Interview with Timur Stepanov, assistant to Eduard Shevardnadze
Interviewer — Julia Kalinina, on behalf of Metta Spencer
Introductory notes by Julia Kalinina
On the 2 of September 1990 we were in Irkutsk. There was a meeting of Baker and Shevardnadze. Both like fishing so they’d chosen Irkutsk to fish there. It was a regular Soviet-American meeting. Suddenly Margaret Tutweiler (Baker’s press-assistant) came and put a note before Baker. He read it and told Shevardnadze that Iraq had probably invaded Kuwait. Shevardnadze didn’t believe it. A lot of similar invasions had occured before that incident. Baker took flight to Mongolia and we moved to Moscow. His assistants and speech writer Carpentdale took flight with us. The idea was that in Moscow we’ll discuss the situation and work out a mutual declaration. We were planning the meeting for the next morning but the obstacles forced us to meet on the same evening. It turned out to be a real invasion.
Our theoreticians immediately declared that this was the result of the end of the Cold War. Regional state are trying to penetrate the vacuum that had been created. Shevardnadze had a strong intention to “teach Iraq a lesson.” He intended to support the international community. (The US immediately started to work with the UN.) Tarasenko (Shevardnadze’s assistant) and Baker’s speechwriter wrote a mutual declaration and then there was a wide discussion of the matter in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mostly people disagreed with that mutual appeal. The main argument was that Iraq is our old friend and partner and we must support it — not really support but at least not make statements against Iraq. At last Shevardnadze said pretty roughly that this is aggression and if we are going to observe human values we must protect Kuwait.
Very soon we received signals showing that Shevardnadze was rowing against the stream: two telephone calls, one from the KGB and another one from Gorbachev. In September, Krjuchkov (KGB) told Shevardnadze that American planes had bombed Baghdad. That would be awful because, according to that mutual declaration, all the steps should be done only on behalf of the UN. At that first step, there were not even any promises about the possible use of power — only negotiations, secret diplomacy, all-world pressure, pressure from the Arab countries. So that call from Krjuchkov was like a cold shower for Shevardnadze. Another call was from Gorbachev and I was present there. Gorbachev repeated that message. Shevardnadze said that it couldn’t be true. We were going to continue to work out our mutual declaration. Gorby said “Be careful.” (Like, if you’ll make a mistake we won’t excuse you.) Then we went to airport to meet Baker and the guys made a joint statement there. And that was a breakthrough in Soviet-American relations. After that, most of the Westerners realised that things are really changing in the Soviet Union.
Earlier, probably in 1988, we had visited Iraq and had a meeting with Saddam Hussein. They had an entertaining talk, calling each other “comrades”. The negotiations were devoted to a package bargain on Iran-Iraq (when they were fighting with each other for that river).
Shevardnadze, in comparison with other diplomats, was always trusting the person with whom he was communicating, so for him it was a difficult decision to give up that impression of Hussein as a “comrade.”
Then the regular cycle of UN’s resolutions started – about a blockade etc. After Resolution 678 was adopted (which sanctioned power methods) Shevardnadze met with Tarik Aziz in Moscow. Shevardnadze told him that Americans would use the high technology weapons.
Shevardnadze: “Baker told me that. He described me the way they are going to fight. I ask you to take steps back.”
Aziz: “Dear Eduard, no, we wouldn’t give up”. [At that time several thousand Soviet citizens were staying in Iraq.] You show your back to the country that pays you for your weapons with gold!”
At that time we had lots of joint projects with Iraq. Automatically all the relations were terminated and the Soviets became hostages. On one hand, Shevardnadze had to support the coalition that wanted Iraq to stop the aggression. Another question (but the first one in terms of importance) was that of Soviet specialists.
At the same time, a pro-Iraq lobby in Soviet Union started to work — a lobby that was dissatisfied with the Soviet international policy at that time. Personally that opposition can be drawn as Shevardnadze and Primakov, though previously Primakov openly symathized with Shevardnadze. (By the way, Primakov was born in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia). Primakov always said that when you talk to Hussein you must consider his Eastern mentality. A strong pro-Iraq lobby existed in the Supreme Council — our hawks – Alksnis, Kogan etc. Suddenly the gossip appeared: Primakov is going to Iraq to try to convince Hussein to find a peaceful decision.
Shevardnadze and Ministry of Foreign Affairs were astonished. The decision was taken already. Primakov’s trip had shown that Gorbachev was not quite strong — that he was under pressure. He was hesitating. Actually I think that at that time Gorby started to realize that Shevardnadze was going to become quite an independent person.
