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Interview with Mikhail Gorbachev; Discussing the Results of the Arab Spring

Aired April 26, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everybody and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

The Arab Spring turned the Middle East upside down. Ruthless dictators were overthrown and popular movements arose like mythical warriors, sprung from dragon's teeth. The struggle continues in Syria today, and it's bloody. But Saudi Arabia, a monarchy rich with oil, was seemingly untouched. There have been Shiite protests as recently as January, but they've been quickly and firmly put down.

Perhaps, though, there's a different movement springing up there. My brief tonight, paving the way for change in Saudi Arabia. And no one is doing more to bring about that change that one quietly courageous woman.

Women in Saudi Arabia are still treated as property, chaperoned like children whenever they go out in public, deprived of basic rights, such as a driver's license. Saudi women aren't allowed to drive themselves to work or to the market or even to the doctor's office if they or a family member are in need of care. If they do, they can be arrested.

A YouTube video challenged all that, shot on a cell phone, it appeared last May and showed a Saudi woman driving a car through the streets of the capital, Riyadh. It quickly went viral and was followed by a Facebook page calling on Saudi women to get behind the wheel on a day of protest.

Their numbers weren't great, but the battle was joined and the world was watching. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a supporter, and the quietly courageous woman I mentioned at the beginning, standing beside her, Manal al-Sharif, is my guest tonight. I drove with her here in New York, and discovered that she wants to work with the Saudi king on this, not against him.


AMANPOUR: How scary is it driving here in New York compared with defying law and order in Saudi Arabia and driving there?

MANAL AL-SHARIF, SAUDI ACTIVIST: It's funny, it's normal. Even the day I drove in Khobar City, it felt normal. It felt -- this is normal. And it meant I wasn't afraid. People asked me, were you afraid that day and I said no, it felt normal.

AMANPOUR: And yet --

AL-SHARIF: It's here. The fear is here, where we're crippled in our own imagination. There's nothing scary about it.

AMANPOUR: What happened to you when you were caught driving?

AL-SHARIF: They did drive us to the police station, asked us to sign a pledge. We were there like for six hours interrogating me and my brother. And then they leave and then they called us back again, interrogation again. And then they sent me to jail with no charges.

AMANPOUR: They sent you to jail for driving?

AL-SHARIF: For driving.

AMANPOUR: Even no charges?

AL-SHARIF: One of the charges was embarrassing the country image because I posted that video on YouTube.

AMANPOUR: Tell me about the YouTube video. How did that idea come? Why did you post it? What were you saying?

AL-SHARIF: I was in Maine (ph) and our spring was going all over, and the (inaudible) social media. Said that was a good idea. Why not use the social media to get our voice heard? So there was like a new idea. There is no law --

AMANPOUR: There is no law banning you from driving?

AL-SHARIF: Unfortunately, no.

AMANPOUR: So is that traditional?


AMANPOUR: What message are you trying to send by driving?

AL-SHARIF: It's a symbolic act of the woman right, we want to be full citizens. I'm educated. I have a job. And I should be able to -- I should be trusted to drive my own car. It's really bizarre that women like 57 percent of college graduates in Saudi Arabia are women, so we're higher educated.

Women have higher education. Women are more than men for higher education. So those women are very well educated. But they're not trusted for a simple act like this. And that goes on in all aspects of our life.

AMANPOUR: Let's get out of the car for a moment and we'll continue talking outside.

Let me ask you about something in the news, and that is the Olympic Games are coming up in London. And there's been a lot of focus as to whether countries like Saudi Arabia will send female athletes.


AMANPOUR: Will they?


AL-SHARIF: Well, when they say that, I would love it. We don't have athletes in the country. There's no support for them. There's no infrastructure. So how could you send athletes? From where are going to get those athletes? So we knew that because of the --

AMANPOUR: So you have no sportswomen in Saudi Arabia?

AL-SHARIF: No. And Olympic -- the Olympic Committee (ph), they said Saudi Arabia doesn't send women in their team this year? They would not be part in London Olympics. It was just a game. It was just a show to be able to be part of the Olympics. (Inaudible) --

AMANPOUR: So the men could compete?

AL-SHARIF: So the men. It's very interesting. So we've always needed men to live. And now men need us women to be part of that.

AMANPOUR: Maybe that's where your power is going to come from.

