Gorbachev Resigns as Soviet President With Dignity, Defiance and Warnings

U.S. Recognizes Republics, Immediately Establishes Relations With Russia

By Elisabeth Rubinfien, Staff Reporter
The Wall Street Journal

December 26, 1991

Moscow -- When the moment of Mikhail Gorbachev's resignation as Soviet president finally came, he left the post with characteristic dignity and defiance.

In a televised speech to the nation last night, Mr. Gorbachev strongly defended his record in almost seven years at the helm of the world's largest nation, saying that he still couldn't support the newly founded Commonwealth of Independent States that is replacing the U.S.S.R. "I'm making this decision on considerations of principle," he said. "A policy prevailed of dismembering the country and disuniting the state, which is something to which I can't ascribe."

Forthright as such criticism is, Mr. Gorbachev's proud declaration denied the fact that he was essentially ousted from his post when 11 of the 12 former Soviet republics agreed Dec. 21 to form the commonwealth. The three Baltic republics previously won their independence of the Soviet Union.

Within minutes of his speech, the briefcase containing the "button" that would be used to launch the former Soviet Union's 27,000 nuclear weapons was handed over to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The red flag with the communist hammer and sickle was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin, to be replaced by the white, red and blue Russian flag. Symbolically and practically, Russia took over what remains of the Soviet Union's superpower status.

Before he made his resignation speech, Mr. Gorbachev called President Bush to thank him for his encouragement and support, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said. Hours later, Mr. Bush cut short his Christmas holiday at Camp David to deliver a nationally televised address in which he hailed Mr. Gorbachev for "years of sustained commitment to world peace" and for "revolutionary policies {that} permitted the peoples of Russia and the other republics to cast aside decades of oppression."

Mr. Bush also announced, as expected, that the U.S. would immediately recognize and grant full diplomatic relations to Russia, and support its bid to assume the seat formerly held by the Soviet Union on the United Nations Security Council. In addition, "based on commitments and assurances given to us" concerning nuclear safety, democracy and free markets, Mr. Bush said the U.S. would recognize and move swiftly toward full diplomatic relations with five other republics: the Ukraine, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Byelorussia and Kirgizia.

Mr. Bush said the U.S. also recognized the independence of the six remaining republics -- Moldavia, Turkmenia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan -- but would delay diplomatic relations until the U.S. is satisfied with their commitments to "responsible security policies and democratic principles."

Meanwhile, in an interview with Cable News Network, Mr. Yeltsin sought to reassure the world that the vast nuclear arsenal based in what are now four independent states would be controlled by Russia through consultations with the other three, Byelorussia, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. "We'll do all we can to prevent this nuclear button from ever being used," he said.

Mr. Gorbachev led the nation for six years and nine months, breaking totalitarianism, removing fear and launching epochal political and economic reforms. But when it came to undoing the socialist foundations and imperial ties of the Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev held back. "I can say only one thing," said longtime Gorbachev adviser and liberal Alexander Yakovlev in an interview in Literaturnaya Gazeta this week. "Gorbachev is a great and tragic figure."

The president's resignation was long anticipated and the ultimate date known ahead of time, so there was an air of anticlimax to the moment. Yet, as much as the president had been reviled and his resignation demanded by Soviets angered and panicked by empty store shelves and economic collapse, the final step was met by many here with sadness, pity and concern for the nation's future.

Mr. Gorbachev himself warned against backtracking on democratic principles that have been hard-won during his tenure. "This society has acquired freedom -- it has been freed politically and spiritually," he said. "This is the most important achievement that we have yet to fully come to grips with because we haven't learned to use freedom yet."

"I'm alarmed by our people's loss of the citizenship of a great country -- the consequence could be very serious for all of us," he said. "But I also {leave} with hope and faith in you, in your wisdom and spiritual strength," he told his people.

Mr. Gorbachev made it clear that he plans to remain a vigorous political player. He pledged to cooperate in any way possible in stabilizing the new alliance and in promoting reform. "Now I've set aside all political conflicts and battles," he said in an interview with CNN after his resignation. "We have one national task and that is reform."

But, he said, "That doesn't mean I'll always agree with everything." Mr. Gorbachev said he has received many offers but didn't clarify his future plans. Some analysts say that he might become a rallying point for a new opposition to the Russian leadership. "I have no intention of hiding in the woods. I intend to continue to participate in a new role in my country's politics and in implementing new thinking in world affairs."

Ironically, resigning may be the best thing Mr. Gorbachev could do for his flagging popularity. Since the core formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States by Russia, Byelorussia and the Ukraine Dec. 8, many people have started sympathizing with Mr. Gorbachev's attempts to keep the country together and abhoring the aggressive style of Russian government officials who have seemed almost to gloat when discussing the future of Mr. Gorbachev or his close friend, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

"My friends and I were feeling how sad it is that the red flag will be gone and wondering why must we always forget our history," said Galina Mostyayeva, a teacher in Moscow. "We agreed that when we watched the speech, we would drink a toast to Gorbachev's health."

The disapproval of the Russian government goes deeper than nostalgia and sentimentality. Now that there is no longer a Gorbachev to blame, Mr. Yeltsin is the next target. Already people are disappointed by the slowness of reforms and afraid of coming price liberalization. "We used to believe in Yeltsin, but we don't believe in him anymore," said Lydia Galkovskaya, a forewoman at a watch factory. "It's just like it was with Gorbachev. When Gorbachev came to power, we also thought he was like a fresh wind."

Mr. Yeltsin's government plans to start a shock-therapy version of economic reform with price liberalization Jan. 2. Coordinating that plan with the other members of the newly founded Commonwealth of Independent States, however, is already complicated.

And to soften the blow of overnight trebling of many prices, the Russian government has already increased wages and put ceilings on further increases. But those very moves have contributed to the spiraling economic decline and flurry of money printing that plagued Mr. Gorbachev.

Mr. Gorbachev acknowledged that mistakes were made during his tenure, but said they were "tactical" not "strategic." In a conciliatory gesture, Mr. Yeltsin chose not to elaborate on his opinion of Mr. Gorbachev's mistakes, saying, "Today is a difficult day for Gorbachev; because I have a lot of respect for Gorbachev and we are trying to be civilized people and create a civilized state, I don't want to focus on these mistakes."

Mr. Gorbachev's references to the dangers of dissolution have been demonstrated in recent days by bloody events in two Caucasian republics, Georgia and Azerbaijan. In both cases, the last remnants of Union authority -- military and interior security troops -- have been unwilling to get involved in intensifying civil strife and fighting. Mr. Yeltsin said the troops would be fully withdrawn shortly.

In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, heavily armed opposition forces have assaulted authoritarian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and about 1,000 loyal troops holed up in fortified government headquarters. Mr. Yeltsin told the Russian parliament that Georgia had asked to join the commonwealth, but the other 11 republics refused to allow it until it solved its internal problems.

In the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, fighting has been escalating for weeks between Azeri troops and Armenian militias. Soviet Interior Ministry troops, sent there years ago to keep order, have been attacked by both sides trying to seize their weapons.

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