I’m telling you my own story. It was very painful for me when on the 15th of __ 1990, the day when it was announced that Gorbachev was awarded with the Nobel peace prize, Shevardnadze was staying on the Supreme Council tribunal delivering a report about the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ work for the promotion of the interests and security of the USSR. As if doubts existed about Soviet interests and security. At the same time, Gorbachev accepted congratulations for the unification of Germany, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Europe and Afghanistan, for nuclear disarmament, for the whole complex of our progressive steps. At the same time, for all these steps, his Minister of Foreign Affairs was executed by the Supreme Council. During that execution I realized that the so-called democrats are doomed. They practically didn’t attempt to defend Shevardnadze. Borovik and Starovoitova tried but their statements couldn’t be compared with the fury of hawks. Shevardnadze was answering and I was transferring him notes with questions from the audience. The notes are usually written so badly that you couldn’t read them easily, so I was rewriting them properly before giving them to Shevardnadze.
Near the door of the hall were sitting Primakov and some other influential persons — all persons with whom I have very warm personal relations. Primakov and I were the members of the Georgians’ community in Moscow and spent lots of hours together in warm, friendly meetings. Imagine my surprise when — I was collecting the notes for Shevardnadze and passed Primakov — he didn’t answer my greeting. He was embroiled with Shevardnadze but not with me. Why doesn’t he want to say “hello” to me? Before the first of Primakov’s trips to Iraq, Shevardnadze received a note from Priimakov’s office containing the plan of Primakov’s trip. Shevardnadze read it and wrote a note for Gorbachev: “Mikhail Sergeevich, I’ve read the plan and, as usual, didn’t understand anything.” I thought probably Primakov didn’t want to recognize me because of that note. But I had nothing to do with that.
At last I asked Primakov, “What’s the matter?” and he explained. He was offended because he thought I had inspired an article in the newspaper Izvestija — an article that had strongly criticized him. Primakov had even complained to Gorbachev. I’ve heard how Gorby expressed this claim to Shevardnadze: “Your assistants damage Primakov’s reputation.”
Shevardnadze rejected that accusation. I had nothing to do with that. That article was written by somebody else for absolutely other reasons. In the same time the TV program about Shevardnadze and his team (that was shot in the airplane while we were flying from US, I think) was blocked. (Lately I watched it. The program was well done and Shevardnadze and his team looked very attractive there. The authors were young talented journalists. One of them, Vladislav Listjev, was murdered a month ago in Moscow, with a loud scandal that you have probably read about. Actually these three journalists were like signs, banners of the young perestroika generation for mass consciousness).
These Primakov trips to Baghdad had a shocking effect. For Americans that was a sign that Gorby is being hesitatant. Shevardnadze resigned at the end of December. On the 9th of December Bush had a meeting with Gorby in Helsinki to discuss the situation in the Gulf. He wanted to hold a Middle East international conference after the crisis was handled. The idea, popular among our leaders at that time, was that the Soviet Union must return to the Middle East and become an equal partner of US in the light of trade, cooperation and dependence with Middle Eastern countries.
Did you know that Hussein agreed to leave Kuwait if he would get a solid promise to hold this conference?
No, Hussein didn’t have that intention. Never. We had lots of negotiations, talks and meetings, and he never agreed. He didn’t accept any conditions. Not with us, not with Primakov.
The essence of the opposition between Shevardnadze and Primakov was actually the opposition of new-thinkers versus hard-liners. Primakov was not an author of that human-values concept that became popular with Gorbachev governing. The Shevardnadze-Primakov story was inspired by the fight for a “soul of a ruler” and not by somebody’s adherence to this or that principle.
Such a fight always has an ideological shell. In that case the ideological shell was the following: Iraq is our old friend, Soviets are working and living there, and we need Iraq as a partner. These were absolutely the same reasons that Kozyrev is using just now.
Shevardnadze considered that when the confrontation between empires stops, the fragmentation of the world starts. The process can be initiated by unexpected states, unexpected dictators. The first signal, first sign was Saddam Hussein. What happened next in the world (in the Soviet Union in particular) was the consequence. Before, there were several blocs of states in the world that were held by power. This power was withdrawn and it was necessary to reconstruct Soviet Union. As a result of the reconstruction, we obtained something that couldn’t resist the other bloc.
The persons who started the process (Gorbachev, Yakovlev, and Shevardnadze) were not competent enough. They were children of their age. They didn’t know how to do reforms. They followed a method of trial and error. Very often politicians are moved by really scary motivations. You probably don’t see the motivations but the consequences that you see are frightening. The whole story is about the ambitions of Gorbachev and of Bush.
