Our common home: world prospects for peace, human rights, and the rule of law: a discussion with Mikhail Gorbachev

Transcript of University of Toronto forum

By Mikhail Gorbachev

JOHN POLANYI: Mr Gorbachev, what legitimate use can you see for nuclear weapons? If the answer is only to deter the use of other such weapons, then would you support a proposal to reduce the number of nuclear weapons from thousands to only tens of weapons, with full inspection and international enforcement?

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV: I can give a short answer. I first outlined my concept on nuclear weapons on January, 1986. The ultimate goal of that concept is the abolition of nuclear weapons. As early as November 1985, President Reagan and I issued a joint communique at our first summit—a phrase which I believe is of importance today: that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. This is my very strongly held view.

Therefore, even in the form that you have put it, that a certain number of nuclear weapons could be retained and could be placed under international control, I think that this is not acceptable as a goal, above all because if we accept in the future any nuclear weapons, this is a mistake that might have consequences. The process of nuclear disarmament should continue. I believe that as of now all nuclear tests must be stopped, and I favor a tougher mechanism for controlling the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. In this context I welcome the ideas of those political leaders and international lawyers who are raising this issue. So, my goal is the abolition of nuclear weapons.

JOHN POLANYI: I hoped that you would reject my suggestion and go beyond it-and you have.

GORBACHEV: You must feel satisfied. [laughter]

POLANYI: If I may, I would venture in a different direction. Both fascism and communism were alleged to be based on scientific principles. It would have been good, I think, had more scientists challenged that lie, as Andrei Sakharov did. My question, then: Do you see, Mr. Gorbachev, a need for a greater involvement of scientists in the political process if democracy is to function in the 21st century?

GORBACHEV: I not only believe so, but as president I always acted that way. I was always in touch with our scientists. In the world nowadays and in the more complex world of the future, it would be difficult to assure that political decisions are taken in a timely way and that they are appropriate if scientists are not involved and if the consequences of these decisions are not discussed. The politicians and the scientific community wereunable to predict the consequences of the cold war and, as a result, we are already paying a steep price. Even though things are developing in a paradoxical manner and there is some reason to say that politics is rather dirty business, it is important to involve in the policy-making process the creative people, the artists, and others who can assure that there is a scientific basis for policies and a moral and ethical element. Making politics moral is particularly difficult, as I have seen, but it is something we should seek to assure.

JANICE STEIN: Mr. Gorbachev, in the West the argument is often made-mistakenly in my view-that the heavy military buildup during the Reagan era forced the changes in Soviet foreign policy that ended the cold war. Many today have drawn the lesson that nuclear deterrence worked, by making the arms race so expensive that the Soviet Union could not compete. This seems to be a dangerous lesson to draw. Do you agree with this argument? If not, what led you and your colleagues to the new thinking that proved so important in ending the cold war?

GORBACHEV: I think that the argument you put is extremely simplistic. I do not deny that the arms race exhausted the United States and the Soviet Union. It will take a lot more time for us to get out of the situation of militarization of our economies. It will take some difficult decisions and painful steps, particularly in our country. The arms race was one of the reasons and therefore we cannot justify those who thought that the arms race was the way to achieve objectives. To justify such an approach would be mistaken; it would set the wrong goal for now and for the future. In my trips around my country in the 1980s people were just afraid that something terrible and irreparable might happen. Today people are concerned about political problems, social problems, ethnic problems, but years ago wherever I went in the Soviet Union people asked me, will there be war? People were afraid of an impending disaster. So in a way the arms race, I think, triggered off the safety mechanism of our civilization. Not only the scientists and intellectuals, but also the public, the people intuitively (because popular intuition is very important) concluded that this path of confrontation should no longer be followed; we must stop.

All of us, even though we are different, must be able to reach agreements in order to save the earth, and afterwards all the other issues can be addressed and resolved. I think this is the most important thing-how people spoke out. How the various public and social organizations spoke out about the consequences of the arms race, and how scientists and experts spoke out-and that influenced policy-makers. That was a fortunate coincidence. Policy-makers heard the people, agreed to major reductions, and were able to develop an atmosphere of greater trust that brought the cold war to an end. I often hear it said that one side won the cold war. This is ideological and demagogic. All of us lost in the cold war-particularly the Soviet Union and the United States-and all of us won by ending the cold war. We should now take advantage of the opportunity that we see at the ending of the cold war. This is the task for us. So, to summarize, I agree with you and I hope that there are many people in this audience who are of the same view.

