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Wednesday, April 20, 2005 | International political leaders failed to take advantage of the opportunities that followed the end of the Cold War, thereby widening the disparity between the world’s haves and have-nots.

That was one of the messages Mikhail Gorbachev, former head of the Soviet Union, delivered to the 11,000 attendees of the National School Boards Association in San Diego last weekend.

“We see that the gap between the rich and the poor has not diminished but has actually grown,” he said.

The root of the world’s problems, he said, is the failure of international political leaders to address the crushing poverty that plagues half the world’s population. “As a result, many people have become disenchanted with the political process and even with democracy, and are beginning to turn to undemocratic leaders,” he said.

Gorbachev repeatedly emphasized how important it is for political leaders to address these vital concerns of society, “especially in times of instability.”

The 74-year-old international icon of the 1980s said he began developing his ideas for economic, political and social reform – ideals later to be known collectively as “Perestroika” – as he rose through the ranks of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party in the 1970s and 1980s. He served as General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1985 to 1991.

A loyal Communist for most of his life, Gorbachev said his ideological transformation was gradual and not triggered by any one specific event. “When was the moment I concluded of the need for profound change? I came to this conclusion as a result of a long life in politics,” he said.

This year, he noted, is the 20th anniversary of the beginning of Perestroika, which effectively ended 70 years of totalitarian rule and allowed his country to move toward a system of freedom, openness and democracy.

The long road to democracy

Russia’s problems though, Gorbachev said, are temporary. “Russia will move forward to be a free and democratic country,” he said, one that is “more stable, more just, more humane. This is the task before us.”

As the only remaining superpower in the world, the United States can claim a leadership role, Gorbachev said, either by imposing its will on others or by forming partnerships. “The first model will be rejected, but the second model is exactly what people want,” he said.

Referring obliquely to U.S. involvement abroad, Gorbachev said, “Democratic governments should not act according to a different yardstick in the international community.”

Russia’s future, said Gorbachev, depends upon full integration in the world community. “Russia could become a key partner with the U.S., and not only in fighting terrorism,” he said. “But we will not accept a role as junior partner.”

As for the future of Russia, he said, “I continue to believe that without strengthening democracy and strengthening the rights and freedoms of the individual, it would be difficult if not impossible to modernize Russia and to address the multiple problems of our people.”

For a related story on Gorbachev and his comments on education, click here.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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