This week has seen the sad spectacle of the 80 year-old last Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, Mikhail Sergeivich Gorbachev during an interview with the BBC's Bridget Kendal railing against Russia’s current Prime Minister and de facto ruler, Vlldimir Vladimirovich Putin.
In the interview, conducted on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the coup that four months later led to the dissolution of the USSR, “Gorby” stated, "Putin and his team are for stability but stability kills development and results in stagnation. The electoral system we had was nothing remarkable but they have literally castrated it."
It is a sad image of a man seeking to reinvent not only his place in history, but appeal to his fellow countrymen who have definitely spurned him.
Chinese Premier Chou En Lai, when asked about his opinion of the Russian revolution, said, “It’s too soon to tell.” The same can be said for the momentous events of 20 years ago which led to fracturing of the world’s largest nation, to be replaced by 15 independent nations.
The West had two overriding concerns in the disintegration of the USSR – the U.S. in particular was focused on the Soviet military presence, while Europe fixated on supplies of Soviet natural gas, which had begun in the early 1970s, much to the annoyance of the Reagan administration.
While the Russian Federation still fields nuclear weapons, their numbers are much diminished and the confrontational Marxist-Leninist ideology that deployed them is long gone.
As for Russian deliveries of natural gas, they continue to rise. Between 1970 and 1980, deliveries of Soviet gas to Western Europe increased sharply from 3.4 billion cubic meters to 26 billion cubic meters a year. The completion of the Urengoy-Uzhgorod export pipeline project increased the importance of Soviet natural gas to Western Europe in the second half of the 1980s. In 1984 France, Austria, West Germany and Italy began receiving natural gas from western Siberia through the pipeline, for which the Soviet Union was paid in hard currency, pumping equipment, and large-diameter pipe. By 1990, total Soviet gas exports had risen to 109 billion cubic meters, and Western Europe, with 63 billion cubic meters of imports, was the largest buyer of Soviet gas. Gazprom exported a total of 82.55 bcm of gas to Western Europe in the first half of 2011, up 17 percent year on year. When at the height of the Cold War, Soviet natural gas exports to Europe ran like clockwork and will continue to do so even now, as energy exports are Russia’s biggest export earner.
But back to ideology.
Upon becoming the USSR’s General Secretary in 1985 Gorbachev consistently strove to present a benign image in the West, which the obtuse media eagerly lapped up.
But the truth was that Gorbachev was former General Secretary Yuri Andropov’s handpicked successor. Andropov, a humorless former KGB chief, who lasted only 15 months following the death of Leonid Brezhnev and was succeeded briefly by the 74 year-old Konstantin Chernenko, until his death 13 months later, after which the Brezhnev gerontocrat apparatchiki cleaned out their desks and Gorbachev got the Big Chair.
Why this history lesson? Because Andropov was no reformer, far from it, and focused on cracking down on corruption, which he saw as a cancer on the Soviet economy, and his protégé did the same. Few people remember today that you could be executed for economic crimes in the USSR. As for Gorbachev’s vaunted “perestroika” campaign, it was designed to open up the system enough to allow people to rat out their thieving bosses with less fear of reprisal. And Gorbachev was smart enough to understand the power of the media in the West, so he threw them a few human rights bones.
But by the summer of 1991, it was obvious to all but the most deluded Communists that the Soviet economy was in deep trouble, with corruption sucking out its vitality like an intelligent parasitic tumor. Something needed to be done – but what?
Gorbachev had already seen what pent-up demand for reform looked like as he visited Beijing in April 1989. "They couldn't take Gorbachev in the front door of the Great Hall of the People because there were more than a million people in the square asking for reform," said Cynde Strand, CNN's cameraperson in Beijing at the time. "The students upstaged Deng in one of his biggest moments, his big rapprochement with the Soviet Union." Three days after Gorbachev was hustled in the back door, the troops were sent into Tiananmen Square.
And Gorbachev, being schooled in Soviet history, no doubt remembered in the summer of 1991 the dolorous example of Russia’s “Bloody Sunday in January 1905, when Tsarist troops shot down 100s of peaceful petitioners in St. Petersburg’s Palace Square, igniting a smoldering resentment among the Russian populace that exploded into revolution that spring, culminating 12 years later with the triumph of Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
Gorbachev’s part in the 19-21 August 1991 “coup” remains murky. The image of the time was that he was held under house arrest in the Crimea while the “State Emergency Committee” attempted to seize power and restore order. But an interview published shortly afterwards with the Crimean KGB chief saw him state that he had never received orders to shut down Gorbachev’s communications with Moscow and that he was in fact in communication with the Kremlin the entire time. Was the “State Emergency Committee” merely a front, an elaborate act of theater where the dirty work would be done, allowing Gorbachev to return back to slap the conspirators on the wrists? We’ll likely have to wait even longer than Chou en Lai for an answer to that.
The hero of that August was Boris Yeltsin, and when Gorbachev returned to Moscow, the forces inadvertently unleashed by his ‘perestroika and glasnost campaigns were too powerful to be resigned and Gorbachev resigned four months later.
So now, we have the unhappy image of a man in the twilight of his life trying to shore up his legacy in a country where his fellow citizens are at best indifferent to him. In the last two decades Russia has moved on and whatever else one might say about Putin, he has stabilized the economy and ended the egregious “Wild East” kleptocratic practices of the Yeltsin years.
In a weird way, the images of Putin and Gorbachev mirror each other, one is wildly popular at home, the other deeply respected in the West.
And the gas deliveries? They continue to run like clockwork.
By. John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com