Did Mikhail Gorbachev launch glasnost and perestroika in the mid-1980s with the aim of bringing about genuine democratic change in the Soviet Union?
That's what he says in two interviews on both sides of the Atlantic — with Euronews' Maria Pineiro and Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel — to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.
On the day Gorbachev became the new Soviet leader in March 1985, he convened a special meeting of Warsaw Pact countries' leaders to tell them, "You are independent and we are independent. You are responsible for your policies and we for ours. We will not intervene in your affairs. I promise you."
And he stuck to his promise, even when threatened Communist leaders in Eastern Europe appealed for assistance.
"Just imagine," Gorby said, "in East Germany alone, there were 300,000 Soviet troops armed to the teeth — elite troops specially selected!"
He deplored East German leaders for not coming up with their own perestroika. As a result, chaos broke out and they were paralyzed with fear. A potential explosion in East Germany prompted Gorbachev to join East German leader Erich Honecker and other Warsaw Pact representatives on Oct. 7 to watch a parade of groups from 28 communist regions.
But all the banners screamed "perestroika, democracy, change."
A former Polish prime minister said, "It means the end," and Gorbachev said he replied, "I think you're right."
Did that mean the fall of the Berlin Wall had become inevitable after the March 1989 elections in the Soviet Union? "Absolutely," Gorbachev answered.
The last Soviet soldiers had left Afghanistan the month before, defeated after a decadelong campaign. What lessons did Gorbachev draw from this conflict that might be useful for the Obama administration's predicament in Afghanistan?
First, he replied, the use of force in someone else's country usually ends badly. "It is not acceptable to impose one's own idea of order on another country without taking into account the opinion of the population. My predecessors tried to build socialism . . . where everything was in the hands of tribal and clan leaders, or of religious leaders, and where the central government was very weak. What kind of socialism could that have been? It only spoiled our relationship with a country where we had excellent relations during the previous 20 years."
Even today, Gorbachev acknowledged, he still is criticized for taking three years to pull out of Afghanistan. "We tried to solve the problem through dialogue — with America, with India, with Iran, and with both sides in Afghanistan, and we attended an international conference. We didn't simply hitch up our trousers and run for it. But we tried to solve the problem politically, with the idea of making Afghanistan a neutral, peaceful country."
But as the Soviets concluded going home was the better part of valor and prepared a "treaty of withdrawal," the United States backed the idea of "giving religious training to young Afghans — that is, the Taliban," Gorbachev said. As a result, the United States "is now fighting against them. Today again, not just America and Russia can be involved in" ending this war.
Gorbachev's conclusion is that "all of Afghanistan's neighbors must be involved. Iran cannot be ignored, and it's ill-advised for America not to be on good terms with Iran."
Asked when the Cold War actually ended in his mind — when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 or when Germany was reunified in 1990-91, or when the Soviet Union itself broke up in December 1991 — Gorbachev gave the nod to U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
"If Reagan and I had not succeeded in signing disarmament agreements and normalizing our relations in 1985-88, later developments would have been unimaginable."
And what happened "between Reagan and me would also have been unimaginable if we had not begun earlier perestroika in the Soviet Union." Without the beginning of media freedom under glasnost and economic and state restructuring with perestroika, Gorbachev maintains, the Cold War would have gone on and world economic development as we have seen since then could not have taken place "under the ever-present stark menace of nuclear war."
Gorbachev credited the Malta summit with U.S. President H.W. Bush in December 1989, a month after the Berlin Wall was torn down, as that moment in history "when we declared we were no longer enemies or adversaries."
Yet Gorbachev still contends that Americans are wrong to think they won the Cold War.
"If the new Soviet leadership and its new foreign policy had not existed, nothing would have happened. . . We were all victors in the end because we put a stop to spending $10 trillion in the Cold War, on each side."
The United States, in Gorbachev's analysis, "became dizzy with imagined success (and) saw everything as their victory (and) concluded they didn't need to change. Let others change. (This) undermined what we had envisaged for Europe — mutual collective security for everyone and a new world order. . . World leadership is now understood to mean that America gives the orders."
U.S. recipes for instant democracy and free-market capitalism spawned Russian organized crime on a global scale, and by the end of the presidency of anti-communist Boris Yeltsin, says Gorbachev, 60 percent of Russian industries lay in ruins. A non-competitive economy "became slavishly dependent on imports."
Then came the proposal that NATO be extended to the whole world, Gorbachev said. In fact, the former Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe and the three Baltic states were the only ones to be included in an enlarged NATO.
World oil prices and "a rain of dollars" enabled Russia to pull itself up by its bootstraps, Gorbachev said. "When things went bad for us, the U.S. applauded. Once again, this was a calculated attempt to hold Russia back."
Russian paranoia notwithstanding, the coming end of the Soviet empire became ineluctable with two Poles: the 1978 election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to become Pope John Paul II and Gdansk shipyard worker Lech Walesa's creation of the first free-trade union "Solidarity" in the Soviet bloc. He became president in 1990.
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