Georgy Arbatov (German unification), 1990

Interviewed Sept 1990 in Moscow
Interviewer: Gwynne Dyer

MS: Arbatov was in the middle of discussing how they have been saved by accident and not through their own visions and so he would not regret that pact [I don’t know what pact].

… But we are now promoting a notion of security which will include not only disarmament and confidence building measures, verification, etc. , not only the political sphere (which includes the negotiation of regional conflicts), but also economic. We should include very firm commitments to the nonuse of force. And it should include the recognition of the right of each country for its own choices. It means a rule of law. He is also for building the international community, there are strong legal principles, international law. The United Nations and other organizations should be guardians of the law, including the World Court, etc. but these are far-reaching plans.This all-embracing security system includes economic plans because there cannot be security when there is such a polarization of wealth. Also a solution of debt problems, and humanitarian sphere.

We have a different attitude now toward human rights. Also, recognition that you have somehow to clarify the minds of peoples. It should be consistent enlightenment of people toward doing away with prejudices — racial, political, religious, etc. and helping to know the other people better. Helping the ability to live in this tremendously different world that is more and more interdependent. We don’t want the military pacts left until this final goal is materialized because this will take some time and we are realists. We have concluded that there can be no winning a nuclear war; we cannot have a nuclear war, and in Europe you cannot even have a conventional war. You have 200 nuclear reactors. There are toxic chemicals in storage, lying around, and so we are aware that time has run out. You cannot wage war in Europe. If everybody agrees, then you can take the next step. Why do we need military alliances? Maybe there will be political alliances and there will be differences for quite a time. Whatever the Polish politicians may say now, I think they will see in time that there are not easy solutions to this question. You cannot step out of an alliance and be fed indefinitely by the other side.

In Eastern Europe I think they are not quite ready. They have the solution that only the Russians kept them from living in plenty. But now they will have a chance to learn that they cannot work as they are used to and live like people in the Western countries. There is a certain resistance to economic reforms. People have forgotten how to work hard and take risks, some of them prefer not to live too well but not to take risks or work hard.

Dyer: Dismantling the alliances in Europe almost inevitably will bring up the question of the reunification of Germany.

Arbatov: I am not sure that it will. I can’t guarantee what will happen in fifty years, but as I can read the mood now I don’t see that many of them want reunification in terms of one state. Visits and cooperation can be developed between two states. As to one state, I don’t think anybody would like it. Because for 42 years they existed as two states, those two Germanys and it is quite a time. There are serious differences. I don’t see that this problem in any way creates a problem for W. German economic development. Politically I think it helps because it helps reassure the neighbors, who historically have some reasons to be fearful of Germany, in the West, not only in the East. And anything of this sort would destabilize Europe because it cannot be isolated. There are problems of borders, etc. This was in the back of the heads of the people when they discussed the Helsinki Act. The Helsinki Process includes among its most important principles, no changes of the borders.

Dyer: The reason I bring it up is that my perception is that the W. Germans don’t want to deal with this question, nor do we all, but there is a hemorrhage of population into W. Germany.

One can see a time — not in 25 years but in one or two years — when the only unreformed country in E. Europe is going to be E. Germany, isolated even from the Soviet Union, which is also reforming. It is difficult to believe that that regime can hold out against the disaffection of its own people, so we will have to deal with it, whether we want to or not.

Arbatov: This is a very sensitive point for us. We cannot discuss the internal affairs of our allies. We have learned the hard way to abstain from commenting on that. It is now our position and I think it is a good development that we don’t interfere. It is for their people to decide. They might commit mistakes. We know it, but I don’t see any chance for any nations not to develop, either in the West or the East. History works in just this way, that a situation develops. Germany is Germany. But I think economically it has done not so badly. If they feel there is a need for reforms in other fields, they will do it.

Dyer: There is a widespread perception that there is a shift of power away from the party and from the Central Committee, which you are on, into the Congress of People’s Deputies. Is that what President Gorbachev intended?

