The Lessons of Fallen Giants

Commentary | November 17, 2011


The 20th anniversary next month of the Soviet Union’s collapse is an occasion to reflect on three giants — Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze.

They each made history, but lost their way as societies changed and expectations went unmet. Vladimir Putin should heed their lesson if, as is likely, he retakes the presidency next year.

Shevardnadze, with whom we each worked closely, offers a telling example of the path from successful leadership to an unhappy end. As the Soviet foreign minister in the 1980s, he helped Gorbachev, then the Soviet leader, achieve historic arms accords and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from a losing war in Afghanistan. In 1989, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze facilitated the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of East European satellite regimes.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Shevardnadze went home to become president of his native Georgia, now independent. He ended a civil war, but failed to maintain control over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

If Putin reflects on this history, what lessons might he learn?

First, reform is vital to counter stagnation. In 1985, when Gorbachev came to power, communist ideology had lost its appeal and the economy was deeply troubled. His reforms were erratic but bold, and they were too feeble to save the Soviet Union.

In the 1990s, in Georgia, Shevardnadze nurtured young leaders who won control of the parliament in fair elections, but he retreated when they challenged his weak governance. After rigged elections in 2003, the new generation forced him to step aside in what became known as the Rose revolution.

Russia today is freer than in Soviet times, but cynicism and pessimism are again pervasive. Young people and capital flee abroad, and health and demographic crises depress society. Putin could relieve the tension by permitting fair elections, independent opposition parties and an honest debate about social ills and remedies.

Second, executing reform requires vision and determination. Gorbachev wrongly believed he could fix the Soviet system; Yeltsin in Russia and Shevardnadze in Georgia backtracked on reform when entrenched or corrupt elites resisted.

Putin shows little interest in real reform. He defends inefficient large enterprises, many of which he renationalized and combined into cumbersome behemoths. While Putin welcomes some outside help in the energy sector, the trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky demonstrate insensitivity to investors and the rule of law.

Third, future leaders are important. In Georgia, Shevardnadze clung too long to power, telling us that the new generation lacked experience. Yeltsin gave young leaders early rein and reforms jump-started future prosperity, but he backtracked in the face of popular disgust with corrupt implementation and calls for more stability and authority.

Putin scorned the “color” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, but he will face similar pressures, especially from organized younger leaders. His best hope to meet rising expectations is to encourage democratically inclined leaders and modernize governance.

Fourth, Putin could lose the North Caucasus. In Georgia, Shevardnadze deftly showed respect to minorities while neutralizing warlords one at a time. He was too weak, however, to deflect ultranationalists from destructive aggression in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Putin faces a more daunting challenge as terrorism and insurgency spread across the North Caucasus. The region is veering out of Moscow’s control. Putin should open dialogues with local minorities, mostly Muslim, and be far more flexible and imaginative. Brutality and bribes have inflamed passions and wasted resources. Russia might also improve relations with Georgia to help contain threats in the North Caucasus.

Putin is his country’s most popular leader. He excels in a political culture that values a strong hand, nationalism and independent great-power status. But Russia is also changing. Civil society, while still weak, is gathering force. Dissatisfaction with corruption and the lack of electoral choice is growing.

Status quo policies are insufficient but remain Putin’s predilection. He dissipates energies and discomfits neighbors by pressing for a Eurasian union that will bring little benefit. Russia’s main foreign interests and customers are in Europe. Russians admire it and many like to travel or even buy property there.

Putin can succeed as president if he effectively addresses Russia’s main challenges. This time, however, he will encounter a more sophisticated and demanding electorate. When Shevardnadze could no longer solve Georgia’s problems, he was swept away. Putin may run the same risk unless he learns from Shevardnadze and the other giants who went before him.

Denis Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at King’s College London and a former European Commission ambassador to Georgia and Armenia. William Courtney is a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, member of EWI's Experts Group on EuroAtlantic Security and special assistant to the U.S. president for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and a former U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.

Click here to read the article in the International Herald Tribune.