Page last updated at 13:37 GMT, Sunday, 20 September 2009 14:37 UK

Gorbachev defends controversial legacy

By Brian Hanrahan
BBC News

Mikhail Gorbachev, 2008
Mikhail Gorbachev, now 78, insists he brought many benefits to Russia

Mikhail Gorbachev is remarkably serene about his record as the last leader of the Soviet Union.

He says he expected a different outcome, but he would do it all over again.

It was Mr Gorbachev's policies that sparked the 1989 revolutions which swept away communism in Eastern Europe.

But Russia, too, went through a metamorphosis - and after the loss of the Soviet empire two years later, it was the Soviet Union itself that fell apart.

The result is that for many Russians, Mr Gorbachev's years in the Kremlin remain bitterly contentious.

Greater freedom

Before this interview I was expecting to find a rather grumpy curmudgeon, worn down by the carping of his countrymen.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, Nov 1989
The fall of the Berlin Wall swiftly led to the reunification of Germany

Instead I meet a genial and relaxed 78-year-old, who sweeps into the room, without tie and without aides, and insists on shaking hands with everyone before settling down for the interview.

But once we start he defends his record robustly.

He ticks off, in quick-fire sentences, the benefits he brought to Russia, which he says people are still enjoying today - more freedom and a reordering of Russia's relations with the world.

"I think that '89 was certainly change for the better - no doubt about it. We did not have… the necessary freedom, particularly freedom of speech," he says.

"One of the most educated countries in the world had elections that - let's put it mildly - were not real elections, half-elections - because you had a choice of just the one candidate."

"A lot needed to be done at that time. We needed change."

Brian Hanrahan
The fall of the Berlin Wall brought joy to much of the world - but Margaret Thatcher and France's President Mitterrand were worried
BBC Diplomatic editor Brian Hanrahan

The most spectacular change was the fall of the Berlin Wall, after which Germany drove full-speed towards reunification.

Mr Gorbachev was against it - and so, he learnt, were Mrs Thatcher and France's President Mitterrand.

But he discovered that the Western leaders were relying on him to block the process.

"They insisted unification should not go on, that the process should be stopped," he says.

"I asked them if they had any suggestions. They had only one - that somebody else should pull their chestnuts out of the fire."

He says they wanted him to say no and send troops, then adds: "That would be irresponsible. They were mistaken."

He repeats it for emphasis: "They were mistaken".

He feels let down by Western leaders who he thinks took advantage of Russian weakness in the 1990s, and are to quick to criticise now when Russia asserts itself.

A 'non-person'

The interview is taking place in the Gorbachev Foundation - a modern purpose-built block on the outskirts of Moscow.

It is a bit like a US presidential library with archives from his time in office, a library for researchers and an exhibition of the awards and tributes to the man who effectively reshaped our world.

It's astonishing that one man - though facing stern internal opposition - could give history such a decisive push
BBC Diplomatic editor Brian Hanrahan

Among them is the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1990.

But despite the international acclaim, in Russian politics Mr Gorbachev is something of non-person.

And he picks his words carefully - praising Vladimir Putin personally, as the man who stabilised the country, but leaving no doubt he sees a lot wrong with the way the country is run.

He dismisses United Russia, the dominant party which backs Mr Putin, as nothing more that a bad copy of the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And he believes what Russia needs now is more democracy.

"We need to transform our country; we need to modernise our country," he says.

"This cannot be done by pressure, by issuing commands and orders and administrative commands. It can only be done through democracy, by establishing a free and democratic environment with people's participation."

Its clear, though, that he thinks this is something for Russians to sort out, without lectures from the outside world.

So what if Mr Putin is a bit harsh sometimes - that, he says, is a matter of style. And so too is the current tandem leadership, split between the prime minister Mr Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Voters' rights

Vladimir Putin, September 2009
Mr Gorbachev warns against a possible return by Mr Putin to the presidency

What does provoke him are recent hints from Mr Putin that he may be contemplating a return to the presidency in 2012 which could see him running the country for another 12 years.

Mr Gorbachev remarks waspishly: "I didn't like the phrase 'I will sit down with the president and we will decide'."

"I think that it should be decided by the voters - by the people, and I didn't hear him mention the people. I don't think that this is right."

The one charge about his own time in power that Mr Gorbachev acknowledges is that he may have pushed change too quickly.

Today he leaves the impression that it is not coming fast enough.

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