Jeri Laber

The Limits of Glasnost

VTR Date: January 18, 1987

Guest: Laber, Jeri


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Jeri Laber
Title: “The Limits of Glasnost”
VTR: 11/8/87

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Nearly a quarter century ago, when I first went to the Soviet Union – to watch Russian television, of all things – Senator William Benton, who’s Foundation had generously made my mission to Moscow possible, told me that those weeks in the USSR would be the most exciting of my life…and that the day I left would be the happiest. Well, he was right. On both scores. But then that was to be expected – the grim reality of being essentially in a police state, a secretive, controlled society, constantly pressed in on visiting Americans for whom our personal and political freedoms seem simply to be a birthright, particularly those sensitive to more than the lures of tourism.

Yet it is said that bit by bit, and perhaps now by more substantial strides, things are changing in Mother Russia. “Glasnost” has entered the Soviets’ vocabulary – and ours, too – but one wonders. Being there in the past makes one skeptical about the winds of change. And when recently the New York Times book review published an article on Moscow’s 1987 International Book Fair – perhaps as good a barometer as any of the extent (and limits) of Soviet openness and restructuring – I invited its author to join me here on The Open Mind.

Jeri Laber is a perennial student of the USSR, a long-time consultant to the International Freedom to Publish Committee of the Association of American Publishers, and the Executive Director of The Helsinki Watch, whose task it is to measure adherence around the globe to the 1975 Helsinki Accords in which signatory nations agree “To respect human rights everywhere, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief”.

Well, with that yardstick in mind, I want to ask Ms. Laber, what should we believe about “Glasnost”?

Laber: I think “Glasnost” is one of the most exciting things that have happened in the many years now that I’ve been watching events in the Soviet Union. I think its future is very uncertain, it could end without any notice, depending on how well Mr. Gorbachev is able to effect his policies and bring his comrades along with him. And I think that what he’s undertaken to do is real and not just for publicity purposes.

Heffner: Why do you say that? Do you really assume that there are so many of us who do think that it is propaganda?

Laber: I think there are a lot of people who see it as propaganda and think that it’s aimed mainly at the West. And although there’s no question but that there is an element of it which is in response to Western opinions about the Soviet Union, I think most of it is really in response to domestic problems in the Soviet Union…

Heffner: Do you think it…

Laber: …which are enormous.

Heffner: Do you think its for real then?

Laber: I don’t know and I have no reason to believe that Mr. Gorbachev is a great humanitarian or that anything that he is doing, he‘s doing because he believes in individual rights and civil liberties or personal freedoms. I think he has grasped, however, a very important truth which no preceding leader, including Mr. Khrushchev had. Which is that you cannot move in to the twentieth century, where the Soviets have not yet really gone, improve technologically, bring the society up to being a major power that it pretends to be when it is really slipping backwards all the time without giving people the right to their own intellectual initiative. And you cannot…he’s understood that the most important resource in the Soviet Union is the independent creative thinking of the individual. And this is what has been stamped out, suppressed, repressed over many, many years now with many of the best minds of the Soviet Union either imprisoned or sent out of the country.

Heffner: Does he make the assumption, do you believe, that that state of affairs has limited the economic development of the Soviet Union?

Laber: I think he does. I mean this is just my instinct, and it’s by impression from reading what he says, but I think that that is really what he has understood. That if you want the society to develop, to move ahead, to perform better, you have to give people the incentive and the freedom to explore, to test, to try things that haven’t been tried before, to fail, if necessary, without being afraid of punishment.

Heffner: I was brought up to believe, not only in Murphy’s Law, that if anything could go wrong, it will, but that leopards very seldom change their spots. Why do you think we can accept now the notion that this one has?

Laber: Well, the leopard being the Soviet Union?

Heffner: Yes.

Laber: I think this is one of the real problems, and this is what makes me somewhat skeptical. Gorbachev is a new face on this scene and he brings with it a whole new style and a new personality. But many of the people that I’ve dealt with in the Soviet Union over the years, who are now talking “Glasnost”, are the same people that were saying very different things not very long ago and that is cause for concern. Because they could just as easily be programmed to say something else next week as they seemed to be programmed this week.

Heffner: Do you see this, this present situation as a function of the new leader or of something else that’s much larger, much broader? And much more dependable?

Laber: Well, I think it’s a function of what I would call the international crisis of Communism, which I think the Soviet Union and all of the Eastern Bloc countries to a greater or lesser extent have entered into. The societies just aren’t working and you just have to go there to see that. It’s shocking, really, for someone who comes from the West to see this great power, the inefficiency with which the day-to-day life of the society works. I’m not just talking about the absence of consumer goods or…which is, of course, a very important barometer, I’m talking about just simple things that we take for granted in this country…confirming your airplane reservation or checking your bags through at the airport or checking into a hotel or buying a meal. I mean everything is complicated, everything is is inefficient and it comes from a system which is centrally planned, where the incentives are not great enough to make people want to work or to invent new techniques to improve the way things are run. And a kind of a built-in lethargy which has really overtaken the society to a very large extent.

