‘West spreads its democracy like coffee in bags, but people need to make own choice’ – Gorbachev

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev © Ramil Sitdikov
Western leaders have long followed the policy of imposing democratic values in countries without the consent of the people of those nations, Mikhail Gorbachev says, noting this was partly to blame for the USSR’s collapse.

The former Soviet leader spoke to Interfax ahead of the 25th anniversary of the aborted 1991 coup that brought about the end of the Soviet Union.

“At the time, I told the Americans: you are trying to impose your democracy on the people of different countries, spreading it around like coffee in bags, but we must give the people a chance to make their own choice. But they continued and continue to pursue this foreign policy. Even President Obama, democratically elected and enjoying in this regard a significant authority in the country, could not change this course – the course on imposing one-legged solutions. However, I doubt that he wanted to,” Gorbachev said.

Gorbachev, whose strategic aims brought about the end of the Cold War, blamed the West for applauding the USSR’s collapse instead of aiding the country as it didn’t want the union to be a “powerful democratic state.” 

“They did not want the Soviet Union to become a powerful democratic state. It would guarantee that neither the policy of unilateral measures, nor the policy of US domination in global affairs would work, and some American politicians saw Gorbachev as an obstacle to their plans,” the first and the only Soviet president further explained.

“And then, when they made a bid for Boris Yeltsin, their goal was the same – to prevent the emergence of Russia as a powerful democratic state. Remember, when the [Soviet] Union collapsed, what was the West’s reaction to this tragic event? They said, ‘this is a gift from God.’ And when Russia was on its back, the US president openly applauded the Russian leadership of the time,” Gorbachev added.

The politician, however, declared that foreign interference was not the major factor that contributed to the union’s downfall, stating that the country’s authorities and he himself were late with reforms which were strongly needed in the USSR. 

“The timing was bad, we were late when we [were getting ready] to launch [reforms], reshaping the entire system of managing the [Soviet] Union. 

“Member-republics grew stronger… We have come to realize that there were contradictions, that the old shape of the Union no longer meets the needs of the country, [it] had to be reformed, decentralized, but not destroyed.

“We realized that we were pressed for time, we were preparing the New Union Treaty, but our opponents also knew that tomorrow would be too late. 

“[…] I was sure that only a fool would try to break it all. But...”

Defenders of democracy near USSR Council of Ministers [Gosplan USSR] talking to crew of armored personnel deployed in Moscow August 19, 1991 after members of the so-called Committee for the State of Emergency declared a state of emergency in the Soviet capital. © Sergey Subbotin

Gorbachev said however that the coup did not come as a surprise. He mentioned a number of “attempts to ruin perestroika, mingle with the process of democratization” in the country, which he effectively suppressed. In his own words, his major mistake was letting confidence in the success of his policies grow into arrogance, which brought about the coup.

“I was absolutely convinced that we were on the right track, and that I was able to resist the forces that stand in the way of perestroika [the process of restructuring the state].

“Without confidence in that, I would not have been able to finish the job of getting everyone’s agreement on the text of the New Union Treaty. I have to say that at some point this confidence grew into arrogance, and perhaps this was my main mistake,” Gorbachev contemplated.

During his years as leader of the USSR, Gorbachev attempted to reform the stagnating Communist Party and the state economy by introducing a variety of democratic reforms. However, critics say that the further he democratized the union, the less control he had over it, as was shown by the events of late August 1991 – known in Russia as the ‘failed Soviet coup’ or ‘Putsch.’

Then, several members of the Soviet leadership, including the defense minister and the head of the KGB, tried to disrupt the signing of the New Union Treaty between the USSR’s member-republics. On August 19, 20 and 21 they isolated Gorbachev in his residence in Crimea, where he was on vacation, and created the State Emergency Committee (GKChP), with one of the members, Gennady Yanayev, declaring himself president of the USSR. 

The GKChP rolled tanks into Moscow, but the leadership of the Russian Republic, headed by Boris Yeltsin, organized resistance. Following his call, thousands of people gathered around the White House to support Yeltsin and the coup failed three days later. 

Despite being restored to power after the failed coup, Gorbachev was politically destroyed by it and resigned, dissolving the Party units within the government and thus destroying the sole unifying force that held the Soviet Union together. 

Soon after, the Russian Federation took over the institutions of the former unified state, and the USSR broke into independent republics.