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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gorbachev Defends His Policy of Perestroika

MTGorbachev attending the opening Friday of an exhibit titled "Gorbachev: Life and Reforms," which features a collection of photographs and foreign awards.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev defended his policy of perestroika and rejected accusations that it fueled the collapse of the Soviet Union at events Friday that commemorated the 20th anniversary of his ascent to power.

Gorbachev started perestroika, which promoted more openness in the secretive country and an acceleration of the sluggish economy, shortly after being elected the general secretary of the Communist Party on March 11, 1985.

"Perestroika has won," Gorbachev said at a news conference Friday. "It led our society to reject totalitarianism."

The policy also led to the pauperization of a large part of the population and the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet bloc's answer to NATO.

Gorbachev, however, dismissed any responsibility for that. "There will always be attempts to find a scapegoat," he said.

However, Gorbachev acknowledged making three mistakes. He said he should have drastically reformed the Communist Party, decentralized the Soviet Union earlier to prevent republics from breaking free, and fed more consumer goods to the market in 1990 and 1991. A shortage of goods coupled with growing inflation caused his popularity to tumble, he said.

"I can't take moral responsibility off myself for those [mistakes]," he said.

Gorbachev's remarks came as a new poll found many people continue to believe his reforms were a mistake and cost Russia its superpower status.

Some 56 percent of Russians think the changes led to mainly negative results, while only 22 percent approve of them, according to the poll by the respected Levada Center.

Almost half, or 48 percent, said the country would have been better off if Gorbachev had kept the pre-1985 system in place, and 36 percent said the country could have remained a superpower without the changes.

Alexei Grazhdankin, a sociologist with Levada Center, said the results were not surprising because many people believe the reforms robbed them of economic stability and prospects for the future. "Values of freedom and democracy mean much less to people than the drop in their living standards that resulted from Gorbachev's reforms," Grazhdankin said.

In an indication of why Russians feel so negatively about Grobachev's policies, a separate recent poll found that 50 percent of the population believes Stalin and his socialist policies played a positive role in the development of the country. That poll was conducted by the state-controlled All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center.

Only a few people -- mainly the young and residents of big cities such as Moscow -- had any opportunity to benefit from Gorbachev's reforms, Grazhdankin said.

In the mid-1980s, however, most people welcomed the arrival of perestroika and the chance to travel abroad, open private businesses and read once-banned literature. The economic decline did not become evident until after the Soviet breakup in 1991.

Gorbachev is blamed now because people initially had very high expectations, said Alexei Makarkin, political analyst with the Center for Political Technologies.

"All hope was placed in him, and all failures are being blamed on him," Makarkin said.

Former senior Soviet officials also have expressed disapproval of Gorbachev's policies. "We went down the wrong path, and the result is known," retired General Vladimir Kryuchkov, who headed the KGB from 1988 to 1991, said by telephone. "We lost a great power and a people's government."

Gorbachev, who in recent years has been a mild supporter of President Vladimir Putin, recently accused Putin of curbing democratic freedoms and his government of poorly handling social reforms, particularly a law to monetize state benefits.

Gorbachev said on Ekho Moskvy radio on Saturday that the government should be fired over bungled social reforms, and because ministers have strayed from Putin's policies.

"The president is pursuing a very different course from the one set out in his state of the nation address when he was elected for a second term," Gorbachev said.

"At the time he was talking about policies that were in the interest of the majority, about the development of small business, about free education and medicine, but suddenly it's all about old people and the whole thing has lost its way.

"It wasn't the president who chose that path -- it's not up to him and he needs support. I want to be clear: Either the president says goodbye to half the government or he sacks them all. He just has to take a deep breath and say: 'Let it be so.'"

As part of the perestroika anniversary events, Gorbachev attended the opening Friday of an exhibit titled "Gorbachev: Life and Reforms" at the Gorbachev Foundation. The exhibit features photographs of Gorbachev addressing party functionaries and people at various meetings and gesturing and chatting at summits with his foreign counterparts. It also includes foreign awards bestowed on Gorbachev during perestroika.