy predictions of his political demise, Arbatov now seems at the top of his form. Last year, running on a reform slate that included Andre Sakharov, Arbatov was elected to represent the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the newly created People’s Congress. He is currently chairman of the Supreme Soviet subcommittee on international treaties.

Once considered “Mr. Establishment,” Arbatov appears increasingly in the role of an independent critic while retaining his access to power. He is considered a particularly close confident of Politburo member Alexander N. Yakovlev, often credited with being the architect of perestroika and glasnost. Arbatov, however, has urged a faster pace of reform, particularly for the economy.


Recently Arbatov led the call in the People’s Congress for major cuts in Soviet defense spending. (Arbatov wrote on the subject in a Feb. 25, 1990, article in Opinion.) His stance elicited a strident counterattack from leading figures in the Soviet military Establishment.

Arbatov, who was at Gorbachev’s side for his debut interview with Time magazine in 1985, remains a very strong Gorbachev loyalist. He was one of those chosen to brief Gorbachev intensively at the Soviet Embassy hours after the leader’s Wednesday-night arrival in Washington.

Recently published minutes show, however, that Arbatov was one of the few members of the Central Committee who had a kind word to say about Boris Yeltsin during the historic October, 1987, session that witnessed Yeltsin’s break with Gorbachev and the party leadership. Yeltsin, the maverick politician who has been a constant critic of Gorbachev, was elected president of the Russian republic last week.

When I interviewed Arbatov seven years ago (Opinion, July 18, 1983), midway in Andropov’s brief tenure, Arbatov predicted profound changes for his country and the course of the Cold War. This week, in interviews over a three-day period, as the politics of his country unraveled, Arbatov was again asked to predict the future.

Question: Is the Soviet Empire crumbling? Is Gorbachev on the ropes? Does Yeltsin’s victory mean the end of perestroika?

Answer: As Gorbachev says, we are involved in a revolution but one which he tries to do by evolutionary means, without violence. This is a period of very deep and far-reaching changes. It cannot go according to the master plan, so there are inevitable mistakes and disruptions. But the direction is correct.

Q: Is there life after Gorbachev?

A: We are already beyond the point where it is possible simply to return to the past. Of course the honeymoon is over. He understands this himself. He is now responsible for five years of what has happened in our country. There is a mixed picture. There are some obvious achievements. Glasnost is one of them. There is political reform which has not yet ended but which goes on successfully. The third one is foreign policy, where he has the greatest successes. I don’t agree with those who complain that he is simply giving away something and decreasing our security. We were never so secure as now.

At the same time, of course, in the economic field we have had mistakes, tremendously costly sometimes.

Q: You may feel more secure but it appears that the Soviet empire is crumbling.

A: As to empire, this refers back to a very serious dispute between Lenin and Stalin. Stalin, being from a small republic, was despite it a great Russian chauvinist. He wanted a sort of empire. Lenin insisted that we cannot, in a multinational state like ours, have a stable situation without these republics feeling sovereign, feeling like independent states. Therefore, he insisted on self-determination up to cessation from the Soviet Union. This was the slogan of the Bolsheviks from the very beginning.

Q: And it’s in the constitution.

A: It remains in the constitution because Lenin spoke so much about it that Stalin didn’t dare eliminate it. But Stalin made out of it a unitarian state with some degree of autonomy. This was a distortion and it couldn’t work forever. It could be sustained only by force, by coercion.

Q: Will it now just splinter apart?

A: No, you cannot just cut like a pie and serve it. In the Ukraine, of 50 million people, 12 million are Russians and as many Ukrainians live outside of the Ukraine. The same is true for many other republics. Latvia, half the population is Russian. Estonia, 40%. So you cannot cut it in such a way. Gorbachev wants to create a real federation and asks the leaders of the republics to give the federation a chance and then make your decisions whether to get out or not. If perestroika works, economically, everything will be OK and even Lithuania will return in one or another status. If perestroika fails, even the Russians will go away.

Q: You have been identified for a long time as a Gorbachev supporter. Do you think Yeltsin represents a threat to Gorbachev?

