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Gorbachev says Putin’s steps aimed at stabilizing Russia

Times Staff Writer

Former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose reforms played a major role in freeing the Soviet Union from totalitarianism, defended authoritarian moves by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin as necessary “to prevent the disintegration of the country.”

Putin has chosen “to use certain methods ... that were even authoritarian to some extent,” the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said in a recent interview. “But even though he used those methods sometimes, he continued to have the same goals -- the goals of moving toward democracy, toward market economics.”

Gorbachev attributed tensions between Washington and Moscow to the “victory complex” of some U.S. leaders, and said the two governments should tone down harsh rhetoric and work together to solve global problems.

Asked what advice he would have for Putin and President Bush, Gorbachev replied:

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“First of all, to preserve the climate of trust that emerged during the years of perestroika, when we were able to work together with the United States to discuss the issues and ultimately to end the Cold War. I believe that this trust is now in jeopardy.”

Perestroika, as Gorbachev’s reform policies of the late 1980s are known, played a major role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and laid the groundwork for U.S.-Russian friendship in the 1990s.

But in the last few years, tensions have grown again. Besides the perceived rollback of democracy in Russia, U.S. dissatisfaction has been fueled by Moscow’s alleged use of oil and gas export contracts to make political demands on its neighbors, differences over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, a dispute over the future of Kosovo and other issues.

Russians have been angered by U.S. plans to install an antimissile system in Eastern Europe. Washington says it is needed to defend Europe and North America, citing the possibility of missile attacks by Iran.

Moscow has expressed fear that the move would be a step toward a global missile-defense system aimed at devaluing Russia’s and China’s nuclear deterrents, and that the system could be modified for offensive missiles that would be close to Russia’s border.

Tensions have been further stoked by the radiation poisoning in London last year of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent turned fierce Kremlin critic. In a written statement prepared shortly before his death, Litvinenko accused Putin of ordering his killing, a charge the Kremlin has dismissed as “nonsense.”

The widespread perception in the United States is that the deterioration of U.S.-Russian ties has been caused by the Kremlin’s actions. But Gorbachev said much of the blame should go to a “victory complex,” which he described as a view expressed by some top U.S. officials that pressure exerted by former President Reagan brought about defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. He included Vice President Dick Cheney among this group.

“I believe that this victory complex is very dangerous,” Gorbachev said. “The United States has really not achieved anything alone. I believe that only when the United States worked with others was it able to achieve anything. Where they acted alone, the result was a real mess.”

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Gorbachev said he was encouraged, however, by the atmosphere of this month’s informal Bush-Putin summit in Kennebunkport, Maine.

“The more difficult the situation is, the more dialogue there should be, so I am pleased that it seems to be beginning to change,” he said. “It seems now that perhaps with the moderating help of President Bush the father, the senior President Bush, something is beginning to happen and something useful is resulting.”

Gorbachev expressed hope that the recent summit would lead to a compromise on the antimissile system, ease Russia’s concerns and bring international cooperation on such matters.

Another problem aggravating U.S.-Russian relations, Gorbachev said, is that Western journalists, analysts and politicians often fail to acknowledge the depth of Russia’s problems in the 1990s, under then-President Boris N. Yeltsin, and the practical justifications for some of the non-democratic methods used by Putin to reestablish the authority of the Russian state after he became president on the last day of 1999.

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In the late 1990s, “the country was really in dire straits,” Gorbachev said.

“People were living in poverty and there was chaos in the country.... So in this situation Putin was faced with the question of what kind of methods to use in order to prevent the disintegration of the country.”

Gorbachev did not spell out what sort of authoritarian steps he believed Putin had taken. But Putin has been criticized by democracy advocates for establishing state control over all nationwide television networks, ending the direct election of governors and establishing a pliable parliament with election rules that make it difficult for opposition forces to win seats.

Although Gorbachev typically defends Putin in public comments, at the same time he is the key political backer and an important financial supporter of the country’s most fiercely independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, which frequently carries reporting and commentary sharply critical of Putin. Copies of the newspaper are prominently displayed in the lobby of the Gorbachev Foundation, which studies social, economic and political issues.

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Gorbachev portrays his backing of Novaya Gazeta as support for democracy, not an anti-Kremlin line. At the same time, his support for Putin is not so one-dimensional as seen in much pro-Kremlin media.

His argument is that what Putin is doing, with all its flaws, should be seen in its historical context.

“I believe that reemphasizing the role of the state, consolidating the state, which is what Putin did, is justified,” Gorbachev said.

“When the country was really lying on its back, when the country was in really bad shape, during the Yeltsin years, when half the population of the country, and even more, were living in poverty, the West was applauding Yeltsin,” he added.

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With living conditions dramatically improved today, he continued, “I don’t know why the [foreign] media is so negative about Russia. Are you, the reporters, talking to only one group of people whose thoughts all go in the same direction? Well, I would suggest that you talk to a larger group of people, to all kinds of people.”

Polls show that Putin’s popularity rating is consistently more than 70%.

“I support Putin, and I do that deliberately and thoughtfully, because even though of course many mistakes were made, still Putin

“Certainly, he has not been 100% successful. Certainly, there is still a lot of corruption and stealing in the country. But, I mean, what do you want? Do you want Putin to be swept away?”

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Gorbachev said he believed Putin would keep his pledge to step down next year at the end of his second term, as required by the constitution, and that this will be an important contribution to the development of Russian democracy. He endorsed, however, the widely accepted idea that Putin will carve out an influential post-presidential role that would help ensure the stability of the country’s current policies.

“Of course, there is absolutely no need to repeat the mistakes that were made by Putin, by the government, by others,” he said. But “the positive decisions far outweigh whatever mistakes were made.”

david.holley@latimes.com


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