Sombre Thoughts in San Francisco
by Stephen Schwartz
The Armenian national flag is a sombre affair, a horizontal tricolour of red, blue, and orange. It reminds one of sunset over a long, dusty road; of ancient rivers, of blood. When Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in San Francisco the evening of June 3, 1990, he was greeted by dozens of Armenian banners waving in the foggy dark. Outraged by the killing of nationalist militants in Soviet Armenia, California's half-million Armenian community – the largest in the Armenian diaspora – turned out a large delegation to protest the president's visit.
California governor George Deukmejian, an Armenian as well as a conservative Republican with considerable support from the local business community, was waiting at the Soviet consular residence to greet Gorbachev – and to bring up the economic boycott that has been declared by the Soviet government against Armenia. It was there, with Deukmejian waiting on the pavement, that Gorbachev made the second major blunder of his trip. Pleading lack of time, he left Deukmejian in the courtyard, although presenting the California governor with a medal for aid to the Armenian earthquake victims.
The next day, once again, a substantial encounter with Deukmejian was avoided. As Gorbachev arrived at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel for an afternoon banquet, his limousine entered the parking lot, where the gate swung shut just ahead of Deukmejian's vehicle.
The latter snub, in which a visiting Soviet dignitary humiliated the governor of an American state on the latter's own ground, seemed to sum up the dominant style of Soviet politics over many decades, even under Gorbachev.
As noted, however, these were not the first such missteps. An error of much greater importance came during his press conference just days before in Washington, when Gorbachev declared his government might block further emigration of Jews unless the U.S. were to pressure Israel to ensure they would not be settled in the occupied territories. In the U.S., where Jewish opinion is so influential, this was a statement of no small consequences. It was reported some time later that Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze had assured U.S. secretary of state James Baker that no disruption in orderly emigration should be anticipated.
The 150 or so American business leaders who gathered at a banquet in San Francisco to welcome the Soviet president were wary. Gorbachev urged those present to commit early to investment in the U.S.S.R., arguing that those who acted boldly would reap profits. "Those who cooperate with us now will see many more opportunities for further cooperation, but those who stay on the sidelines will remain there – and I think that will be fair," Gorbachev declared.
He insisted, "we are now watching – watching those who are risking something and who are willing to cooperate at this time and watching those who stand on the sidelines." He promised that rouble convertibility, a major problem for Western business, would soon be introduced, but offered no details.
Business people at the luncheon applauded Gorbachev, but most said they had come more out of a desire to show hospitality than out of interest in the Soviet economy. "This is an event, not a relationship builder," commented one executive. Another said, "Our attendance is just a civic expression of welcome." Indeed, the whole visit seemed to have provided little more than an opportunity for an orgy of Californian narcissism.
If there was anything for Gorbachev to celebrate in his San Francisco visit, it was his meeting with Roh Tae Woo, president of South Korea. The contact represented an undeniable breakthrough in Soviet Pacific relations. Gorbachev alluded to the importance of this event by quoting the 19th century Russian liberal Aleksandr Herzen, who described the Pacific Basin as a "future Mediterranean."
Such comments were appropriate, for the Roh meeting curiously skewed Gorbachev's performance at this summit. In the final reckoning of things, he accomplished more on his side trip to the U.S. West Coast than in his talks with president George Bush.
But Gorbachev might have been better served had he recalled another quote from Herzen. The following comment appears in the 1855 work From the Other Shore:
"The revolution of Peter the Great replaced the obsolete squirearchy of Russia – with a European bureaucracy; everything that could be copied from the Swedish and German laws, everything that could be taken over from the free municipalities of Holland into our half communal, half absolutist country, was taken over. But the unwritten, the moral check on power, the instinctive recognition of the rights of man, of the rights of thought, of truth, could not be and were not imported."