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EUROPE: FIVE YEARS LATER : Gorbachev's Dawn: 'Freedom of Choice for Every Nation' : Last Soviet leader is out of limelight now. He recalls beginning of change in Eastern Europe.

November 01, 1994|Sonni Efron

The walls of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's office are eerily bare, as though he does not plan to stay there long.

On one wall hangs a color photograph of Mt. Fuji, a gift from Japanese environmentalists, and in a corner stands a grandfather clock presented to Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, by a group of visiting South Korean legislators a few weeks ago. His tidy desk has a small lamp with a green shade, a modern version of the green glass lamp that graced the desk of the first Soviet leader, V.I. Lenin.

There are no photographs of Gorbachev with other world leaders, no holy relics of the history he helped reshape, no personal memorabilia, no sign that he was the central figure in Europe's drama of five years ago. At 63, he looks fitter than his old rival, Boris N. Yeltsin, full of energy and anxious to end what amounts to an internal political exile in Moscow.

Aides say he is an unreformed workaholic whose days routinely end at 2 a.m. In addition to running the Gorbachev Foundation, a combination think tank and presidential library with about 120 employees, Gorbachev is also president of the Green Cross, the Russian branch of an international environmental group. Recently, he completed a 1,000-page, two-volume memoir that will be published in five languages next year.

After his fall from power, Gorbachev was allowed to move back into the dacha in the western suburbs of Moscow that he occupied when he first came to the city in 1978 as Central Committee secretary for agriculture, aides said. There he takes a long daily walk with his wife, Raisa. She has slowly regained her health, which was damaged during the failed coup of August, 1991.

Relations with Yeltsin remain poor. Gorbachev, who abhorred violence, denounced Yeltsin for resorting to shelling the Russian Parliament building last year to quash a hard-line revolt.

For his part, Yeltsin has stripped Gorbachev of most of his office space, almost all of his perks, and according to Gorbachev's aides, much of his access to the media. Television correspondents tape interviews with the former Soviet leader that mysteriously never air. Aides blame an increasingly tame media for complying with an unofficial ban by the Yeltsin government on giving Gorbachev too much press.

Gorbachev won't say whether he will run for elected office in Russia. But he has called for the formation of a centrist coalition of social democrats to provide a reformist alternative to Yeltsin.

In an interview with Times correspondent Sonni Efron, Gorbachev recalled the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Question. What were you thinking as it became clear that Eastern Europe was falling away from the Soviet Union, and how do you see those events now?

Answer. This was a time when our rejection of the Brezhnev doctrine (which declared Moscow's right to intervene militarily to rescue a Communist regime under threat) was already being tested most severely. It began in the first days when I was organizing (Konstantin U.) Chernenko's funeral (in March, 1985), and immediately after I became the general secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee.

I called for a meeting. It was not reported to the news media. We discussed--I told them--that we would make a statement firmly supporting the position that we had declared more than once before: equality, independence and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. Every (Communist) party is responsible for what it does in its own country.

I think my colleagues were not paying proper attention to these words. Perhaps it was because at that time there had been so many similar statements and everything had remained as before: strictly controlled.

From that time on, this was our policy. Yes, of course we interacted. We took the initiative on many issues, especially on disarmament. But at the same time, we supported proposals from the other Warsaw Pact countries.

Of course, this was a novelty. Until then, usually initiatives had come from the Soviet Union. Well, except for an occasional eccentric move by (Romanian President Nicolae) Ceausescu. Sometimes, in order to demonstrate his independence, he would make some moves, as you remember. Yes, he made some proposals, but this was rather an exception, eccentric behavior.

In general, everything was canonized and directed by the Soviet Union. Not anymore.

But that was the beginning, the recognition of freedom of choice for every nation.

The other element of the new thinking was not to meddle. That a nation, whether it be the United States, the Soviet Union, China or any other country, should not impose its will, its interests, its model, on other nations, but should seek a balance and harmonization of interests, however difficult or complex that might be.

These are two elements of new thinking: recognition of freedom of choice for every nation and a balance of interests. This was the revolution.

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