MOSCOW — Mikhail Gorbachev needed help, and he needed it badly. Angry hard-liners were stepping up their resistance to his economic reform package. And now Boris Yeltsin, just sworn in as president of the Russian Federation, was pushing for a radical, sweeping and urgent restructuring. Caught between them, with his economy and, he feared, his country unraveling, Gorbachev went to London in search of assistance.
On July 17, 1991, the Soviet president met with leaders of what was then called the Group of 7: the world’s major democratic powers. Gorbachev felt this was his one chance to sell them on his reform plan. And if he had their backing, he believed he might make it work back home. Though he had been told in advance not to expect material aid, he still hoped he might persuade the leaders of the capitalist world to come up with billions of dollars to help the Soviet Union with its transition.
For four hours, Gorbachev met with President George H.W. Bush, Prime Minister John Major and other leaders atLancaster House, near Buckingham Palace. He argued that his plan to shift by stages to a market-oriented economy was the right way to go. Bush told him it wouldn’t work unless he cut military spending, which at that time amounted to more than 20 percent of the Soviet Union’s GDP. Gorbachev (who two weeks later would announce sharp cuts in the size of the Soviet Navy) brought to bear the full force of his sometimes charming personality. This looked like a make-or-break moment for him. By the end of the session, he was exhausted, and asked the others for time to compose himself.
Then he appeared with Major at a press conference. The G-7 countries were in his corner. They pledged immediate help in planning and carrying out his reforms. Whatever advice the Soviets felt they needed, the West was ready to give it. Major said it was no longer the G-7, but the Seven Plus One. They embraced Gorbachev. They didn’t give him any money.
Gorbachev said that beginning the dialogue and establishing a permanent relationship with the rich nations was not to be scoffed at. “We are not even talking about assistance here,” he said. “We are talking about a new quality of cooperation when we become organically part of the world’s economic space.”
But Major raised the most difficult point. “We all agreed to work together to promote the integration of the Soviet economy into the world economy,” he said, “but we also agreed that our help would not have lasting effect unless there was a clear political will in the Soviet Union to create the environment for change.”
But did the Soviet Union, as it was then constituted, have the will? Powerful figures in the Supreme Soviet were acutely hostile to the idea of change, if it meant turning away from the communist ideal of state ownership of the means of production. Yeltsin’s forceful advocacy for a thorough abandonment of communism only increased their ire and their determination not to give in.
On a different question, Gorbachev had more success that day. He and Bush got together atWinfield House, the American ambassador’s residence, and agreed to sign a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The two sides had been negotiating the treaty for nine years, and up to the last minute it looked as though significant snags remained. But the Soviet foreign minister, Alexander Bessmertnykh, had told Secretary of State James Baker that morning that Moscow would compromise on payload restrictions being sought by the United States.
After the presidents met, Gorbachev told a joint press conference about the agreement. He said that it had cleared the way for Bush to visit him in Moscow at the end of July for a bilateral summit — an event Gorbachev had been pushing for all year. Helen Thomas of UPI asked which side had capitulated.
Bush, suddenly annoyed, said there doesn’t always have to be a winner and a loser.
“It’s our common victory,” Gorbachev said, then cut the news conference short.
He had helped to relieve the Soviet Union of a tremendous future financial burden by agreeing to the treaty. But it wasn’t as though that would translate into cash he could take back to Moscow to help the country make it through the summer. Gorbachev was faced with immediate and dire problems. Putting as good a face on his London visit as he could, he hurried back to the Kremlin.