'Democracy will fit the needs of every nation'

At a 20-year reunion of cold-war leaders, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev expounds on peace - why it's elusive and why he's still pushing for it.

It's early March, and Europe is shivering under piles of snow. In Turin, at the foot of the Italian Alps, the fur coats and fleece-lined boots are out, and traffic plows slowly through icy streets.

So when Mikhail Gorbachev arrives with his entourage of body guards and aides from Russia, he feels very much at home. "It's like arriving in Siberia," mutters Mr. Gorbachev's personal secretary, Pavel Palazchenko.

But neither foul weather nor airport chaos could stop this steamroller of a man from making it to northern Italy, where cold-war leaders, thinkers, and freedom fighters met earlier this month to celebrate the 20th anniversary of perestroika, Gorbachev's peaceful restructuring of the Soviet Union that eventually let to its collapse.

All day, amid the wood paneling and gold-framed portraits of Turin's military club, this Nobel Peace Prize winner played host to a stream of admirers, hardly stopping for breath. There was Lech Walesa, Poland's Solidarity leader, tapping away on a tiny laptop; Lord Geoffrey Howe, Margaret Thatcher's deputy in 1989; and Germany's former chancellor, Helmut Kohl.

Surrounded by contemporaries, many of whom appear frailer than he, Gorbachev is businesslike and energetic. Underneath his square-shouldered suit he is solid and fit. Since the world watched with relief 15 years ago, when Gorbachev allowed the Soviet Union to collapse, he looks almost unchanged, except that there is less hair on either side of his trademark birthmark and what remains is now pure white.

* * *

When we meet, he is tired and hoping to escape his last appointment of the day.

"Good evening," I say, feeling as if I'm standing in front of a bull. For a moment there is a cold, expressionless stare. Then Gorbachev breaks into a smile and charges straight into me. Amid a flow of Russian, I find myself being hugged by this hero of 20th-century history. I grab onto his arm as he practically carries me down the corridor.

After some coaxing he agrees, through his interpreter, to talk. He insists upon sitting on a hard chair instead of the elegant hotel sofa. Everything this man does is firm and to the point: He does not shake your hand, he grips it; he does not walk, he strides; he does not chat, he proclaims.

Like many of his contemporaries still searching for the lessons of perestroika, Gorbachev has a sense of disappointment that the lifting of the "iron curtain" did not lead to global peace. New conflicts quickly emerged, and people's minds continue to be "militarized," he says.

"Unfortunately, there are too many political leaders who don't like dialogue, who cannot do dialogue, who cannot do diplomacy.

"Some people just like to shoot a little bit. Maybe the military need to shoot from time to time. They have all those weapons and shells and missiles. And the defense industry has to keep producing them. So maybe that is the logic.... But that approach has never really solved problems."

While Gorbachev believes "democracy will in the end fit the needs of every nation," he is not overly excited about recent signs of change in the Middle East. "It will take time. It will not take tanks; it will take time," he says referring to recent elections in Iraq.

"If democracy is imposed from the outside on a part of the world where there is Buddhism or Islam, ... if attempts are made to impose in a mandatory way all the requirements of Western democracy, let's say American democracy, on these parts of the world, well, I don't think that will work."

Is the world is a safer place today than it was 20 years ago? I ask.

"Yes," he says, without hesitation. "There are many things of concern and a lot of instability in the world today. But given we have avoided the threat of a nuclear war, I think yes."

Twenty years ago on March 11, when Gorbachev was unanimously elected to head the Soviet Communist Party a day after the death of its leader, Konstantin Chernenko, the threat of nuclear war was overarching. Leaders of nuclear powers kept a case full of codes and transmitters at arm's reach, ready to launch a nuclear attack at a moment's notice.

Now, the former Soviet leader is on a self-appointed, post-presidential mission to campaign for an end to all kinds of weapons of mass destruction. In Moscow, he and his daughter, Irina Vriganskaya, run a think tank called the Gorbachev Fund. As founder of the Geneva-based Green Cross International, he travels the world constantly.

But only now, he says, is he recovering from the "big blow" of the death of his wife, Raisa, in 1999. "I now feel that I should live and work for both of us."

"I am keeping extremely busy," he says. "I still go to bed at 2 a.m., like I did in those days when I worked late at the Kremlin. If I were to slow down I would feel worse."

Every morning, at his countryside home outside Moscow, he takes an "intense" one-hour, six-kilometer walk, followed by hot and cold showers. "That disciplines the body," he says.

He attributes much of his physical and mental strength to his upbringing on a peasant farm in the southern region of Stavropol. "From very early on, I did a lot of physical labor," he says. "Even though the food was nothing special, it was all natural and the air was pure."

One-third of the residents of Gorbachev's village Privolnoie starved to death during the famine of the 1930s brought on by Josef Stalin's rapid collectivization of Soviet agriculture. Both of Gorbachev's grandfathers were arrested arbitrarily by Stalin's secret police.

This didn't prevent Gorbachev from joining the Komsomol (the Communist Youth League) in 1946.

"In school they kept choosing me to be the leader," he smiles. He stayed in the Stavropol region for another four years, driving a combine harvester on a state farm and winning a state medal for his work bringing in the harvest.

There he rose up through the local Komsomol, specializing in agricultural issues and becoming first secretary of the regional party committee in 1970. In 1980, he became the youngest member of the Politburo, and five years later he was leader of the Communist party.

In 1985, he introduced the social reforms - glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) - for which the world would come to know him and which would eventually contribute to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On the world stage, he enjoys hero status and basks in the glory of his Nobel Peace Prize. At home, many who struggle with poverty and instability see him as the man who crippled Russia. In 1996, in a disastrous try at a political comeback, he won less than 1 percent of the vote.

It didn't help his popular standing, either, that he tried to wean Russians off vodka and onto mineral water.

As his Soviet-era secretary biographer Andrei Grachev puts it, "It turned out to be a much easier thing to transform the world than to transform Russia."

* * *

As for his homeland today, Gorbachev says critics of leader Vladimir Putin don't know the reality of present-day Russia.

Although there has been "an assault on the media" under Mr. Putin, the fact that two-thirds of Russians live in poverty means that "sometimes specific, limited authoritarian steps may be necessary," Gorbachev says.

Has it been hard to accept that you are more loved around the world than in your own country? I ask.

"That was not hard," he says, leaning forward, his large hands on his knees. "I know why it happened. What people got here [outside Russia] was the end of the cold war - the start of nuclear disarmament, free travel, open borders. Of course, the Russians got that, too. But at the same time, Russia had to go through a very profound change. That is a painful process. It affects millions of people."

"Nevertheless, time changes people's appreciation and judgment. So I am not resentful. In the big scheme of things, I would say I have had a uniquely happy life. I need to thank God for that."

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