A: I don’t think he represents a threat. Maybe this is just the first step toward constitutional opposition. My hope is they will work together.

Q: Does Yeltsin represent an ideological alternative?

A: No, people call him a populist and maybe he is by instinct a populist. He started ambitious but everybody who enters this field must be ambitious. Aside from that his attitude was a very honest one. He didn’t like what he saw and how the Secretariat was led by (Yegor K.) Ligachev. He didn’t like it and he spoke out honestly.

It was during the plenary session of the Central Committee, in October, ’87, I defended him because he was viciously attacked in the old style. I said that you couldn’t deny this man his political courage and was rebuked for it by Prime Minister (Nikolai I.) Ryzhkov immediately.

Yeltsin has done many things, some clever and some clumsy, but he learned quite a few things. He has a team now around him, a very interesting young economist and some other people. So it remains to be seen what he will produce because now for the first time he will have a chance to act not as an opposition leader but as a leader who must deliver something.

Q: Did Gorbachev hurt his reputation when he descended to the floor of the Parliament to attack Yeltsin?

A: Quite honestly, it was a mistake, and both Gorbachev and Yeltsin have to think it over. It is expected by the Russian people that both of them will go to business and get cooperating.

Gorbachev is able to understand the realities of life. If he could go with Reagan, where Reagan was a very vicious anti-communist, why cannot he find a way to do business with Yeltsin? I think he will.

Anyway, Yeltsin is much better than his opponent (Ivan K.) Polozkov. If the choice would be between him and Polozkov, I would vote for Yeltsin without any doubt. Because Polozkov represents all the reactionary trends in the party. He spoke against Gorbachev in the plenary session. Yeltsin only criticized Gorbachev for being too slow. This guy criticized him for starting perestroika.

Q: Yeltsin and many others have criticized the recently proposed economic reform plan. What is your assessment?

A: This whole plan as it was forwarded by Mr. Ryzhkov is a very serious mistake and those who prepared the reform are incompetents. What they propose is simply to raise prices and take away money from people. Then you will have goods on the shelves, but the consumption will drop. Instead they should motivate increases in production. This means to free all forms of entrepreneurship and to support it. Also cut governmental expenditures. We see only partial steps to reform, we see everywhere a compromise which dooms this reform plan to fail. For instance in the use of land. One thing is omitted--ownership of the land--but it means a lot of difference here.

Q: Why was it omitted?

A: There are theological obstacles. In general, this government is afraid to fight for its own economic reform. It makes a step and then a demagogue rises up, and it shies away and makes two or three steps backward. The same is true with foreign trade and joint ventures. The same is true with ownership, with taxation, with many other things.

Q: Doesn’t this indicate that Gorbachev is out of touch? How could he have become identified with a program which even people like you have been so critical of?

A: I don’t understand it, quite honestly. In April when I and others discussed it with him at two meetings of the Presidential Council he agreed with our criticisms and that it must be transformed in this direction. But I see not a single measure which will motivate production.

Q: Is he getting isolated and not aware of what’s going on?

A: He is not getting isolated, but of course you can understand that he has a lot of problems on him and he doesn’t have a good team. He has some good people, like (Foreign Minister Eduard A.) Shevardnaze, but he doesn’t have a team which is good enough to work. He should have it after five years.

Q: Then why did Gorbachev back Ryzhkov?

A: This is a question I cannot answer. Ryzhkov cannot lead the government. He cannot be prime minister. All his team failed. . . . It is enough. They are more than four years in office.

Q: You prefer Yeltsin?

A: I would prefer Yeltsin. With Yeltsin there is maybe a chance. With Ryzhkov, I know, he has shown already that there is no chance.

Q: Why does Ryzhkov retain a position of power?

A: I don’t know. Ryzhkov is a nice man. He smiles nice. He looks very nice. He is maybe in general not a bad man. But this is the tragedy of the whole generation of economic managers. They were taught and trained all their life for performance in a certain kind of economy. And only a few of them can change for another type of economy.

Q: You still talk as if Gorbachev’s leadership is essential.

A: I don’t see anybody who can be better than him or even equal to him.

