The Future of Russia on the Anniversary of the August 19th Coup Against Gorbachev

Recently Mikhail Gorbachev, the last President of the USSR and the reformer who created “Perestroika” and “Glasnost’ to restructure and open up Soviet society, economy, and governance, gave a series of interviews on the 20th anniversary of the right-wing coup that tried to oust him on August 19, 1991.  

Gorbachev, 80, was speaking just before the 20th anniversary of the coup, which in time led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the coming to power of Boris Yeltsin and then Putin. His remarks both about those historic days two decades and more ago and his reflections on current Russian politics and the direction of Russia provide a good time for America to also assess the future of Russia and its possible role in an international landscape. (We have already commented here on the coming dual 2012 election in America and Russia.)

Gorbachev, in summary, criticized both Prime Minister Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for taking Russia back to a more authoritarian system and called for third truly independent parties, single member voting system in place of party lists, and generally freer elections and media.  He said neither Putin nor Medvedev were the best leaders to take Russian into a real modernization.

As Russia goes into political “campaign” mode with the presidential elections due in March 2012 and is still unsure whether or not Putin will grab back his old presidential office or permit Medvedev to run again, the question of the direction of Russian society has come to the fore among Russian commentators and engaged citizens.

While the vast bulk of the society remains both despairing of real change and still largely unengaged, the debate may in time echo down especially to the younger and more educated population. The purpose of Gorbachev’s comments were obviously an effort to galvanize some debate about the future course of Russia before the coming elections both of the Duma and for president.

During the first year of Gorbachev’s leadership in 1985, I had the occasion to visit Russia while assigned as a fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University to examine the impact and meaning of the newly minted key phrases of  “Perestroika” and “Glasnost,” and whether they had or could have a real impact on a still authoritarian and frankly shabby domestic landscape of the then Soviet Union. My former professor Ambassador George Kennan had in the 1960s opined often on where the Soviet Union would lead, but he believed with time it would likely either collapse or be reformed.  

I was both exhilarated and depressed by what I learned during that all too brief trip to the Soviet Union.  I saw evidence of renewal and more active debate about society and here and there some hope. Yet at the same time, I saw clear evidence of the still dictatorial order and overwhelming presence of the old repressive security system I had studied in graduate school.

I will not forget during my stay at then Leningrad, when coming back from a party at the Consul General’s residence to celebrate our 4th of July at which some local dissidents and intellectual/literary types has been invited, the security services grabbed some of  the Russian attendees from across us and forced them into their cars. I reported this to the ConGen, but it seemed to be taken as expected situation. But in my talks with these same people and some media types, there was clearly some ray of hope and, for some, the willingness to speak with some frankness to American diplomats wanting to know their reaction to Gorbachev and the new direction he was trying to take the Soviet Union.  

Clearly, there are some analogies to the present situation. While Russia is clearly more free than in the “good old Soviet Union” days it still remains a work in progress with a dark overlay of an authoritarian, repressive, arbitrary, and corrupt society where critical and brave reporters can be murdered at will with no redress to the controlled justice system. Under Putin, control over politics and even the economy has grown more centralized and un-democratic, not less.  Media is less free.

Yet signs of progress seem, as in the case of Gorbachev’s attempted reforms, to still persist or grow in a few areas and the air of change seems from time to time to stir under blankets of oppression.  As Gorbachev has tried to speak truth to power, we in America need to be reminded that we have a large stake in the direction that Russia will take in the coming decades and that direction will in some measure be determined by whom will be president in 2012 and whether the Russian people will themselves demand greater “Perestroika” and “Glasnost.”          

Your comments are welcomed!

By Harry C. Blaney III.

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