By BILL KELLER
Published: March 1, 2011
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.
The Russian government recently embarked on an alcohol crackdown. But until now, beer has eluded its grasp. That’s because brewski was (perhaps appropriately) categorized as a foodstuff, allowing brewers to avoid new regulations being rolled out to curb excessive drinking in Russia. On Tuesday, the lower house of the Russian parliament endorsed a bill to classify beer as alcohol. If the Kremlin-backed measure passes, it will limit beer sales at night and bar brew from being sold near schools. Though beer is not Russia’s traditional alcohol of choice, it’s become quite a problem for a people accustomed to kicking back vodka. “With a historic penchant for strong spirits,” writes Reuters, “many ordinary Russians regard beer as a soft drink.” Beer consumption has tripled in Russia over the past 15 years, although it still lags behind the United States. With Russians downing 32 pints of pure alcohol each per year (over twice the max amount recommended by the World Health Organisation), the nation’s alcohol habits are having a severe effect on its population growth. In light of these problems, officials from the ministry of health are cheering on the bill. “Normalising the beer production market and classifying it as alcohol is totally the right thing to do and will boost the health of our population,” said the ministry’s specialist on alcohol and drug abuse.