Focus on Issues Gorbachev’s ‘potemkin Villages’
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Focus on Issues Gorbachev’s ‘potemkin Villages’

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Two hundred years ago, in 1787, Catherine the Great put on an extraordinary public relations effort to convince a Western monarch, Joseph II of Austria, of her benevolence and popularity.

The Tsarina’s principal adviser, Prince Gregory Potemkin, had supervised the erection in the Ukraine and Crimea of entire artificial villages containing but one street, and arranged for peasant masses to greet exultantly the traveling Russian Empress accompanied by her Hapsburg colleague. The “Potemkin villages” almost worked but, in the end, the Western monarch failed to succumb to the Russian public relations gambit.

Remarkably, today’s Kremlin ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, has put on a similar fabulous show in Vienna where the third review conference of the Helsinki Final Act is being held. (The others took place in Belgrade in 1977-78 and in Madrid in 1980-83).

The aim of the current “Potemkin villages” is to demonstrate to Western leaders and populace the Soviet Union’s “new look” of benevolence in the field of human rights and humanitarian affairs. But whether this artful image-building, even if at times awkwardly managed, has succeeded in convincing anyone is open to question.


That a massive Soviet public relations effort was extended in the absence of positive human rights steps could easily be understood. The Helsinki Final Act, while sanctioning the Soviet objective of making the post-war borders of Eastern Europe “inviolable,” also made “human rights and fundamental freedoms” a regulating “principle” of interstate relations and obligated the 35 signatories to adhere to the various “humanitarian” purposes spelled out in Basket 3 of the accord.

Moscow’s non-compliance and monumental abridgements of the Helsinki provisions were self-evident. It was not only that the Helsinki monitors in the USSR, legitimized by the language of the accord, had been smashed, dispersed, or jailed, but Jewish emigration had reached the lowest level in over two decades.

Refuseniks were trapped in a Kafkaesque world of helplessness and ostracism. Despite Gorbachev’s promise on French television in October 1985 that Jewish refuseniks would be allowed to leave after 5 to 10 years, some 10,000 in this category remain caged, with almost no hope of obtaining exit visas.

Targeted by world public opinion as the principal abuser of human rights and inevitably placed on the defensive, Moscow in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s became increasingly indifferent to the promotion of the Helsinki accord. The hereto exalted agreement was unceremoniously dropped in 1980 from the Communist Party slogans, annually issued on the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.

But Gorbachev decided to reverse this trend. Benefits from the Helsinki accord in the security field (Basket 1), including the expectation of a disarmament conference in Stockholm, were too meaningful and palpable. He even proposed in his unprecedented Vladivostok address in July that a Helsinki-type accord be drafted for Asia and the Pacific area.


With Helsinki once again a centerpiece of Soviet policy, how to deal with human rights and humanitarianism? Orwellian inversion was required: Simply claim that the USSR embraced the concepts, indeed championed them. That’s precisely what the cynical Gorbachev did in his policy address to the 27th Party Congress last February and in a speech greeting French President Francois Mitterrand in July.

The new Soviet posture necessitated a fundamental change of style at the Vienna meeting. No longer would inquiring reporters, non-governmental representatives, divided spouses and even aggrieved family members of human rights victims be brushed aside or avoided. The contrary was the case.

The Western media was meticulously cultivated. An unheard-of six press conferences during the opening week of the Vienna meeting in November was called by Soviet public relations officials, headed by Ambassador-at-large Vladimir Lomeiko and Gennadi Gerasimov. Western journalists were deliberately sought out and advised: “You know things are changing since the bad old days.”

Soviet delegates responded to almost every request for a meeting (only Andrei Sakharov’s stepson, Aleksei Semyenov, was refused) and courteously, even sympathetically, they listened to pleas about emigration restrictions and refuseniks.

Promises to look into individual cases were made and assurances were given of either arranging meetings with top Soviet officials or reporting back to the inquirer. But the promises were rarely, if ever, kept.


As to whether the Soviet Union would change its emigration policy, Kremlin officials repeatedly pointed to the forthcoming publication of rules and regulations covering exit visas beginning on January 1, 1987. While this stirred hope in some quarters, concern was registered that talk about the rules remained vague.

Later, when the regulations became available, all optimism was shattered. The only significant change that the new rules offered was that an applicant for an exit visa would be given an answer within a month. The shape of things to come was indicated in the monthly Jewish emigration figures, which averaged a mere 75.


For a fitting climax to the new Kremlin style, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze dropped a public relations bombshell. After contending that the USSR “attaches paramount significance” to the Helsinki “principle” on “human rights and fundamental freedoms” (it was in fact the first time a Soviet official had even referred in a positive manner to this Helsinki “principle”), he then proposed holding in Moscow “a representative conference” of the Helsinki signatories to discuss a whole range of “humanitarian” problems.

Shevardnadze, of course, said nothing about whether ordinary Soviet citizens, including activists and dissidents, and international human rights non-governmental representatives would have access to delegates (as in the case of all Helsinki meetings). Soviet public relations officials in Vienna were extraordinarily vague in responding to reporters’ normal queries on the “Potemkin village” proposal.


Whatever illusions may have existed began crumbling once the delegates moved from the public forum to the closed meetings, where sharp questions on Soviet conduct would be posed. Here concrete case studies of refuseniks and of Helsinki monitors were movingly presented by the head of the U.S. delegation, Ambassador Warren Zimmerman, and by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D. Md.), chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

The “new look” suddenly evaporated. Soviet delegates retorted with the standard response: What about the millions of homeless and unemployed in the United States?

Yet, the Gorbachev “Potemkin villages” can be expected to continue. Kremlin talk about human rights and humanitarian affairs will extend beyond government bureaus (the Foreign Ministry houses a new department incredibly called “Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs”) and shortly to-be-created “citizens” commissions on human rights to regular state-issued reports on the presumed human rights condition of Helsinki signatories.

Meanwhile, little if anything is projected beyond the well-timed release of a tiny handful of activists, cancer victims and divided spouses. The “Potemkin villages” strategy serves but to lull world opinion while doing virtually nothing in the human rights field.

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