Protesters outside the National Gallezy (left); Gorbachev and Mulroney at a lunch in the gallery: rising nationalism
Mikhail Gorbachev set the tone for his North American visit soon after he arrived in Ottawa last week. During a 29½-hour visit, before leaving for Washington to attend the summit with President George Bush, the Soviet leader proved himself a master at working crowds. In the process, he enjoyed a reception that is increasingly rare in his beleaguered homeland: warm, loud, sustained applause and approval from a largely appreciative audience. Between official engagements, which included 4 Vá hours of talks with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and a wreath-laying ceremony at the National War Memorial, Gorbachev twice took time to walk the streets and meet Canadians. During one hour-long walk on the downtown Sparks Street Mall, many of the spectators who crowded the barricades flanking Gorbachev’s path voiced appreciation for the powerful Russian’s accessibility. “I never thought he would spend so much time just with normal people like us,” said Ottawa resident Sandra Warden. “Lots of politicians come here, but we barely catch a glimpse of them. Gorby is different, and I think that is wonderful.”
Both Soviet and Canadian officials stressed
the significance of the visit. They deflected any suggestion that it was just a stopover on the way to Washington and pointed instead to the fact that the Soviet president forcefully aired his views on such vital East-West issues as the reunification of Germany. Soviet aides also pointed out that Canada had helped Gorbachev crystallize his reform policies during his first trip to the country in 1983. At that time, Gorbachev was a rising member of the powerful Soviet Politburo with responsibility for state agriculture. And, according to the Soviet aides, his experiences visiting farms with then-agriculture minister Eugene Whelan and seeing well-stocked supermarkets across Canada helped to convince Gorbachev that the Soviet Union needed considerably more economic, and personal, freedom.
As the Soviet Union struggles to remain intact after the momentous changes that he set in motion, Gorbachev made a brief, impromptu plea for unity in Canada. At a time when debate over the Meech Lake accord is fanning separatist sentiment in Quebec, the Soviet leader implored Canadians during his Sparks Street walk not to break their country into regional fragments. Declared the president: “You’re
going to cut with an axe something which is alive.”
At the same time, reminders of rising nationalism within the Soviet Union were prominent. In a capital bedecked with Canadian and Soviet flags for the state visit, demonstrators favoring independence for the Soviet Union’s three Baltic republics waved their national flags: the yellow, green and red stripes of Lithuania, the blue, black and white bars of Estonia and the burgundy and white colors of Latvia. At one point during the Soviet leader’s slow progress along Sparks Street, a member of the KGB security detail briefly led the way with an Estonian flag that he had wrested from a demonstrator’s hands after it came too close to Gorbachev’s head.
Gorbachev himself accepted the presence of the pro-Baltic demonstrators with a coolness that impressed 21-year-old Imre Sooaar of Toronto when he chatted briefly with the Soviet leader in Russian. Said Sooaar, who fled Estonia last year in order to avoid serving in the Red Army: “To them, I am a deserter— and yet he spoke to me.”
Still, Gorbachev later expressed anger at the way in which Lithuania had sought to leave the Soviet Union. The Kremlin received only 10 hours’ notice that the Lithuanian parliament planned to pass a declaration of independence on March 11, he said. He compared that with an agreement negotiated in 1988 between France and the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia that will give the French territory the right to hold a referendum on its independence in 10 years.
Mulroney acknowledged that Canada also faces the problem of rising nationalism, although the Prime Minister swiftly rejected comparisons between the Baltic drive for independence and the separatist movement in Quebec. The Soviet Union forcibly annexed the Baltic states in 1940, noted Mulroney, an incorporation that Canada has never recognized. By contrast, he said, Quebec was an architect of Confederation in 1867, and its aspirations could be satisfied “in an honorable and constructive accommodation through the Meech Lake accord.”
At times, Mulroney appeared almost awestruck by the confident public style that Gorbachev maintained despite his crushing problems. Shortly after the Soviet leader’s arrival in Ottawa, following a nine-hour flight, he fielded a reporter’s question about the election of radical politician Boris Yeltsin as chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the powerful Russian republic. Mulroney immediately tried to shepherd his guest into his official residence at 24 Sussex Drive. Said the Prime Minister: “You do not have to answer that.” But Gorbachev responded vigorously, taking 10 minutes to
express his hope that he could work together with the 59-year-old Yeltsin. And on the morning after his first downtown walk, Mulroney, clearly impressed, welcomed him at the war memorial with the words “I saw you on television last night.”
More media-oriented events followed. During an unscheduled 15-minute walk from the cenotaph to nearby Parliament Hill, an enthusiastic crowd of spectators called Gorbachev’s name and stretched across police barricades to shake his hand. Television and news photographers, including a pool of Soviet journalists accompanying the president, recorded those flattering images. Then, deftly avoiding a potentially unpleasant encounter, Gorbachev stepped into his long black Zil 117-model limousine just before he reached more than 1,000 pro-Baltic demonstrators who were massed on the Hill.
Generally, Gorbachev’s brief visit to Ottawa was a smashing success. Thousands of Canadians saw one of the world’s foremost celebrities in person. And in an emotional scene at Canadian Forces Base Uplands near Ottawa, about a dozen top-level Canadian dignitaries waved a friendly goodbye as Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, boarded their aircraft for Washington. The president’s generally sympathetic reception provided the Soviet leader with a welcome respite from the draining tasks that awaited him at home, where an increasingly restive population is demanding more than skilful public relations.
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