I understand why that happened. It was such a great feeling for Gorbachev to understand that the whole world admires him. I remember how we were on a visit to Italy and people in Milan were greeting us so emotionally — women were crying, crowds everywere, and shouts, screams so loud that I was afraid that the glass celling of the gallery in Milan would break.
When Shevardnadze asked Andreotti what was happening, he answered, “You saved us from the permanent danger of war. You are like a God for us.” Certainly, such scenes affected the ambition greatly. Remember, both Gorbachev and Shevardnadze were born in provinces. For them such signs of all-world grace and recognition meant a lot, though of course, all that is just an illusion.
Anyway the country couldn’t continue the arms race. They called Shevardnadze “Mister Yes.” Mister Compromise, Mister Concession. That was the main claim for his work. He agreed to discuss items that Gromyko would never have done, but in every particular case I can recall his reasons for agreeing. For example, Hungary started to ask us to withdraw Soviet troops in 1987. We got that request from a Communist goverment. Like, “Won’t you start to think about the withdrawal?” Shevardnadze immediately asked his stuff to prepare all the calculations, assumptions, positive and negative aspects. The concept was worked out in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But before that, in 1987, Gorbachev was in Poland, where he said publicly: We are not going to keep our troops in Europe forever. Since that moment that became state policy. Shevardnadze just followed it. I repeat, both were the sons of their age. The withdrawal had to be prolonged, for otherwise we got into trouble with our army, which had no place to return to in Russia. Shevardnadze promoted the Gorbachev’s policy from A to Z.
Shevardnadze wanted to resign. He waited only for that conference in Paris — the reduction in regular forces from Atlantic to the Urals and the approval of a New European Charter. He resigned after that.
On Chernobyl, Shevardnadze didn’t have any information. That’s the truth. That happened on a weekend and on Monday morning he usually held a meeting in the Ministry. On that Monday the meeting was cancelled because all kind of ambassadors started to call us asking what had happened. Practically throughout Europe they started to discover harmful elements in the air samples. Shevardnadze called Gorbachev. Gorbachev said that he didn’t know anything about that. And then during several days they didn’t have clear understanding of the situation. Remember, all these Politbureau members spent all their lives in sacred trembling before secrecy. For several days they didn’t get full correct information because of the loss of much information in the chain of communicators. It was a general rule: chiefs were not told all the truth if the truth was somehow unpleasant. For example, when for the first time I had to write down the official conversation of Shevardnadze with somebody, I was told by the older assistant that in the record the position of my boss should look preferable — never mind the fact that the truth will be twisted. Not long ago I learnt that when Shevardnadze resigned, Gorbachev received lots of telegrams from many councils of the world: “At last this ignoramus went away.” Councils wanted to show Gorbachev their support. It was a general rule: to express approval for any steps a leader takes, though the same councils were just praying for Shevardnadze a month before. Or pretended that they were praying.
And the whole information system was based on the same principle. Objective information didn’t arrive. Intelligence had the objective data but even they didn’t hurry to open it. That was the case with Chernobyl. I know from Shevardnadze that all his attempts to organize public press-conferences or briefings on the issue were rejected. He was forbidden, but anyway he managed to held one.
The same was with Azerbaijan. In Kremlin nobody reported clearly what was happening in Sumgait and Baku. The information about the pogroms was sent by the same persons who were responsible for them. Certainly, they were twisting it. In Tbilisi, the same thing. You never know exactly what goes on there. You never know whether you got a true or false description of the situation — though I think that after Tbilisi the Kremlin guys knew in detail what was happening in Vilnius, for example, but were keeping silent. Now they say “we didn ‘t know.” For the first time Gorbachev made a speech only when two weeks had passed after Chernobyl, and the main idea of his statement was: The Western press is exaggerating the case for its own advantage. So who was blocking the output of true information? They were children of their age. They couldn’t overstep the “top-secret” mark. But on the next morning, they really didn’t know what had happened.
All the efforts were directed toward an attempt to hide, to reduce the scale of danger, though if the leaders of perestroika are lying, one can’t trust them. And Westerners said that openly. It was a test for perestroika. But Shevardnadze’s attempts to reveal all the facts didn’t get any response among Politbureau members. The first reaction of Gorbachev was to reduce, to hide, to smooth it over.
In 1985 when we were writing the text for his speech at the UN General Assembly, we absolutely changed the style of the statements. And I can say that is the first sign of change in the policy of a state. When the leaders of the state start to speak another language (in terms of style, expression, intonations), when you notice that, you can predict that the policy will change.