J. ROBERT PRICHARD: Janice, you might want to use your remaining time to ask the president to write an introduction to your forthcoming book, We All Lost the Cold War:

JANICE STEIN: I would just like to ask the president if I may quote him in the foreword. [laughter and applause] Thank you very much!

PRICHARD: This is Professor Karen Knop of the law faculty.

KAREN KNOP: Mr Gorbachev, does Russia have a special role to play in ensuring that human rights in general, or the rights of Russian minorities in particular, are respected by the former Soviet republics? If so, what sort of role would this be?

GORBACHEV: It does have a special role to play. What we are doing in Russia and in the other former republics of the Soviet Union is whatthose peoples need and what the international community had long been calling for. This is a totally new situation for enhancing cooperation and rapprochement among nations. But the Soviet Union was a special kind of state-a complex world ethnically and in terms of how people settled the territory. It was a community of nations speaking 120 languages and dialects. We understood that without reforming our multi-ethnic state-without addressing the needs and aspirations of the peoples, their need to preserve their national identity and to redress the grievances against the totalitarian regime-we would not be able to succeed in our reforms. But I think we acted too slowly. We spent too much time in basically raising toasts to the friendship of nations—that’s how I call it—instead of really developing new policies. As a result, we faced a difficult situation and were forced then to run after the train. The reformers missed that train-the goal of national rebirth, which is basically a healthy thing because it is reflected in the natural life of every nation and every person to seek his or her or their own role in the world. Anyway, that problem was exploited by certain nationalist politicians, who used it for their own selfish means.

And then we began reforming our federation. Our goal was to maximize the opportunities for all nations to vote in our vast country by signing the new union treaty, and we were very close to our goal. That treaty would have solved many problems and made it possible for all our nations to support the reforms. The August coup thwarted that process and it was followed by disintegration. Setting aside what happened afterwards, Russia is a vast independent country that bears great responsibility to other nations. Its reforms can only succeed if it addresses the problems of many ethnic groups within the framework of the Russian federation. But the Russian leaders are repeating our mistakes. They are acting too slowly, and the ethnic problems have not really been addressed. There is a danger of weakening the Russian federation, which is already happening. I am very much against the political squabbles that we are seeing at the upper levels of power. I favor developing policies that would address the causes of our economic crisis. And of course the President of Russia should intensively look for ways to implement the new federal treaty that was signed a year ago but that is not working. The republics, the autonomous entities of the regions, are awaiting new legislation that would establish a mechanism for a new federation-because the federal centre is sometimes looked upon with suspicion by the regions. The regions feel that it is not sensitive to the problems of the various nations and ethnic groups of Russia. The role of Russia is certainly significant because, by reforming its own federation, it will be able to assure the success of reforms and solve problems-not just of the Russian federation, but of Canada and the international community. We made an important breakthrough in developing the democratic process throughout the world.

Globally, the problem of human rights (the problem of minorities, the problem of self-determination) is central and we often hear it presented. In this sense, Canada’s accomplishments (if you are able to find a better way to harmonize the interests of ethnic groups and the interests of the state), and Russia’s success in the problems that you referred to, will show in the post-Cold War world that we are able to avoid things like Yugoslavia. This is Russia’s responsibility and I worry that appropriate policies are not being made at the federal level in Russia but time is wasted on political bickering. The incumbent Russian authorities were elected when the Soviet Union still existed, so I would say they are less legitimate than they were. I think that early elections are necessary in order to integrate and bring in new faces, new reformers who can assume the responsibility for the continuation of the democratic process.