AL-SHARIF: It was -- it's -- I don't know. It's really, I don't know how things turn around, like what goes around, comes around.

Personally, I played basketball for five years in college in (inaudible). I went to (inaudible) College. And we have a gymnasium for girls. But it's very -- like we sneak around. It's very undercover. It's like you're doing a -- you're committing a crime. We won all these trophies, all these medals, but no one knows about it, even my own family.

So I have to take my clothes, my --


AMANPOUR: -- secret society.


AMANPOUR: Manal, I'm stunned by how things haven't changed. Twenty years ago, I broke the first story of women trying to drive in Saudi Arabia. What happened to those women? It was terrible.

AL-SHARIF: In few words, they told them why (ph). They turned them into outcasts of the society.

AMANPOUR: Some of those women, the original drivers, have joined your cause.


AMANPOUR: Why? What did they tell you?

AL-SHARIF: We want you to lead this because we lost our life with the last 30 years and nothing changed. And they were very happy that we started this again.

AMANPOUR: So they said they lost their lives.

AL-SHARIF: Their life had been taken away from them. And it's very sad that for a simple act like that, it turned to be against the whole society.

AMANPOUR: What are your tactics? If you don't want to confront society head-on?

AL-SHARIF: We -- from this day we started, we were very considerate to the conservative society that we are talking to. So we don't want to create resistance and by shouting, by being aggressive. That would create this wall between us and the society. And they will not listen. We are not against (inaudible). (Inaudible) very pleased that we are Saudi (ph) women. We love our country and we're not against the -- we are not challenging authorities. We're just challenging laws that are unjust to us.

AMANPOUR: Explain to me how men essentially direct your lives.

AL-SHARIF: So from the day we are born until the day we die, we have the men guardianship system. But male guardianship, for example, is enforced by law. And that's the difficult and the long-run challenge for us and battle for us.

AMANPOUR: How does that system work?

AL-SHARIF: So no matter how old I am, I'm still minor (ph) until the day I die.

AMANPOUR: A minor?

AL-SHARIF: A minor. So I'm treated as a minor in every single aspect of my life. I need to get a male permission to study, to work, to get my papers, to leave the country.

AMANPOUR: And who -- which males' permission?

AL-SHARIF: It's -- that's the funny thing. So if I'm not married, it's my father. If I'm married, it's moved, the male guardianship. The guardianship moves from my father to my husband.

AMANPOUR: And what if you have no father and no husband?

AL-SHARIF: It moves to my kids (ph) for example.

AMANPOUR: Your kid is your guardian?

AL-SHARIF: Yes. So it's -- can you imagine, you give birth to your own guardian.

It's sad. So this is the -- this is the system that we are -- it's put there and it's for -- enforced by law and this is the long and the most challenging battle that we are facing. I'm well educated. I'm independent. I have a job. Then I have to be treated as an adult. But if you do, let's say, if you commit a crime or if you make a mistake, you are charged and you are treated like adult, not like a minor.


AL-SHARIF: Yes. So they punish you. They don't punish your guardian.

AMANPOUR: We've been watching Saudi Arabia for decades now, wondering when things are going to change. King Abdullah says that he is for liberalizing some women's rights. Is it ever going to happen? Do you believe your highest authority?

AL-SHARIF: King Abdullah is a true reformer. And he do -- he does believe in women's rights. And we can -- we can see this. The problem is not only because -- he can't just enforce change from top or from bottom. It has to go the whole society should believe in that.

I have in my profile in Facebook, it says because my mother couldn't change my present, I decided to change my daughter's future. I didn't have a daughter. What I meant, the previous generation couldn't change our present. Our present.

So we decided to change the next generation future. And that's happened now. So if it doesn't happen in our age, at least this movement will put -- will cast the foundation for those generations to come.

AMANPOUR: So what are you lobbying for? What are you struggling for now?

AL-SHARIF: Full citizenship.

AMANPOUR: Full citizenship?

AL-SHARIF: Just be treated as adults, not as a minor. I can take decisions in my life without needing to ask someone's permission. Women are crippled with fear, and it's here. It's -- this invisible monster that we created, it's only exists here.

It's like a wall that we built. And we never thought of even scratching the walls to find it a cardboard, not a real wall.