Heffner: You know, Ms. Laber, I wonder about that because I think of the most efficient government that we have known in the twentieth century, was the government of Adolph Hitler. There, too, totalitarian. There, too, with little respect for freedom or for openness and I’m not quite so certain as to how we can say the one thing about the soviet union, knowing what we do about Nazi Germany I mean it is common wisdom now to say that the controls of the soviet state have led in the lack of freedom, the lack of initiative, the lack of citizens’ thinking that they can benefit from their own initiative have led to this poorer state of the economy. And yet in the most totalitarian of all states, we didn’t’ seem to have to worry about…

Laber: Well, I’m not sure, you know…I won’t quibble about the use of the word totalitarianism, but Nazi Germany, first of all, existed for a relatively short period of time. The Soviet Union is just celebrating its seventieth anniversary. It’s central planning, which exists in the Soviet Union, that I think has been one of its great drawbacks, great handicaps. The fact that they don’t have a market economy, the fact that the society has been run in a very artificial fashion and this is the sort of thing,, this is what Perestroika is all about, which is really…”Glasnost” is just a symptom, a tool to get to something much more important in the soviet union, which is the restructuring, the rebuilding of society. And this is being discussed not only in the soviet union and Poland, where I was very recently, they’ve already…they’re already steps ahead of the soviet union in trying to effect economic reforms which no one calls capitalism, but really have all the trappings of, at last, of a large injection of capitalism into the economy, if not a reversion to it.

Heffner: Well, there are those, of course, I this country, particularly the critics of the Soviet Union who all along have said, “What we have seen I terms of soviet aggression or aggressiveness, has been simply old Russia brought up to date. That we’re really talking about Russian expansionism.” Which leads me to ask whether we can be quite so confident that it hasn’t been just Russianism over the past seventy years, rather than Communism that has led to the kind of economic decay or lack of advancement that you comment on.

Laber: No, I think what…certainly the economic system stems from the Revoltion, from Stalinism really. And what they seem to be talking about is going back to what existed in the 1920s in the Soviet Union under Lenin’s NEP Plan, the New Economic Policy, and that is now getting a resurgence of respect in soviet ideology. As far as expansionism is concerned, you talk now about foreign policy. It looks like that is going to be put on hold for a while also. I think that…

Heffner: Out of economic necessity?

Laber: I think that Gorbachev has faced the fact that they’ve got to turn inward and really try to rebuild the country. And one of the most interesting things that has emerged very recently is the freedom to develop their own paths that is being given to the once-called “satellite countries”. I noticed recently nobody calls them that anymore and with very good reason, because they have already started in very different fashions and it’s now been given a sort an authoritative approval from Moscow that each Socialist country can take its own path and that conformity is not necessarily the most desirable thing.

Heffner: Now you’ve followed the course of events in the Soviet Union for decades. What bets would you have us make in terms of the new developments in the Soviet Union?

Laber: Well, I don’t want to sound too optimistic. I have a very healthy degree of skepticism and god knows there are a lot of problems, even in the areas of “Glasnost”. I mean this is not a free society, it moves back and forward, we see trends on day that…the release of political prisoners, for example, now they seem to have come up against an obstacle and stopped. I had hoped by now all the prisoners would be free in the Soviet Union, they’re not. There are still four hundred and fifty some-odd prisoners that we know of, political prisoners who are still incarcerated. I’ve lived through the Khrushchev era and the excitement that came with that. I saw it end very quickly without…very dramatically, very disappointingly. There’s no reason to think that the same thing can’t happen now. I think that even if Gorbachev is what I’d like to hope that he is and am not quite sure even about that, but even if he is and even if he is given the opportunity o try out all his policies without interference from the bureaucracy, I think he still has an enormous job and it may not work.

Heffner: But the question remains, how should we respond to “Glasnost”, how should we respond to what you hope, we hope is a change in the soviet structure?

Laber: When you say “we”, you mean the United States…

Heffner: Yes.

Laber: …government?

Heffner: Indeed. In terms of trade policies, etc.