PRICHARD: Mr. President, we have a problem. We are now one minute behind our schedule, and I-

GORBACHEV: One minute? Then I want to take another minute! [laughter] The problem that has been raised is so important that all others should be set aside [applause] and I should add something that I missed about the Russian minorities in the other republics. Remember that 25 million Russians live outside the Russian Federation. If the Yugoslavian scenario is repeated it will be a terrible disaster that will outstrip Yugoslavia. Therefore, in all the republics, people are against the escalation of inter-ethnic conflicts. The inter-ethnic conflicts have not yet affected Russia and Ukraine in a big way. They are mostly around the periphery. What happened that concerned us so much in the former Soviet Union-those were mostly conflicts; now we have wars along that periphery.

As for me, as a politically aware human being, it is worrisome that people are begining to get used to wars and bloodshed. After a battle in the Caucasus, the TV showed the people who were engaged in it. Having destroyed a village or killed people, they allow themselves to be photographed near those tanks. When I see that, I worry. I ask, what is happening to us? So I would like to solve the situation of minorities in all republics. We do have this problem in all the former Soviet republics. Because of the way the territory was settled and because people were basically intending to live together, there were no real borders or frontiers. You know that five million Ukrainians live in Russia, a million Tadjiks live in Uzbekistan, 40 percent of the population of Kazakhstan are Russians. There’s a million Germans too, and many Ukrainians in Kazakhstan. So every republic is more or less like this. This country is a complex world that evolved over centuries; if you try to re-carve based on a scheme taken from some sick head (and I can only say that it is a sick mind that would think of re-carving that country), that’s schizophrenia!

So even though we were not able to preserve the union, let us at least, within the Commonwealth of Independent States, try to preserve the cooperation and the linkages that existed. In some families now, the parents live in the Caucasus, their children live in Ukraine, and their grandchildren live in Siberia. Should it be impossible for such families to communicate? Even money is difficult to transfer from Ukraine to the Caucasus and vice versa.

I am for shaping a new union of republics that will be a vibrant and vital community, based on the reality of the fact that these are absolutely independent states. They are politically independent and there can be no turning back-that would be a reactionary idea. But a new association, a new union, would have to guarantee that the linkages that evolved over centuries are preserved, enriched, made more democratic. I see that as the way to solve the problem of minorities-Russian minorities, the other minorities-based on shaping a new union in the former Soviet territory. That has not happened. This is a mistake of the present leaders because the generation now in power led the process of secession and therefore it is difficult for them to lead the process of re-integration. But recent opinion polls show that a new union-not the present union, but a new federation, confederation, or some other alliance or community relationship-is being supported in practically all the republics, including Ukraine, by other people than voted in the referendum in 1991. So we should seek a way to create this association. As for using force or not respecting the independence of nations, that approach will not succeed, as we have seen in the Caucasus. Even the smallest nation does not want anyone to rule, to be a sword of Damocles over it. Every nation wants to live, but every nation wants to conquer it. [laughter and applause]

PRICHARD: That was a very good minute, but it was a long minute!

GORBACHEV: I said the most important thing that I wanted to say. Now my answers are going to be short.

PRICHARD: But the questions are getting harder! The next question comes from Dominic Gualtieri, who is a student in our master’s program in the Center for Russian and East European Studies.

DOMINIC GUALTIERI: Mr. Gorbachev, you mentioned the end of the cold war and the legacy of challenges that remain. In two days, Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton will be meeting in Vancouver for their first summit. Thanks to you, these bilateral discussions are common. If you were setting the agenda for this summit, to what international issues would you give priority?

GORBACHEV: When we worked together with President Reagan, two or three of our summits began by President Reagan voicing pre-conditions or preaching to me. I used to say to him at that time, “Mr. Reagan, you’re not the accuser and I am not [before] the bench. [laughter] You’re not a teacher and I’m not a student. If you think that America is a shining city upon a hill, please tell that to the media, not to me.” And after that, we usually had a good talk and we became real friends. So let me not try to teach lessons or to preach anything to the two presidents. This is their first summit as president and it reaffirms the continuity of dialogue that is so necessary to our states and that is so consistent with the interests of the whole international community. So let me just salute their meeting. [A pigeon flew around inside the hall at this point and Mr. Gorbachev seemed genuinely delighted by the sight. Russ ans do not distinguish between pigeons and doves. The word galub’ is the name of both birds.-ed.] Let the media report that when I spoke about the summit, the dove of peace flew! [laughter and applause]

They will have a wide-ranging agenda. They will be speaking about the complicated situation in the world and will exchange views about what they both are doing.

