Gorbachev Still Battles Over Image at Home

February 27, 1999 - 0:0
MOSCOW When the Russian Orthodox Church threw a big party for the patriarch's 70th birthday, it hesitated until the last minute before Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev quickly cancelled a series of meetings and accepted the hard-won invitation that was standard issue for other leaders across Russia's political spectrum. The episode highlighted Russia's lingering ambivalence towards one of the world's most significant living men.

In contrast to his continued fame abroad a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev remains deeply unpopular at home. This is the fate of reformers, people whose fate is tied to such turning points in history, Gorbachev told Reuters in an interview. There is no such thing as a happy reformer. Fate is what God has handed out and I'm not complaining about it.

Yes, people want change, but when these changes strongly begin to affect their interests and lead to instability as happened with our reforms, people become judgmental and think maybe we should not have even started at all. Gorbachev said he has fared well compared with Russian reformers such as 19th century Tsar Alexander II, who was blown up by plotters, or Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was deposed and lived in obscurity until his death.

Remember how all the reformers in Russian history ended up, he said. I've not suffered the worst fate. I'm able to talk to you. Kremlin Shy Still energetic and charismatic at 67, Gorbachev falls into in a rare category of historical giants who changed the shape of human events and then survived in the subsequent era. He now heads the Gorbachev Fund think tank and travels abroad frequently to give lectures.

His one foray into post-Soviet Russian politics, a 1996 run for president, was a dismal failure. He won just 0.5 percent of the ballot. Since leaving office with the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Gorbachev said he has returned only twice to the Kremlin, the walled fortress at the center of Moscow that is now the realm of his rival, Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Abroad, where Gorbachev is hailed as the man who let Eastern Europe go free and ended the Cold War, adoration is commonplace.

At home, many blame him for the collapse of the Soviet Union which ushered in a decade of instability. He is still trying to explain why perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) were the right policies, and blames Yeltsin and others for many of the woes that have befallen the country in recent years. Even if some Russians are bitter about Gorbachev, he is confident history will restore his luster.

Society will gradually understand as the years pass, he said. Old Friends in High Places During the past six months Russian politics have also moved closer to Gorbachev as Yevgeny Primakov, a junior member of the Communist Party politburo under him, became prime minister and took over day-to-day responsibility of the country's economy from the often-ill Yeltsin. Gorbachev is promoting the idea that Primakov, two years his senior, should run for president in 2000, allied with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov as prime minister.

Gorbachev said he will not seek elected office, but offered Primakov help if called upon. Asked about his health no small issue in a country where the average man dies at age 61 the last Soviet leader follows a superstitious ritual by pretending to spit three times over his shoulder and then knocking on wood. It's okay, he said. Gorbachev's good health and sharp mind contrasts with Yeltsin, who has sometimes appeared confused in his recent rare public appearances.

But Gorbachev's self confidence has sometimes gone against him, such as in the 1996 presidential campaign, when he believed he was popular and in tune with his fellow Russians. Aides at his think tank say they sometimes advise him to take a lower profile in Russian politics rather than sully his name, but say he does not want to do less or become a living historical monument.

For his part, Gorbachev said public slights or criticism do not have much of an impact on him. To enrich his reputation at home, Gorbachev is building a perestroika library and museum to document his years in power. Perestroika was a key moment in our history and for the whole world, he said, repeating the argument that he believes will eventually redeem his reputation at home.

If it wasn't for perestroika there would not been changes in the Soviet Union, or they would have gone very slowly and for a long time, he said. We would have been tortured by the same situation in East and Central Europe, and the Cold War would have continued. (Reuter)