The New York Times March 1, 2011
How to Lose a Country Gracefully
By BILL KELLER
As a reporter, I covered two of the greatest losers of the last century. The superlative “greatest” applies both to the scale of the loss — Mikhail Gorbachev lost Russia and all of its colonies, F. W. de Klerk lost the richest country in Africa — and to the manner in which they lost it.
Our hearts understandably thrill to the courage of those who stand up to power — from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square and all the streets that now teem with the young and freedom-hungry. But there is another heroism, scarce and undervalued, that accrues to those who know how to stand down.
What Gorbachev and de Klerk did was not always pretty, and neither man is much celebrated in his own country these days. But each relinquished the power of an abusive elite without subjecting his country to a civil bloodbath. Afterward, they did not flee to the comfort of Swiss bank accounts. On the contrary, they managed a feat that is almost unthinkable in most of today’s erupting autocracies: after succumbing to democracy, they contributed to its legitimacy by becoming candidates for high office — and losing, fair and square. De Klerk, the last white president of a South Africa that oppressed blacks for centuries, actually pressed the flesh and pleaded for votes in black townships, professing a kind of civic kinship I think he genuinely felt. De Klerk and Gorbachev were triumphant partners in their own defeats, and thus in their countries’ victories.
It is always tricky comparing one country’s experience with another’s, but in the examples of these great losers there are some broad lessons for all the countries that are now convulsed by the revolutionary spirit — and for those of us who watch and assess them, not to mention those who bankroll and arm them.
Freedom is a slippery slope.
Both Gorbachev and de Klerk began as reformers — that is, politicians devoted to making a dreadful system less dreadful, not to actually abolishing it.
Perhaps because of the pressure exerted by years of international boycotts and decades of domestic insurgency, de Klerk was quicker than Gorbachev to recognize that his ruling party’s life project — a South Africa carved into a commonwealth of separate and independent nations, poor black ones and prosperous white ones — was cruelly absurd and ungovernable. By the time I arrived in 1992, he was already dragging his own party and some diehard white separatists into a raucous convention of factions, races and tribes to write a new constitution; white rule was clearly ending, and the only question was how ugly the end would be. Gorbachev, however, thought he was saving the Communist Party, right up to the day that party stalwarts tried to overthrow him.
Those regimes along the Mediterranean rim that are trying to hold back an angry tide by shuffling the cabinet or promising so-called reforms — Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia — may buy themselves some time, but revolutions have a way of overrunning reformers.
A little glasnost is a dangerous thing.
The regimes that have sent their thugs against the press and tried to unplug the Internet are right to fear the media. I’ve cringed under the truncheons of Iran’s official vigilantes, and I worry every day for the safety of the journalists we’ve deployed in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere. But I understand why journalists are targets.
Watching how the seep of information stirred ordinary Russians from a paralyzing fear was one of the true joys of covering Moscow’s spring. The Cold War voice of Radio Liberty, the underground copies of Solzhenitsyn and especially Gorbachev’s own attempts to deputize the Russian press by letting it expose corruption and incompetence — they all chipped away at the invincibility of the Soviet Union. Today it is Al Jazeera; WikiLeaked cables about the extravagant lifestyles of the ruling elites; and social media that are the fuel of popular insurgency. This is how the unhappy learn that their complaints are justified and that they have company. And with their vast reach and immediacy, Facebook and Twitter are not only sources of information but also organizing tools — samizdat on steroids.
Some of your best allies are in your jails.
Gorbachev freed Andrei Sakharov from exile; de Klerk released Nelson Mandela. Both leaders then enlisted their liberated adversaries as negotiating partners, buying some credibility at home and abroad. These partnerships inevitably fell victim to mistrust, but they helped assure that the end of the old order was managed rather than catastrophic.
Armies are people, too.
We tend to think of armies as instruments. But they are also constituencies with families to feed, jobs to protect, a stake in the future, a yearning for respect. If a leader can command his army only with threats of summary execution or by holding family members hostage, as Libya’s desperate despot, Muammar el-Qaddafi, is reported to have done, you can safely bet his days are numbered.
One of the smartest things de Klerk did to prevent the civil war many feared in South Africa was to negotiate job security for the apartheid-era army. And one of the smartest things Nelson Mandela did was accede to this demand, so that when he became the first president of free South Africa, he inherited a military that regarded him as their paymaster.
One man’s dead nuisance is another’s martyr.
It is not a coincidence that the surge points of the current political unrest tend to be funerals, as they were in South Africa and several restive Soviet republics. From the massacre in Sharpeville to the protesters crushed under the tank treads of a rogue army unit in Soviet Lithuania, from the persecuted fruit vendor who immolated himself in Tunisia to the crowds strafed in Libya, the dead live on as evidence of a regime’s cruelty. And few cultures cherish their martyrs as devoutly as Islam does.
Winning is the easy part.
Congratulations, you ousted the tyrant, you won an election, your inaugural address stirred the hearts of your people. Now here’s your giant goodie bag of festering misery — Egypt! — where the army runs the private sector, the mullahs may or may not be spoiling to impose shariah law, the tourists have been scared off, poverty and unemployment are rife and any day the score-settling will begin.
Today, Russia and South Africa are disillusioned democracies. Wretched poverty, crime and bad governance bedevil South Africa. Russia is corrupt and intolerant of political dissent, sometimes brutally so. Yet each country has grown bigger middle classes, expanded individual liberties and mostly kept its armies at peace. And if the Russians or South Africans run out of patience with their imperfect leaders, they have some hope of remedies other than the streets.
Gorbachev turned 80 earlier this month, and de Klerk will be 75 soon. Happy birthday to both, and here’s to those who make history by gracefully getting out of its way.