Putin Isn’t the Only Russian Leader to Get in The New York Times

Mikhail Gorbachev’s writing in the paper of record stands in contrast to Putin’s latest.

Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 12, 2012.
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Sept. 12, 2013, 7:07 a.m.

In 2010, a Rus­si­an lead­er took to the op-ed pages of The New York Times to is­sue a warn­ing about civic life in his coun­try. He wrote of “the acute struggle un­der­way between demo­crat­ic and an­ti­demo­crat­ic tend­en­cies,” say­ing that “if the an­ti­demo­crat­ic tend­ency is not re­versed, all the gains of the pre­vi­ous years — not just the demo­crat­ic pro­cess but even the much vaunted sta­bil­ity — will be jeop­ard­ized.”

Vladi­mir Putin’s Thursday op-ed in the Times might be the most talked-about column from a Rus­si­an pres­id­ent. But it’s by no means the first. Since 2000, Mikhail Gorbachev — the last pres­id­ent of the So­viet Uni­on — has writ­ten more than a dozen op-eds for the pa­per of re­cord, opin­ing on everything from the U.S.-Rus­si­an re­set to the death of Mar­garet Thatch­er. Un­der-rid­ing most of his writ­ings is worry for his coun­try, and a kind of an­ti­dote to the swag­ger Putin put for­ward Thursday.

In a March 2010 op-ed, Gorbachev poin­ted to the year 2000 — when Putin took the helm — as “when I began to worry about the fu­ture of demo­cracy in Rus­sia.” Gorbachev wrote that “the trans­fer of power to [Bor­is Yeltsin’s] ap­poin­ted heir” was “demo­crat­ic in form but not in sub­stance.” Gorbachev writes that he was sup­port­ive of “de­cis­ive, tough meas­ures” taken in Putin’s first term, but that “sta­bil­iz­ing the coun­try can­not be the only or the fi­nal goal…. Rus­sia will pro­gress with con­fid­ence only if it fol­lows a demo­crat­ic path. Re­cently, there have been a num­ber of set­backs in this re­gard.” What are those, ex­actly?

For in­stance, all ma­jor de­cisions are now taken by the ex­ec­ut­ive branch, with the Par­lia­ment rub­ber-stamp­ing form­al ap­prov­al. The in­de­pend­ence of the courts has been thrown in­to ques­tion. We do not have a party sys­tem that would en­able a real ma­jor­ity to win while also tak­ing the minor­ity opin­ion in­to ac­count and al­low­ing an act­ive op­pos­i­tion. There is a grow­ing feel­ing that the gov­ern­ment is afraid of civil so­ci­ety and would like to con­trol everything.

“What’s hold­ing Rus­sia back,” Gorbachev wrote, “is fear.”

It’s no sur­prise that Gorbachev and Putin don’t agree with one an­oth­er. In a March in­ter­view with the BBC, Gorbachev said that Putin’s in­ner circle is full of “thieves and cor­rupt of­fi­cials” and that the pres­id­ent needs to “not be afraid of his own people.” As protests picked up in Decem­ber 2011, Gorbachev called on Putin to step down. Putin, for his part, has par­tially blamed Gorbachev’s late So­viet re­forms for Rus­sia’s prob­lems in the 1990s.

But even though Putin has largely suc­ceeded in re­cent months at stifling op­pos­i­tion, that doesn’t mean that his voice is the only one com­ing out of Rus­sia. It’s not even the only one that’s been run in The New York Times. So sure, Putin can write in the Gray Lady that “we must not for­get that God cre­ated us equal,” while he in­sti­tutes an­ti­gay laws. Be­cause it only takes a five-second search of The Times archive to find his op­pos­i­tion.

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