Ten Years On, Gorbachev Sees Freedom As Top Achievement
MOSCOW (AP) _ Ten years after he came to power, Mikhail Gorbachev is enjoying what no other Soviet leader ever had: a glamorous retirement. He is a globetrotter, earns good money from speeches, and hobnobs with kings and movie stars.
But as he glitters on foreign trips, his name is mud at home. Credited in the West with bringing down the Soviet state, restoring democracy and ending the Cold War, he is derided at home by everyone from schoolgirls to Boris Yeltsin.
In a country that usually pays great attention to political anniversaries, the 10th anniversary of his election as Communist Party chief on March 11, 1985, has barely been noticed. He has been in the news lately mainly over a new humiliation last week: Yeltsin stripped him of his official car after he criticized the president in a speech.
Katya Kosova was only 6 years old when Gorbachev became the Soviet leader, and it is her generation that stands to benefit most from the ability to travel abroad and to speak freely.
Yet the 16-year-old Russian schoolgirl and her friends had nothing positive to say about Gorbachev as they toured ``Winning Freedom,″ a photo exhibit in downtown Moscow of the last 10 years of the Soviet Union.
``What did he achieve?″ she asked. ``The Soviet Union was destroyed. What kind of achievement is that? Sure, he changed our lives. But who needs him now?″
``There is nothing good to say about him,″ said Sveta Nazereva, also 16. ``He never had anything interesting to say.″
Yeltsin’s personal feud with Gorbachev dates to Soviet days. Yeltsin usually ignores him, except to blast the rare favorable press account that the former Soviet president might get.
In his latest memoir, Yeltsin portrayed Gorbachev as a compromiser afraid of real reform and ``horrified by the very concepts of the market and private property.″ Yeltsin wrote that Gorbachev was suited for ``the cunning Oriental type of rule″ and committed political suicide by surrounding himself with old Communists.
Gorbachev gets low ratings as well from some people in the former Soviet republics, where life has deteriorated since they became independent when the empire collapsed in 1991.
```Gorbachev is the lowest traitor. He betrayed everything sacred in a Soviet man,″ said Nikolai Radintsev, a Communist Party leader in Ukraine. ``He betrayed our Communist ideals and destroyed the strongest state, the Soviet Union.″
At 64, Gorbachev himself is most proud of the changes that let Soviet citizens travel abroad freely for the first time since the revolution and speak without fear of being send to the Gulag. He also takes great pride in having lifted the Iron Curtain that had held Eastern Europe in captivity since the end of World War II.
``I think freedom came to Russia. Free elections, glasnost,″ Gorbachev recently told a small group of reporters. ``Somehow, people began to speak what they think. That is my greatest achievement.″
Early in his six years in power, Gorbachev vowed to reform the stagnating Communist system, relying on ``glasnost″ or openness to help achieve his goal of ``perestroika″ or restructuring.
``Gorbachev is a historic personality. He is the man who displayed wisdom and courage when he became Soviet leader,″ Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet foreign minister and leader of Georgia, told The Associated Press.
But his policies and wavering on economic reform led to inflation, strikes and unemployment, which contrary to his great desire for reform contributed to a deep nostalgia many feel for the stability of the old Soviet system.
In an era of wild capitalism, with its ``biznismeny,″ ``bandity″ and ``mafiya,″ the perestroika and glasnost of the Gorbachev era seem quaint, tame terms belonging to a long-ago era.
While glasnost and perestroika may seem ancient history, the collapse of the Soviet Union remains perhaps the most painful legacy of the Gorbachev era and is something few Russians seem ready to forgive and Gorbachev himself cannot forget.
``The greatest blow and loss is that it was not possible to sign the Union Treaty and save the union,″ Gorbachev said. ``Everything would have been different.″
Instead, the August 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev by hard-liners opposed to the proposed Union Treaty, which would have given more autonomy to the 15 republics, led to the breakup of the empire.
Russia and the former Soviet republics have changed so much, so fast, that even Gorbachev _ who claims he still is a socialist and clings to the hope of some new kind union _ acknowledges there can be no return to the past.
Gorbachev is coy about a political comeback, saying he would return if people wanted him to. Most polls don’t give him a shot. He is usually at the bottom or not even on lists of Russia’s most popular politicians.
But with Yeltsin plummeting in popularity over the disastrous war in Chechnya, Gorbachev could yet forge some kind of new political career.