AMANPOUR: Up next on the program, it's a phrase that's so overused in television, but I will have a truly historic interview. I'm speaking with one of the giants of the 20th century, the father of democracy in Russia, many call him, Mikhail Gorbachev. Please stay and watch.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back. As the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev paved the way for democracy and openness in his country. And together with Ronald Reagan, whom he called his partner, Gorbachev ended the Cold War.

But after Gorbachev, the deluge. The Soviet Union collapsed, plunging Russia into a decade of economic and political chaos. Now Russia has achieved a measure of stability again under the current president, Vladimir Putin. But at what cost? Can Russian democracy thrive? Can it even survive?

I spoke with President Gorbachev at this week's summit of Nobel laureates in Chicago.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, HOST: Mr. President, thank you for joining me. President Putin has just been reelected, third time, and yet, there is a sense that he's stifling public dissent, that he has Nashi as a group to back up his policies, that democracy may be dying in Russia.

Do you agree with that, or do you think democracy is alive and well today in Russia?

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE SOVIET UNION (through translator): Well, that it's alive, yes, I agree. That it is well, not so. Well, I am alive, but I can't say that I'm fine.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, many people call you the father of democracy, certainly, many in the West and many in Russia. But many are also saying that Russian democracy, if it's not dead already, is dying.

Why is that? What went wrong?

GORBACHEV (through translator): Well, during the election campaign, a lot of critical things were said about democracy in Russia, and you're right, there is a problem.

But democracy is not dying, because when 100,000 people, hundreds of thousands of people, actually, protest in the public squares, when they demand free and fair elections, when they are ready to take risks for democracy, it means that it is alive, because above all, democracy is the participation of citizens.

However, the institutions of democracy are not working efficiently, not working effectively in Russia because, ultimately, they are not free. They are dependent on the executive. They're dependent on what we call Telephone Law, the rule of the executive.

And that is what the people are protesting against. They want real freedom, they want real democracy, they want a democracy in which the people's voice is decisive.

AMANPOUR: In fact, you've called Putin's democracy or the current Russian democracy an "imitation democracy."

Do you think that President Putin is committed to any kind of reform, and will the people's voice be heard under his presidency?

GORBACHEV (through translator): I said on the eve of the elections that if the president and his entourage in the future will just continue to try to fool the people with this imitation, that will not succeed. People are protesting and people might protest in much stronger ways if he just continues his old ways.

I think it'll be hard for him, given his nature, to do this, but there is no other way for him but to move toward greater democracy in Russia, toward real democracy in Russia, because there is no other way for Russia to find a way out of its dead end, in which it is now.

AMANPOUR: In the meantime, about seven years ago, President Putin said, quote, "The collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical disaster of the century. For the Russian people, it was a genuine tragedy."

He's talking about what you did. How do you assess his assessment? Was bringing down the Soviet Union the greatest tragedy of the 20th century?

GORBACHEV (through translator): First of all, he has a right to his own opinion, and he has a right to speak out, to say anything, whether positive or critical about me. I, when I do not accept or do not like his policies, also say that very directly. So, I think this is a very direct discussion, and that's important.

AMANPOUR: Do you think the collapse of the Soviet Union, which you engineered, is a genuine tragedy for Russia?

GORBACHEV (through translator): Well, you are stating that I engineered it.

AMANPOUR: Didn't you?

GORBACHEV (through translator): You will not find in any of my speeches until the very end anything that supported the breakup of the union. The breakup of the union was the result of betrayal by the Soviet nomenklatura, by the bureaucracy, and also Yeltsin's betrayal.

He spoke about cooperating with me, working with me on a new union treaty, he signed the draft union treaty, initialed that treaty. But at the same time, he was working behind my back. And that, of course, is not, frankly, policy. That is, I think, deception.

And let me tell you that our friends, including our friends in the United States, they spoke very sympathetically about the need to preserve some form of union. They said that it should be preserved.

But at the same time, when the breakup started, they were rubbing their hands. They were rubbing their hands, I would say, below the table.

And by the way, Yeltsin and his team felt support from certain members of the U.S. administration, such as Cheney and Gates, who established a channel of communication with Yeltsin.

They believed that Gorbachev was someone who would still try to implement his plans, which they did not particularly like.

They said, "We like Yeltsin's plans more," the plans to destroy the union, to destroy or damage the Soviet economy and the Soviet armed forces. So, they said, "We need to bet on Yeltsin rather than Gorbachev."