Now as to the question of support for Russia, this question is being put to me everywhere I go. We must not expect that this will be like a pancake that someone has cooked for us and we will just eat it. No, reformis something that our society has to do. We have to make it succeed. No one can do reforms to a country. The Russian people are like this: the more people are trying to teach them lessons, the more Russia rejects sometimes even positive recommendations. And we don’t need handouts. We accept, welcome, charitable humanitarian assistance from various nations, peoples, non-government organizations. It is very important that people are compassionate and that they reach out to help. But we don’t need handouts from governments. What we need is partnership-equal cooperation. There are, however, certain urgent current problems, such as debt rate. In this difficult period when we are making the transition, the debt problem makes it difficult to move ahead and this should be addressed. There are also some major cooperative projects, investment projects, to which we should invite the business community-U.S., Canadian, Western business-to participate. I welcome the summit and I welcome the fact that it is happening in Vancouver, in such a wonderful city. I don’t know whether you like it; I like it. You of course have your own city. Toronto is special too-one such city in the world. So let us hope that the summit is successful. [applause]

PRICHARD: Perfect. We’re back on schedule. Professor Peter Solomon is a professor of political science and criminology and a specialist in Soviet adjudication. Peter?

PETER SOLOMON: To North Americans, the rule of law implies using constitutions, where power can constrain government bodies, and trusting to Supreme or Constitutional Courts the task of resolving issues of constitutionality. Inevitably these high courts come to deal with political conflicts. What do you, Mikhail Sergeyevich, think about constitutional courts and their capacity to render decisions about political issues fairly and in accordance with law?

GORBACHEV: I think that is not their role. I think they should be concerned with assuring the functioning of the constitution. If every meeting of the constitutional court becomes a political process, then we will discredit this high institution, an institution that is new for our country, an institution whose role is to help in the establishment of the rule of law. This is why, even before the trial of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union began (which was a kind of historical event) I said to the president of the Constitutional Court, Zorkin: You are allowing yourself to become political and this will discredit the Constitutional Court. That’s why I will not take part in a political trial. That was a defiant thing to do but I felt that I needed totake that position in order to preserve the Constitutional Court as an important structure of the state based on the rule of law. For the Constitutional Court the times are difficult now. I understand that as a lawyer. Reforms go beyond constitutionality, and therefore any reforms cannot be declared unconstitutional, so it is very important. In these situations, a Constitutional Court can act as a mediator. At a certain time this will be acceptable but in principle it is not. [The pigeon takes flight again.] This bird is winging the transition between political dictatorship to independence! [laughter] So I hope very much that this institution, the Constitutional Court, will play the role that we are expecting of it regarding the division of power between the legislative, executive, and the courts. Too much in the past was not based on laws. So we should solidify the rule of law and the role of the Constitutional Court. I doubt that this has been a full answer.

PRICHARD: The next questioner is Todd Foglesong, a Ph.D. student doing his degree on Soviet politics.

TODD FOGLESONG: It is hard to imagine the rule of law without an independent judiciary. Do you now have faith in the courts? If, for example, a newspaper printed a falsehood about you in Russia, would you turn to the courts to defend your rights and dignity?

GORBACHEV: I’ve been doing this. I would like the constitutional declarations that we had-that they would always obey the laws-to become a reality. I did not see any chance for us to create a democratic state without an independent judiciary. I want the courts to be independent, and for that they need, in addition to a solid legislative framework, a certain material basis, to make sure that they are independent and that they cannot be corrupted. In our country, for example, the judges were paid less than policemen and prosecutors. I feel that everything should be done to assure the independence and the efficient, effective functioning of the judiciary.

FOGLESONG: I hope you don’t spend too much time in court in Russia.