Arbatov: There was a certain deformation of political system after Lenin. Lenin never saw the party as an instrument of power. He saw it as a political vanguard, and he saw as the basis of power the Soviets elected by people, from municipal level — village up to the highest level of government. Stalin deformed it, and it becomes more obvious now how he did it. What Lenin wanted to change, he didn’t do it. It was a clandestine party that worked under terrorist regime. When it became a ruling party it had to change tremendously, and it started to change in the early twenties. It couldn’t change very much during the civil war. But Stalin brought this process to an end and made the out of the party an instrument of open meeting power. Which was [unclear here.] Of course there were other structures of power. But actually they had not much room for exercising their power. [??] And this deformation is one of intentions of Gorbachev, of perestroika, and of the party, if you take the Party as a party, twenty million people. And I think a majority of the Central Committee would agree with that. You know, you have to give to the God what belongs to the God and to the king what belongs to the king. It was not effective, also, to try to impose upon the party responsibility for the economic life. It was never responsibility. Party didn’t carry the responsibility, and here was the bad trick. It could tell the collective farmer what to do and what not to do, etc. Then it went bankrupt because it had no responsibility as bureaucrats. It got the whole wealth of the state. From the cadre, it was paid. And we saw it was not effective at all. It was bad everywhere. A big party bureaucracy was created, as well as a non-party governmental _..

And this has to be done away with. At the same time, the party has a very serious role to play—different from in many of the Western countries, though there are also differences in the West also. In the United States, for example, the party is only the mechanism for elections. Even the platform which it works out before elections is not obligatory to those who win. He doesn’t commit himself to that platform. Here I think the party’s role is the role of intellectual and political vanguard which has to draw to itself the more active and intelligent part of this society. Also, gain such reputation and moral authority that it will be recognized.

It was also not correct from the point of view of simple democratic rules. I am a member of the Central Committee, but I felt it always that the party, though it is a mass organization, about ten percent of the population if you exclude children. Why should it, in normal times, for many decades after the revolution, with other means of persuasion, try to impose their policy upon the whole population? It made the whole population passive, and then the party cannot carry the burden. This was one of our weaknesses and we are now at the initial stage of political reform. The next year will be critical. I hope we will be successful at it. I think everybody has to hope for that. What we are trying now, we are building a parliament. It is not yet an experienced parliament. Some things look awful and are very bad indeed, and there is not a very high political culture — not many democratic and parliamentarian positions, but I think all of this is well known. What is astonishing is how well we do it in a short time. We started in May. People change just before your eyes. There is an outcrop of new people who promise to become leaders.

DYER: The implications of what you are saying are clear but I think I should pursue the matter more explicitly. Why, indeed, should the party impose other than by persuasion on the rest of the population? If it is the vanguard, it can declare itself to be so but it is only the agreement of other people that will make it so. The implication of this and of building a parliament is, I think of course, a fully democratic electoral system in which all deputies are elected directly, rather than chosen by organizations, and a multi-party system. Is that correct?

A: As to the electoral law, I think that for this election it was correct and not only because I was elected by the academy of sciences also, (direct election) but it was tremendously competitive. About ten people competed for one place. The campaign was really difficult. But I think that there are already a few things that will be changed. There is pressure on the Supreme Soviet because we have before us the second stage of political reform — elections to the republics and the regions, and after all to the grass roots. And already electoral law has to be changed. It requires some changes to the constitution and the dispute is underway on how to do it. To postpone it to the next Congress of Deputies, which will be maybe December, or we can do it just by having their consent, by sending out to them the project and trying to get them there. Changes of their proposals and views. And I think it will change. I think the next election to the all-union parliament will be a different one. We will learn. So it is not a matter of principle, it is just a matter of development. I think that what we did was not perfect, but it worked. And it is behind us so we have to think about the future.