Laber: I think we have to respond in a positive fashion and encourage the Soviet Union in this direction. I think it can only be for the good of our country, as well as then. Andrei Sakharov in one of his statements recently used the analogy, he said, “Which would you rather have living in the house next door to you, an angry, frustrated, resentful neighbor, trying to pretend to be something he isn’t…paranoid, suspicious. Or somebody who is as good as you are, healthy, happy, competing with you in the open marketplace?” And I think that’s really saying what should be said, that it’s much better for us to have a soviet union that is trying to improve its own standard of living, has given up the kind of paranoia that has characterized its foreign policy, than to have the country that we’ve been dealing with all these years. And I think it’s very important that the united states government face up to this because I think there are elements in the government that are very afraid to see “Glasnost” and Perestroika succeed in the soviet union.

Heffner: Our government or the soviet government?

Laber: Our government…well, both governments. (laughter) but ours as well.

Heffner: With the change in…due now in our government, do you see that as making a response more difficult, or easier perhaps? We will have a new President.

Laber: I think it’s about time. I think a new administration can bring in new forces, new ways of looking at this. The Regan Administration…I think it’s in a quandary at this point and I’m not sure where it will go as far as the Soviet Union is concerned. I’ve been actually surprised to see how far it has gone. I mean certain elements in the State Department, I think are responding properly. I’ve followed very closely the CSCE Conference that’s going on right now in Vienna. This is the Helsinki Conference that we monitor. And the US Delegation has taken a very sensible, I think and “you show us” type of attitude, but not hostilely. I mean it has commended the Soviet Union on progress with regard to human rights, for example. But constantly kept the pressure on to do more, to say, “this isn’t enough, you have to…we know what you’ve done, but we know what remains to be done”. And I think it’s been a good attitude, firm but also accepting.

Heffner: The Helsinki Watch which you direct is concerned with more, of course, than the Soviet Union. How fares freedom elsewhere in the world now? Are we finding “Glasnost” in the Soviet Union and its opposite in other parts of the world? Or is there a general warming?

Laber: Well, I just came back from a visit to both Poland and Czechoslovakia, looking for exactly that, to see what the effects of “Glasnost” were. And expecting them to be great. I as dismayed in Czechoslovakia to find that nothing has changed; terribly discouraged. And this may be changing at this very moment because things keep happening. I think the message that was given by Gorbachev in his seventieth anniversary speech, when he told Eastern Europe to go, “don’t follow us, do you own thing” could be interpreted in several different ways. But I noticed that the Czech delegation went home shortly after that and didn’t stay around for all the festivities. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I think we’ll find out. But at this point in Czechoslovakia the activists, the human rights activists with whom I met, members of the Charter Seventy-Seven Movement, were very discouraged because they had counted so much on Gorbachev’s visit to Prague, having some effect on their own government and saw nothing changed after that. On the other hand, in the opposite end of the spectrum is Poland, where everything is happening, much faster it seems than in the soviet union and nobody even talks about Gorbachev. When I would raise and say, “Well how much does this have to do with what’s going on in the soviet union?” they would sort of dismiss it and say, “oh, well we’re ten years ahead of the Russians” or “This is because of Solidarity, the Solidarity Movement in Poland, it’s not because of Gorbachev” and a few people even said, jokingly, “Gorbachev was because of Solidarity”.

Heffner: You think that’s true? It’s a point.

Laber: it’s worth thinking about. I think it’s too soon to sort of do the kind of historical analysis of where all these different forces are coming from and where they’re going to lead to. But it is a fascinating time and certainly the Solidarity Movement has had a big effect on its neighbors.

Heffner: What do you think it would legitimate for us to ask for, to watch for in terms of ascertaining whether “Glasnost’ is for real and whether it will impact upon the Soviet Union in terms of its foreign policy sufficiently for our safety?

Laber: Well, my main concern as Director of Helsinki Watch is with the human rights aspects of “Glasnost” and I know exactly what we’re watching for and what has to happen. The first is that there has to be an unconditional amnesty for all political prisoners and not only an amnesty, but these people have to be rehabilitated because even the people who have been released now, the some three hundred or so people that they have released, have been released very conditionally. They’ve been forced to sign statements saying they won’t do the same things again, which implies that they were guilty of what they were originally sent to prison for which was usually something like writing something that the government didn’t like or saying something that the government didn’t like. So that would certainly be the top of my list. I also think that the borders of the soviet union should be opened, both for people who want to emigrate, people who want to go back to visit, people who want to travel back and forth. I mean I think it should be like other countries of the world, with open borders for people to come and go as they please. I suspect that the Soviet Union would find that fewer people wanted to emigrate if they knew that they could go out and come back again.

Heffner: Ms. Laber for a great many people, the bet that we respectively make on the soviets and the meaning of “Glasnost” is basic to the decisions that we make about continuing to arm, continuing to develop strategic weapons, continuing to build a space defense shield. Therefore, your evaluation of what this is all about looms particularly large. And that’s why I started off by asking you what bets you would make here. Are you, are you…

Laber: I wouldn’t make any predictions. I would say that what’s happening is significant. It’s more significant than anything, any other period in modern soviet history that I have been witness to.