GORBACHEV: If that is what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t have time for other important things. Of course there is politics involved. I see how the media in Russia-both pro-government and antigovernment media-are trying to discredit Mikhail Gorbachev because both would like a lightning rod. To some, I’m to be responsible for a kind of intellectual preparation for the coup, because they were supporting the idea of some kind of coup, and therefore they are trying to protect those who staged the August coup. And for those people, Gorbachev is a nuisance. Gorbachev’s position interferes with their policy. As for the current government, the prediction of Gorbachev about the failure of their plans became prophetic. I have continued to speak out and give my assessments of the current situation and therefore the progovernment media doesn’t like that. But you know, I have been through a lot in my life and no one will be able to intimidate me because I’ve made my choices and I will not change, whether anyone likes it or not.

ROBERT JOHNSON: Perestroika addressed all three of the issues we were discussing today: peace, human rights, and the rule of law. Looking back, would it have been wiser to address these issues one by one instead of moving forward on such a broad front? What lessons does perestroika have for the future?

GORBACHEV: Russia needed it and, if not Gorbachev, someone else would have begun those reforms. The reforms could begin only as a revolution from above, because a spontaneous revolution, which would be an explosion from below, would have been unacceptable in our country. As for the tactics of conducting reforms, there would have been changes, both so far as the economy is concerned, and particularly as regards the reform of the union. But if I were to try to answer this question the way you put it-whether the process of democratization and political reform should have been launched in such a major way, I would say yes. Because without that, nothing would have changed in our country and nothing would have succeeded in the process of reform. Also, how could we launch an unprecedented reform within the country without at the same time clarifying our relations with other countries? So, it turns out that we had to address all those issues at the same time.

At the end of 1986 and particularly 1987, we felt that the reforms were being slowed, that a brake was being put on the process of reform and that the same thing could happen that happened to Khrushchev’s reforms. So what we needed was political reform and elections. We needed further democratization of the country and reform of property ownership in order to include all our society, rather than just nomenklatura, in the process of reform. And this was the beginning of a real struggle against those who rejected reforms, who at least wanted to stop or slow down reforms, against those forces that eventually acted in August 1991. That, of course, was a reckless move, an adventure, because at that time we had gone through several phases of reform and particularly the process of democratization and glasnost. We had had new elections and we had created an atmosphere in which, from the very beginning, this reactionary move was doomed to fail. So, to summarize, I would have changed quite a few things in terms of tactics, priorities, and the sequence of events, but still I would say that we inevitably had to act in various areas at the same time. Some people are saying to me, “Maybe you should have taken the Chinese approach.” Well, of course, our approach has to be Soviet or Russian, just as your approach has to be Canadian. That is the first point and the second point is that Tiananmen Square was a very serious signal that political reforms were lagging behind the process of economic reform. The Chinese leadership too has now accepted the need for political reforms. It will have a special character and a special pace, and I understand that. Profound reforms in a society cannot succeed without at the same time reforming all the principal areas-the political area, property ownership, and the problems of the multi-ethnic state and the cultural, spiritual sphere.

PRICHARD: Unlike my colleagues, I am not a Soviet specialist. I want to ask you a personal question. When did you know that the status quo would not do and that radical change from above would be required? To be more precise, did you know before becoming General Secretary in 1985 that radical change was required, or did it only come to you once you were in the office? And if you did know before 1985, did your colleagues know when they chose you that that was your view? Or did this come as a surprise to them afterward?

GORBACHEV: My shortest answer to this is, read the book! [Laughter] But since we have three more minutes-[laughter] like many others, I had known that our society needed radical change. That really was not some kind of revelation for Gorbachev because after the death of Stalin there were many attempts to do it. Khrushchev tried it. Kosygin tried it. Some agricultural reformers tried it, and some other reformers. Also, the dissident movement, I think, reflected society’s protest against what was happening to it. So our entire society understood the need for radical reform. If I had not understood that, I would not have accepted the position of the General Secretary. I was never really fascinated with power as such. For me, power is not an object of desire. I always reacted to problems of power with calm. I was therefore free to act in that sense to the extent that the situation warranted.

That does not mean that in 1985 Gorbachev knew everything, he understood the situation absolutely clearly. The idea, the concept of perestroika was an evolving concept of the reformers, evolving as our society was evolving, as our thinking was evolving, as new problems were posed. But people often ask me whether, if I had it to do again, I would have undertaken what I did in 1985. Each time I say yes, I would have done it again.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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