Gorbachev Steered Things in a Constructive Way

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INTERVIEW WITH PAVEL R. PALAZCHENKO

Pavel Palazchenko has been an advisor and translator for Mikhail Gorbachev since 1985. During perestroika, he worked out of the foreign ministry and later the presidential office and also advised and interpreted for Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. He currently is a consultant at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow. His memoirs appeared as My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1997). In this interview, he speaks about the origins of new political thinking, of the Kremlin's reaction to the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe and German reunification, of relations with President George H. W. Bush, and the ability of Gorbachev to "frame issues in ways that made people think realistically and responsibly."

Demokratizatsiya: Gorbachev has admitted many mistakes in economic reforms, in cadre policies, and in other fields. But in foreign policy, I get the sense that he is proud of what he achieved. But if he could do it all over again in this field, what would he do differently?

Palazchenko: That's an interesting question that perhaps we should ask him directly. But I sense that you are right. Of those various aspects of perestroïka that you mention, it is foreign policy that he would probably change the least. My feeling is that on subtler, finer points, such as whether it was wise in Reykjavik to tie together the entire package of nuclear issues-including ABMs [antiballistic missiles], strategic weapons, and INF [intermediate range nuclear forces]there would be some rethinking. Or whether it was such a good idea when President George Bush senior started his reassessment of policy towards the USSR-which took six to eight months and which, in my opinion, was a waste of time-whether perhaps it would have been better for Gorbachev to insist that they should hit the ground running, to find a way to compel Bush to act more swiftly. Perhaps he should have looked into that possibility. Or, perhaps, whether after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan there should have been an effort made to continue to work together with the Americans, Pakistanis, Indians, and others, to put together some coalition government in order to prevent the Taliban from taking over the country. Whether it was wise to let the Afghans, after our withdrawal, to just simmer in their own juices.

So, there were a number of things that he may have wanted to reconsider, but they were not, I believe, of fundamental importance, and certainly different decisions could have been taken on each one of those three issues, and I suspect there could be more. But that would not change the overall direction, and I believe that this overall direction was very important and did a lot to really establish a pattern of cooperative security, of partnership, of addressing issues and not letting go, not allowing the disagreements on peripheral issues and sometimes very important issues to affect the overall attitude of cooperation. I believe that all of those things were established at that time-and they weren't in the subsequent years. And even now when, for example, during the war in Iraq it turned out that Russia and the United States had very substantial differences on a major issue, I think it is in part because of the Gorbachev-Reagan example that Russia and the United States did not allow that issue to overwhelm the entire relationship, even to set the tone for the entire relationship. Again, I think the roots of that go back to the years of perestroïka and I think the pattern was set at that time. And I think that our leaders including, by the way, Yeltsin and Clinton, including Putin and Bush, showed that they are sticking to that general approach that was developed during those years at the end of the cold war and the establishment of a pattern of cooperation.

Demokratizatsiya: You mentioned Bush senior and the reassessment of policy towards the USSR when he came to power. …