Andrei Kozyrev was foreign minister of Russia under President Boris Yeltsin from August 1991 to January 1996. During the August 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, he was present when tanks moved in to seize the Russian White House, where Boris Yeltsin famously stood on a tank to address the crowd assembled. He then departed to Paris to muster international support and, if needed, to form a Russian government-in-exile. He participated in the negotiations at Brezhnev’s former hunting lodge in Belazheva, Belarus where the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus agreed to secede from the Soviet Union and form a Commonwealth of Independent States. Kozyrev’s pro-Western orientation made him an increasingly unpopular figure in Russia as Russia’s spiraling economy and the emergence of ultra-wealthy oligarchs soured ordinary Russians on Western ideas of democracy and market capitalism.
The Firebird takes the reader into the corridors of power to provide a startling eyewitness account of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the struggle to create a democratic Russia in its place, and how the promise of a better future led to the tragic outcome that changed our world forever.
About the Author
Table of ContentsContents Foreword by Michael McFaul Author’s Note Introduction: A Matter of Life and Death Part I. Russia versus the Soviet Union, 1991 1. The Russian White House under Siege 2. A New Russia Is Born from the Flames Part II. Climbing a Steep Slope, 1992–1994 3. Cooperation with the Post-Socialist States 4. Putting Out Fires in Conflict Zones 5. Reinventing Relationships with the West and East 6. Shared Fate: Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics 7. Balkan Complications 8. The Battle for the Kremlin 9. Opportunities and Anxieties Part III. The Downward Slope, 1994–1996 10. The End of the Beginning Epilogue: Can Russian Democracy Rise Again? Acknowledgments Index
Reading Group Guide
Foreword by Michael McFaul
I first met Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev in 1990 when the Soviet Union still had a foreign minister of its own, Eduard Shevardnadze. I was part of an American delegation in Moscow to conduct a workshop on democracy on behalf of the National Democratic Institute, so we decided to pay a courtesy call to this newly appointed official in Boris Yeltsin’s government. Obviously, his job description at the time was eccentric. He was the foreign minister for the Russian Republic, then simply one of fifteen republics that constituted the Soviet Union. It was the equivalent of being the foreign minister of California. At that time, the fate of the Soviet Union was not certain; the job therefore of the Russian foreign minister was ambiguous at best.
Minister Kozyrev made a huge positive impression on me and our delegation as a whole. His commitment to democratic reforms at home and closer relations with the West were obvious. As a PhD student at Oxford University at the time writing about Soviet and American policies towards southern Africa, I actually had read some of his written work before our meeting. Seeing opportunity in Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika, he had boldly published articles repudiating the Soviet construct of "international class struggle" as the basis for its foreign policy and was especially critical of Soviet adventurism in what was called back then the "Third World." In person, he was even more impressive. He was not trying to find a third way between Soviet communism and Western democracy; he was seeking to join the West. Kozyrev embraced the audacious idea that Russians would be better off as partners of the United States and as citizens of Europe. I could trace no lingering legacy of Cold War thinking in his fresh, blunt, and candid assessment of the possibilities of collaboration between our two countries. I remember leaving that meeting with the following thought: if Russian Foreign Minister Kozyrev someday does become the Soviet Foreign Minister, we have a real chance of ending the Cold War for good.
Andrei Kozyrev, however, never became the Soviet foreign minister. Instead, he was part of a circle of other young reformers around Boris Yeltsin, who helped to bring down the Soviet Union. Disillusion with outmoded Soviet ways and an emerging aspiration toward liberal-democratic ideals was their shared calling card. From the summer of 1990 until the summer of 1991, the Soviet government and the Russian government dueled over divergent visions for the future of the country. In August 1991, this standoff precipitated an inflection moment when a group of hardliners within the Soviet government placed Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest and attempted a coup. Yeltsin and his supporters resisted. Kozyrev was in the Russian White Housethe home of the Russian government at the timewhen the Soviet Armed Forces moved to seize the building during this coup attempt. He was present when Boris Yeltsin defiantly stood on a tank to address the crowd that had gathered to support of the Russian government against the coup plotters. After three tumultuous days, the coup failed and momentum for Soviet dissolution accelerated. Kozyrev then participated in the secret negotiations at Brezhnev's former hunting lodge deep in the primeval forest of Belovezha, Belarus, where the leaders of the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus agreed to secede, recognize each other's sovereignty, and dissolve the Soviet Union to form a new Commonwealth of Independent States. Instead of becoming Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev became the first Foreign Minister of a newly independent Russia, a position in which he served for five years.