Heffner: And it coincides with a growing strategic defense on our part. It coincides with greater and greater military might on our part. Is that a fair statement?

Laber: Yes. And there are some who would say that that is in response to it.

Heffner: Yet there are others now who say, not that it’s in response to it, but that we should cut back and cut back and cut back to show the soviets that we’re good guys, too. How do you feel about that?

Laber: I certainly think we should match soviet initiatives in the area of disarmament with our own. There’s no question about that.

Heffner: You’re not concerned that we may be going down the garden path, led by “Glasnost”?

Laber: You mean…do you mean that they’re lying about what they’re…that they would be deceptive in their disarmament…

Heffner: Maybe I wouldn’t use the word “lying”, maybe I would use the word “leading”.

Laber: Well, it seems to me that our arms negotiators can determine that… I think that I really don’t think that the arms race suits the soviet strategy right now. I think it really is…it doesn’t help to build up the domestic economy if their major efforts are going into arms production, which is really what has been the problem all along. So I think that we can take it pretty seriously.

Heffner: All right let me go back to the other question, we have five minutes left, and I do want to get to this question of what the state of freedom is, of human rights is in other parts of the world. Are you more optimistic now than you were five years ago?

Laber: We’re talking now about the Eastern Bloc countries? Or…

Heffner: We’re talking about human rights around the world. In fact I would set aside the soviets and their satellites, if I may use the word.

Laber: Well, it’s a very mixed bag. You know we’ve seen some exciting things in recent years. What happened in the Philippines, what happened in Argentina. Things that make one think that there is a chance for peaceable change. On the other hand there are just horrendous things going on. The situation in Haiti today is unbelievable and there seems to be no way out. And in many countries, Chile is another example where things are just awful, a dictatorship that should have been unlodged long ago and just doesn’t get moved. People are being tortured in countries throughout the world, many of them with governments that the United States considers friendly allies. And there was a time when people didn’t know about this and you could say, “Well, it wasn’t exposed to the public eye”. Our job and Amnesty International’s job and many…and our own government, you know State Department’s human rights policies have all been devoted to exposing what’s happening in these countries. But exposure by itself sometimes does not seem to be enough.

Heffner: What does that tell you? What has it told you over the years, just between the two of us, about the nature of human nature?

Laber: Well, it tells me that people need to be pressured, that there’s nothing wrong with our interfering in what’s going on in other countries if, in fact, what’s going on is things like torture and political imprisonment. That shame and embarrassment can bring governments to change their policies, but that it doesn’t happen overnight and that the work has to continue and that as upsetting as it can be at times, we look to the places where we have been successful and know that if we keep up the pressure, it’s the only thing we can do and it’s the only that will, I hope, ultimately work.

Heffner: How concerned are we as a people, do you believe, about the nature of what you describe in other parts of the world?

Laber: I think there’s been a tremendous raise in consciousness in the United States and in the world in general about what’s happening in other parts of the world. And it’s no longer possible for most countries in the world to hide in their prisons or their torture cells what is going on. There are still some places that are totally closed to outside inspection. Places like North Korea, for example, or Albania where we just don’t’ know what’s happening. But on the whole, the world is becoming a smaller place, a more interdependent place and this is, of course, a very hopeful thing.

Heffner: I hear what it is that you’re saying about the world becoming a smaller place and we can look in on what goes on in the rest of the world. But I gather from what you said a moment ago, that what we see when we look in isn’t commensurate with the efforts that we have been making or with the public knowledge of what goes on. That change has not taken place to the extent that you anticipated.

Laber: Well, no I wouldn’t say that. I would say that I think it’s a mistake to be complacent about this and that monitoring may be necessary. I mean, we’re not perfect ourselves; our own country is subject to a lot of scrutiny as well. And it’s a healthy process and it would e a great mistake to say, “Well they have Glasnost in the soviet union. And we’re about to reach an arms treaty and everything is going to be perfect in this world’ because there are a lot of problems in this world and we have to constantly keep our attention on them.

Heffner: We have thirty seconds, forty seconds. Are you saying with that little aside before that we have counterpart concerns in this country?

Laber: I think that things are not perfect in the United States and it’s very important for us to look to our own freedoms and protect them as well. Because you know, if we just focus outwards and not see what’s going on sometimes, right in our own country, we can be making a terrible mistake.

Heffner: I’d like to talk with you more about that some other time and maybe argue it out with you, but thank you so much for joining me today, Jeri Laber.

Laber: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, and it’s a controversial one, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; the Lawrence A. Wein; and the New York Times Company Foundation and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.