Q: But if he were to go, either because of natural causes or he resigned, what would happen?

A: I don’t know. I would hate the prospect. Now is the worst possible moment for such a thing to happen. In a short time there will be stable institutions and personalities play less of a role. Then it will be not so harmful. At the moment it would be very harmful.

Q: How do you understand socialism these days? Do you agree with Yeltsin when he said, “I’m not interested in socialism for the sake of socialism. I’m interested in a government that serves the people”?

A: Yes, but this is what socialism is about. I would add that real socialism is a society which is devoted to social good. The word comes from that. Of course all of it depends on the success of creating a new model, because the old model was flawed. It has grown out of military communism. Though we made an attempt to go away from it with the new economic policy of Lenin, then we returned to it.

Q: You have, in recent months, been involved in a dispute with some elements of the Soviet military.

A: Yes, it started with a speech in our Parliament where I said that our new foreign policy has opened up opportunities to cut our military expenditures much more. And immediately I was attacked by one general and one admiral there.

Then Marshal (Sergei F.) Akhromeyev has written two articles, criticizing mainly my article. He has become very personal, like in old-style when he wanted to put somebody in prison.

Q: On the other hand I understand that Gen. Dmitri T. Yazov, the Soviet minister of defense, has gone out of his way to show courtesy if not support toward you.

A: Yes, on the 17th of May I had a telephone call on my governmental telephone. A voice says, “Tomorrow is your birthday. I wanted to . . . to wish you all the best. I have a present for you.” I say, “Excuse me, I don’t recognize you.”

“This is Marshal Yazov. We have prepared a present, people in the archives brought together all the records of your military service during the Second World War. We have made a book and I want to present it to you. How can I send it to you?” I gave him the address and mentioned that it’s very close to his ministry. “Then I will bring it myself.” The next day he brought it himself. He is a decent guy.

Q: Do you think the military in the Soviet Union is going to be an obstacle to reform?

A: There are very different militaries, including even generals who have a lot of courage and are very much for military reform.

Q: Gorbachev is going to be meeting with Reagan, and they’re talked about in the media as being great friends. What about Reagan’s argument that the Soviets came to a more reasonable posture because he built up militarily, because he was strong.

A: Absolute nonsense. The balance hasn’t changed from what was pre-Reagan and what it had become in ’85. What changed? You have built a lot of new weapons, we have built a lot of new weapons.

Q: The argument runs that you were afraid of “Star Wars,” afraid of our technological edge, this would bankrupt you and therefore, you had to throw in the towel.

A: We found a cheap answer to “Star Wars"--100 times cheaper. We can just fill up space with junk. Bolts and nuts and shredded metal until your systems will go down, and there are a lot of other things.

Q: How important is anti-Semitism? During your campaign for the People’s Congress you experienced some anti-Semitic attacks because your father was Jewish.

A: It is at present not a strong force. These elections have shown that. Would I be absolutely not Jewish they would attack me anyway. They attack many people. like (Yegor) Yakovlev, (editor of the Moscow News) like (Vitaly) Korotich (editor of Ogonyok) as Jewish who are not Jewish at all.

Q: Why has a hard-line conservative like Ligachev been able to stay on so long?

A: Ligachev really is not important. He will stay there until the party Congress. What will happen afterwards, I don’t know. Maybe he will be the leader of another party.

Q: Do you think the party might split?

A: After the Congress (July 3) it can be split. It’s difficult to have Ligachev and Gorbachev in the same party. Or Polozkov and let’s say people like myself.

Q: What about the KGB?

A: I don’t know too many rank-and-file people there. Their leader is, of course, for Gorbachev, for perestroika. He is not a professional policeman. He came from the Central Committee. I consider him to be a very honest man. About the others, you have more or less the usual thing. Of course they feel offended, people speak bad about them, and they are criticized in the press. Now they have other things to do like fight crime, organized crime especially, and can concentrate on that.

Q: Is the Cold War over?

A: Yes. It is over.

Q: No matter what happens to Gorbachev?

A: No matter what happens. I cannot imagine that we will play this game again, and without us you cannot play it either.