If you take the essence, there were more differences of opinion than one party. And here I begin to answer your second question, than you have differences of opinion in multiparty systems in many Western countries. As to the parties, in principle socialism doesn’t require a one-party system, so it can be either way. It doesn’t exclude a multi-party system. And I don’t know how it will happen in my country in the faraway future. If a proposal were introduced today, I would be against it. Because I know that almost for 100% that the parties will be established by national allegiance. It will be national parties, which will be very bad. Then the country will be split nationally and Canadians must understand that they have a very mild problem with francophone Canadians, because here you have to deal with different cultures, languages, history, even alphabets sometimes, different economic stages of development, belong to different continents and different cultures. And if we would introduce a multi-party system now it would work in an adverse way. But we should try to develop as much as possible all democratic institutions which should be introduced in a one-party system. The number one problem is the democratization of the party itself.

Yesterday there were elections in Ukraine and 240 candidates were there and it went in the direction that you elect party functionaries only by having alternative elections, two three four hundred candidates. Of course you can manipulate it, make it look not so. Manipulation belongs to politics. You have a lot of them in the west in multiparty systems and there might be some here. We have to find the manipulations. There were several figures and the elections were real. And it has to come from the grassroots. Some things have to be changed in the minds of party members. It was a very disciplined party. Party discipline was the number one law of the party. It goes deep into the past. You have to understand the difficulty of the party under conditions of terror. There has to be some party discipline. Without discipline there is no party, but it has to be discipline which is not imposed upon you, it comes from your own feeling and understanding and belonging to the cause, and which doesn’t exclude far-reaching discussion. Which guarantees the rights of minorities, which we still have to learn to deal with.

The first approach to democracy is that it means “the rule of the people.” The views of the majorities have to be implemented, but the second stage in the development of democracy is to care about the rights of minorities because each new idea starts with a minority — sometimes a minority of one. And then it goes through a long process of evolution and becomes a dogma, a tyranny maybe, and the new ideas come and substitute for it. So there are quite a number of things involved in this change in the character of the party — the system of election, change of many institutions and fields of activity in which the party was active. In the Central Committee, quite a number of departments were abolished, who had to supervise concrete economic fields, like heavy industry, light industry, chemical industry, etc.

Dyer: If it works in the sense that both the democratization of the party and the economic reform succeed in 5 or 10 years, how rapidly could the SU make up all the lost ground. It is the poorest major industrialized country, and a long way behind in living standards. And there is an intellectual lag too among many people, who haven’t got the same expectations or work habits. How quickly could those be closed? What would the SU look like with rapid success?

Arbatov: It depends on the measure of success of the reform. If we are successful it can work rather quickly, but of course not overnight. Building a modern infrastructure — fine roads, utilities, etc. — will take a lot of investments and quite a time. It will take some time, but I think the next decade can bring tremendously visible changes. I think most people are reasonable. The crucial task is to show some visible and steady improvements — in food supplies, consumer goods, housing, medical care, and social problems. Then we will win the support of the people. And if the leadership commands the support of the people, I think it can be done quickly. You have a tremendous intellectual potential in this country. What remains is that we are a scientific superpower and this, if we learn to use it to the full, and learn how to integrate our economy in the international system of division of labor, we can also make the progress quicker. I would say, and what we need is some results in the next year or year and a half. If we win this battle, then I think we will see dramatic changes in the next ten years. It will not bring us up to the most developed western countries, but there will be much less difference. And the country is rich in natural resources and in people. We will find that despite continuous fight against entrepreneurs, they survive somehow and from the moment we have given them a little space, they started to appear. Of course people have some prejudices and this is one of them, this egalitarian mentality, very backward like Luddites, they don’t want to destroy machines but they don’t understand that you have to have entrepreneurs and you have to give them freedom of movement and it’s not necessary, what was produced means something. It can be an idea or something like this. It is a difficult task before us, and you have the expression of outmoded, ruinous opinions. But then when it comes to a vote you see that it is not always 100% correct but it is a reasonable decision. I think that if you give them more time. Glasnost has done a lot in four years, but the crucial thing, I tell you is next year or a year and a half until we fulfill the next stage of political reform and you also have some political results.

See also
Georgy Arbatov (Gorbachev's turn to right), 1992

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books