Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gorbachev gets Liberty Medal tonight

By Inga Saffron

When former President George H.W. Bush bestows the Liberty Medal on former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev Thursday night at the National Constitution Center, it will be a short-lived nostalgia trip back to the good old days of Russian-American relations.

Bush, who bonded with Gorbachev as they slammed shut the door on the Cold War, will personally drape the ribbon around the neck of his old friend. Their sentimental moment will be accompanied on piano by Van Cliburn, the wunderkind who won Russian hearts in 1958, at a time when deep friendships between such high-ranking superpower officials were unimaginable.

But the happy reunion that will play out at the Constitution Center belies the growing discord today between the United States and the newly ascendant, oil-rich, muscle-flexing, mostly capitalist Russia of Vladimir V. Putin. Indeed, relations between the two countries, analysts agree, haven't been this frosty since Comrade Gorbachev took over the Soviet Union in 1985.

In an interview last night that hinted at some of the themes he intends to take up in this evening's speech, Gorbachev placed the blame for the current chill with Russia squarely on the current Bush administration. The partnership Gorbachev initiated in the 1980s began to fall apart, he said, with the international arm-twisting that this President Bush used to start the war in Iraq.

"This administration wants everyone to follow suit, allies and others," Gorbachev complained. "America needs its own perestroika," he said, using the Russian word for restructuring that became the signature of his tenure as the Soviet Union's last leader.

"You have to open your windows more often," said Gorbachev, a fit-looking 75. "The world is different. There must be the beginning of change."

Gorbachev's frank remarks echoed the high-profile essays he published in the American press last month after the crisis in Georgia erupted.

Despite the warm reception planned for Gorbachev, it will be hard to overlook the irony that he has become one of the staunchest defenders of Russia's military incursion, which he described as a humanitarian effort.

In separate pieces he wrote for the opinion pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, Gorbachev gave voice to the bitterness many Russians feel about the United States' failure to live up to the promises of cooperation it made after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.

"Russia has been told to simply accept the facts," he wrote in the Times. "Here's the Independence of Kosovo for you. Here's the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. . . . Here's the unending expansion of NATO. All these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk of partnership."

"Why would anyone put up with such a charade?" he demanded.

In those essays, he chastised the United States for trying to bring the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine into its orbit in a quest to control the region's oil pipelines and keep Russia down economically.

Though U.S.-Russian relations have been eroding for years, Russia's forceful behavior in the independent Republic of Georgia clearly sent both sides scrambling for their old Cold War playbooks. The simmering grievances have been magnified by the U.S. presidential campaign, with Republican John McCain declaring, "We are all Georgians," and then calling Democrat Barack Obama soft on Russia. It's been a while since anyone uttered those particular fighting words.

No one is suggesting Gorbachev should be denied the Liberty Medal, or its $100,000 prize, for criticizing America or for his implicit support of Russia's increasingly authoritarian and anti-Western leadership.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) brushed off the significance of Gorbachev's statements in an interview, saying, "I'm not surprised to see Mr. Gorbachev support his country."

But others, such as Stanford University professor Michael McFaul, a noted Russia expert who is advising Obama, admitted he was surprised by the tone of Gorbachev's essays - even though he shares his view that "we let the Russians down" on promises to rebuild their economy.

As McFaul observed, one of the hallmarks of Gorbachev's rule was a refusal to resort to force at difficult moments. Most notably, Gorbachev announced in 1988 that the Soviet Union would no longer intervene militarily if its Eastern European satellites charted their own noncommunist course.

That historic concession marked the end of the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine and led to a wave of peaceful democratic revolutions that ultimately resulted in the collapse of communism and the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991. Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, in no small part because he prevented bloodshed as the Soviet empire withered away.

"The whole point of the Gorbachev era was to get beyond the confrontational approach to U.S.-Russian relations," McFaul said. "He was trying to get beyond the zero-sum way of thinking. The idea of Russia integrating with the West was Gorbachev's." The former Soviet leader spoke about a "common European house" that included Russia as a friend, not a threat.

Now, it's clear to many Russia specialists that Moscow no longer cares what the West thinks. Gorbachev's stance on Georgia is evidence that a new historical cycle is beginning.

George Friedman, who runs the private intelligence consultancy called Stratfor, argued in the Sept. 25 New York Review of Books that Russia's use of military force outside its borders, for the first time since the Afghan war of the 1980s, suggests there has been a fundamental shift in the balance of power between the United States and Russia.

The fact that Gorbachev supported the action should dispel any lingering romanticism about the last Soviet leader, Friedman argued in an interview.

"Somehow, in the American fantasy, Gorbachev was transformed into a Western liberal. Let's remember, his real aim was to save the Communist Party. He agreed to relax political controls in exchange for Western money." Friedman pointed out that Gorbachev "isn't despised in Russia today because he was too liberal; he's despised because he was ineffectual." He failed to reform the Soviet Union and make communism work.

After Gorbachev was forced from power in the 1991 coup d'etat, and the Soviet Union was split into 15 independent states, he tried to influence policy in his homeland. He made a half-hearted run for the Russian presidency in 1996, only to receive less than 1 percent of the vote. He founded a policy institute. But all that many Westerners know of the lifelong communist is that he made a lot of money doing ads for Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton.

While Gorbachev prospered from capitalism, Russia struggled. In the 1990s, its people suffered through the equivalent of the Depression.

America grew used to thinking of Russia as a basket case and took advantage of its weaknesses to expand on its former turf. While promising Russia that it, too, could become part of NATO, the United States never made good on the offer.

The rising price of oil, along with Putin's strict measures, has allowed Russia to reinvent itself. Its economy is booming - unlike America's.

"Americans cannot get it through their heads how popular Putin is," Friedman said. Nor do they realize, he added, that Russia is on its way to becoming a major power again.

So after the United States called for sanctions on Russia, including restrictions on its membership in international clubs like the G8 and the World Trade Organization, Gorbachev wrote: "These are empty threats. If our opinion counts for nothing in those institutions, do we really need them?"

It was the first time since he appeared on the world stage that Gorbachev suggested Russia might not, after all, need to be part of the West.

"I do think Russia must be integrated" with the West, he insisted last night. "But I also think that we must dance to our own music."