The first months after the failed August 1991 coup were filled with optimism, both in Russia and the West. At the time, Time magazine trumpeted, "Serfdom's End: A thousand years of autocracy are reversed." However it may look in hindsight, this hopeful sentiment was not unusual. Leaders from the democratic world embraced the new government in Moscow, and Andrei Kozyrev was their perfect interlocutor. As someone who clearly identified with the reformers in Yeltsin’s government, but also had been educated at the Institute of International Relationsthe Soviet training academy for grooming new diplomatsand held previous experience in the Soviet foreign ministry, Kozyrev had the perfect mix of skills, ideas, and experience to serve a newly independent Russia as its top diplomat at this crucial moment in history. For five years, Kozyrev pursued Russia’s national interest on the global stage honorably and capably.
At home, however, the transitions from communism to capitalism and from autocracy to democracy were extremely painful. During the 1990s, Russians endured major and sustained economic depression, much worse than Americans experienced in the 1930s. The same White House which Kozyrev helped to defend in August 1991 was again attacked by tanks in October 1993, this time not by enemies of the Russia state, but by the president of Russia himself, Boris Yeltsin. The causes of this standoff between the Russian president and parliament in 1993 were complicated; there were no white hats and black hats in this tragedy. But tragically, if understandably, few Russians could draw inspiration about the practice of democracy from these political events especially against the backdrop of economic collapse. These intertwined political and economic outcomes laid waste to Russia’s democratic aspirations, and opened a path for the eventual return of authoritarian rule.
As someone firmly identified with Yeltsin and the market reformers, Foreign Minister Kozyrev became an increasingly unpopular figure in Russia. Of course, Kozyrev himself had no direct responsibility for either the economy or domestic politics, but the reputation of everyone in Yeltsin’s government at the time suffered. As he discusses in the pages of this book, Kozyrev himself became frustrated by Yeltsin’s increasingly chaotic behavior, and therefore decided to step down from his position as foreign minister in 1996 after successfully running for a seat in the new Russian parliament. As a member of parliament, Kozyrev continued to argue for closer engagement with the West. After one term, he retired from political life and pursued a career in the private sector, later settling in the United States.
Kozyrev’s memoir represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the first years of Russian independence. As we now move past the twenty-fifth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S.–Russian relations are at a level of hostility in some ways more intense than during the twilight years of the Cold War. This new conflict has its origins in the events of the early post-Soviet erain exactly the handful of years that Kozyrev is crucially positioned to shed light on. He provides an account as one who witnessed, from the highest levels of independent Russia’s first government, how the international conflicts contributing to this renewed East–West confrontation first took root in confusion and misunderstanding. In tracing the origins of the most intractable problems that now lay at the heart of our new confrontation era in U.S.-Russian relations, Kozyrev reveals how in 1992 he denounced the hardline Russian security and military forces that were fueling regional conflicts in Georgia, Moldova, Karabakh, and Crimea. These would later solidify as Putin’s aggression and “frozen conflicts” on Russia’s periphery today.
Through Kozyrev’s eyes we see how hardliners in Russia, who had only grudgingly accepted Eastern Europe joining Western economic institutions, balked at the prospect of these states cooperating with, let alone joining, the old foe NATO. The prospect of expanded NATO influence is what drew the first signs of outright opposition, from more than just the Communists, against Yeltsin’s administration. According to Kozyrev, even honest diplomatic communications between the Yeltsin and Clinton governments failed to convey accurately either American intentions or Russian reservations during the early stages of NATO expansion, with consequences that we live with to this day and that Putin still uses to spin his dark tale of Western animosity to Russia’s rightful destiny. If we ever get the opportunity to change dynamics in Russian-American relations, we should try to learn from our past mistakes. The Firebird provides many useful lessons.
In this memoir, we also re-experience historical events with a personal, as well as a public, aspect. We see Kozyrev scrambling to contact the White House from that remote hunting lodge in Belarus to inform President Bush of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There is the comical description of an alcohol-fueled and nearly disastrous late-night dinner between Boris Yeltsin and Poland’s president, Lech Walesa. And then there is the story behind Kozyrev’s famous “Stockholm Surprise” speech that was designed to shock a gathering of world leaders with its (feigned) hostile Soviet-style rhetoric. These episodes and many others add fascinating highlights to a substantive treatment of the missed opportunities and warning signs of the early years of the post-Soviet era.
The Firebird is not just a retrospective memoir, but also a guide to new possibilities for Russia and her foreign relations in the future. Kozyrev shows how some of the main issues of the current U.S.–Russian conflict have their source in the earliest days of Russian independence. He also explains how Russian popular opinion and Russian leaders, particularly with regard to attitudes toward the West, are strongly linked and ultimately not to be ignored. By detailing some of the mistakes and opportunities missed by Russian and Western leaders alike, Andrei Kozyrev offers key ideas and critical insights for how to formulate a more effective policy toward Russia.
Perhaps readers of this honest, detailed, and ultimately hopeful memoir will be inspired to once again believe that democracy has not yet seen its final days in Russia.