President Bush, by the way, resisted this approach. And he said to the Baltic politicians, he said, "It is your right to seek independence, but you should do it in a way that would not destroy Perestroika.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, can I ask you, when I travel around the world, and I go to places, let's say, from Iran to Cuba, and I ask them about reform and democracy, they say, "Oh, my goodness, look at what happened in Soviet Union. Look what Gorbachev did. Shock therapy, chaos." They see it as chaotic.

What do you -- what do you say when you hear authoritarian leaders like Castro or the mullahs in Iran look at what happened in the Soviet Union and say, "No, we can't do that, we can't liberalize, we can't open up, it's too dangerous"?

GORBACHEV (through translator): Well, chaos, that is, frankly, not Gorbachev's fault. I was against chaos. I, and many people and leaders who supported me, wanted an evolutionary approach to reform. We wanted to do it step by step. We were against shock therapy.

It was Yeltsin and his government, the government of Gaidar, who adopted the policy of shock therapy, and it resulted in very destructive privatization. It resulted in the kind of privatization that gave the property that used to belong to the entire nation to very, very few people.

So, those old guys who have been in power for 20 years and more, they should not attribute that to me. Why are they saying what they're saying? That is because they fear democracy. They are afraid of democracy.

AMANPOUR: I'm sure it's not news to you, but many of your supporters, those who call you the father of Russian democracy, feel that you should have, perhaps, split the Communist Party back in the late `80s, into its democratic and anti-democratic wings, that if you had done that, it might have paved the way for a more democratic process, or at least a party, like the Social Democrats, that could have taken democracy a little bit further than it is today.

I mean, looking back in retrospect, you didn't want to split the party. Do you think you should have done that?

GORBACHEV (through translator): Well, they're saying that, but in fact, I had said that before them. I have said on many occasions, on dozens of occasions, that, yes, I believe this was a mistake. This was a mistake that we acted too late to reform the Communist Party.

Only in July 1991 did we decide that we will take the Social Democratic path and we proposed a Social Democratic draft program of the party and scheduled a congress of the party that would have taken the decision. And that would have happened in November 1991. So, they are late to this game, and you can say hello to them from me.

AMANPOUR: To many people around the world, you are a hero, a once-in- a-generation actor, who ended the Cold War. How would you like your people to remember you?

GORBACHEV (through translator): History is a fickle lady, and you can expect surprises from history, but I do know that I did what I did and that I can be proud of what I did.

AMANPOUR: And you can.


AMANPOUR: Not that long ago, Gorbachev's Russia was one red phone call away from nuclear war with Reagan's America. I remember, because I was with some children who were witnesses on the day that both sides blinked. A look back when we return.


AMANPOUR: And, finally, talking with Mikhail Gorbachev earlier, I was reminded of one of the first stories I ever covered as a young reporter.

In 1987, I was assigned to an elementary school right here in New York City to watch the reaction of children as history unfolded. Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signed the first-ever treaty between the superpowers to reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles. And we thought it was worth taking out of the archives. Take a look.


AMANPOUR: As Reagan and Gorbachev walked through the halls of power, the halls of Manhattan's Public School No. 9 were filled with first graders getting their first real history lesson, a lesson broadcast around the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is where this is being seen live in Moscow.

GORBACHEV: (Speaking Russian).

AMANPOUR: And if the Russian translation was a little tough to take, the message got through.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And then what did they do?

Huh? What did they do when they changed (inaudible)?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Inaudible) they were very sincere when they signed the treaty. They were very sincere.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Reagan.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: President Reagan. And who was the other one?



AMANPOUR: After Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Arms Accord in Washington, the students of P.S. No. 9 signed their own peace treaty and raised their paper cups to the future.

For some, it was a numbing experience.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You know what (inaudible)?

AMANPOUR: Others were overwhelmed.


AMANPOUR: And then there were those who were looking ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's not what they did , it's what they're going to do. Are they going to follow this history? Are they? That's the question now.

AMANPOUR: It's a question President Reagan himself was often asked about the Soviets. But looking around the world, some thought there were two very good reasons why Gorbachev might keep his word.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He will try. He's a good man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And Reagan looks like a good one, too.



AMANPOUR: And that's it for tonight's program. In the meantime, join us on Facebook. Every day we post links to our full-length episodes on our timeline. That's at

For all of us here, goodbye from New York.