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Published: Saturday, 11/16/2002

Leaders must learn from their mistakes for Russia to change

If there is one maxim that can be safely applied to Russia, here it is: Things there do change for the better - but very, very slowly.

I realized last week that my old hopes for generational change were wishful thinking.

These thoughts occurred to me as I was listening to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at a Huron, Ohio, fund-raiser for a Russian maternity clinic. Mr. Gorbachev, who is 71, was talking about how humanitarian aid could be a welcomed addition to a purely militaristic approach to the war on terror.

Here's the rub: He was speaking just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin lost his cool at a Brussels summit meeting with European leaders when a reporter asked a provocative question about indiscriminate use of military force in Chechnya.

Mr. Putin, who is 21 years younger than Mr. Gorbachev, told the journalist:

“If you want to go all the way and become a Muslim radical and are ready to be circumcised, I invite you to Moscow. We are a multiconfessional country and we have experts in this field too.”

The above was said in comments left not translated, according to Reuters.

Then he added something that not only went not translated but was also absent in the official Kremlin transcript, the agency reported: “I will recommend that they carry out the operation in such a way that nothing grows back.”

So much for hopes for generational change.

I remember discussions of Russian politics with my Russian colleagues and visiting U.S. reporters in the mid-1980s. The usual conclusion of those discussions was a fuzzy feeling that change could be possible in Russia once a new generation of political leaders and bureaucrats came to power.

Those wishes for generational change seemed to start to come true in the late 1980s when the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev initiated democratic changes in Russia. He was so much younger than three of his predecessors, who died in a rapid succession before he took over in 1985.

Then the Soviet Union fell apart. This gave rise to Russia's quick elevation to a civil society, complete with hopes for democracy, peace, and relative prosperity.

That was before the free-for-all thievery under former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and before the first murderous war in Chechnya, 1994-1996, left the country in economic and political ruin, dashing this hope.

But leaders are just like regular people and not too smart either. They only learn from their own mistakes.

That's if they learn at all.

This at least seems to be the case with Mr. Gorbachev, who - despite his push for transparency of decision-making and accountability of Communist Party bureaucrats - sent troops to quell separatist movements in Georgia in 1989 and Lithuania in 1991, which then were still part of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union fell apart later that year anyway, and Mr. Gorbachev was kicked out of the Kremlin by more radical reformers. But at least he learned from his mistakes. Change does come slowly.

Let us hope that Mr. Putin eventually learns from his.



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