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The Sakharov-Reagan Model for Toppling Totalitarian Regimes

July 2, 2008

Part two of an interview with distinguished Hoover fellow and former
Soviet dissident Yuri Yarim-Agaev
By Nataly Teplitsky
Epoch Times, San Francisco Staff
June 30, 2008

'Dissidents are like soldiers. They're veterans of the war for human rights.'

The Epoch Times: You were an organizer of a Hoover-sponsored
symposium "Building on Success" that focused, among other topics, on
mobilizing resistance to tyranny in the closing decade of the Cold War.

What motivated you to gather, as you put it, "the key players" --
policy makers of the Reagan administration, former Soviet and East
European dissidents, representatives of NGOs, and media, as well as
experts on totalitarianism and democratization?

Yuri Yarim-Agaev : The goal of the symposium was to discuss the
applicability of the Cold War experience to the efforts in
transforming contemporary closed societies to polities open to
democratic reforms.

The multitude of problems with our current attempts to promote
democratization throughout the world have occurred because instead of
using validated approaches with a proven record of accomplishment, we
turned to untested and often erroneous improvisatory policies.

The problems in Iraq and Afghanistan and the stalemate with North
Korea and Iran have broad implications and may suspend for many years
the prospects of promoting democracy world-wide.

In order to prevent failures in the future, which can undermine that
profound imperative, we need to reemphasize our previous success. One
of the mistakes of current American foreign policy is that it was not
built on that success.

The collapse of Soviet empire was the result of concerted and
relentless efforts of dissidents inside the Soviet Union, western
governments, NGOs, media, and cultural and academic communities.

Although this success was widely appreciated, few people seem to
realize that a generic model for democratization has emerged, the
potential application of which is not limited to dealing with Russian

ET: Are you talking about the so-called "Sakharov-Reagan model" that
worked really well in the process of collapsing the totalitarian
regime in the former Soviet Union?

Y-A: Sakharov and Reagan are two symbolic figures that embodied two
sides of this model. It might be called the Sakharov-Reagan model
since it relies on both non-violent dissident movement inside
totalitarian countries and decisive, determined and confident
policies by democratic governments.

To help topple totalitarian rule and build new democracy, one needs a
reliable political model applicable to the specific situation. The
Sakharov-Reagan model helped bring down the Soviet communist empire
and build democratic societies on parts of it.

The totalitarian regimes' survival is based not on its military
power, but rather on its acceptance by other countries, which allows
communist regimes to keep power.

ET: Why was the model actually forgotten?

Y-A: One of the reasons is that it did not conform to traditional
approaches, either military or diplomatic.

An even more important reason why this model has not been recognized
to date in its entirety may be that it was not contemplated a priori,
but rather occurred inductively, as an empirical result of
cooperation between various independent parties. These factors,
however, should not prevent us from a posteriori analysis, which
could clearly define both its rules of operation and its range of

For such an analysis, the involvement of all key participants you
have mentioned in your question was essential.

ET: What, in your opinion, is the prerequisite for a wide usage of this model?

Y-A: The first one is that it can be applied to the totalitarian
system when its ideology is in a decaying stage. And secondly, it
requires internal dissident movement.

I believe there are countries which fit into the range of its
applicability. We all agreed that Iran may be the most probable state
for this model.

In North Korea, the internal dissent already exists, but how visible
it is greatly depends on us. It does not matter that it is still in
nascent form, we need to try this approach as early as possible. It's
our goal to make it known and visible.

The establishment should be challenged everywhere.

ET: Do you think it is possible to apply this model to China?

Y-A: I believe that this model is fully applicable to China. I am
sure that communism is absolutely identical everywhere. And the
reason is that it is so totalitarian and deterministic, that it does
not leave any degrees of freedom and development. It destroys all
religious, ethnic, and historical foundations of all nations.

I talked to many Chinese, Cubans -- they say literally the same words
as if they have just come out from the Russian city of Voronezh, for
example. They repeat all stereotypes, not only political but domestic ones too.

Since communism is identical everywhere, an important conclusion that
follows is that all political, economic, and social patterns in one
country will be consistently repeated in all other countries with
communist regimes.

ET: Can you compare dissident movement in former Soviet Union to the
one in contemporary China?

Y-A: Mass character and possibilities of dissident movement in China
are more prominent now than it was in our times. I believe that the
key moment now is a Tibetan issue. If dissidents in China won't make
a Tibetan issue one of their main demands, it will be a catastrophic mistake.

We, Soviet dissidents, included in the scope of our efforts all the
problematic groups of people that existed in our totalitarian
country: Crimean Tatars, Jews, who wanted to immigrate to Israel,
Ukrainian nationalists, Lithuanians, and others who struggled for
separation. For example, [Ukrainian] General Grigorenko became a hero
of the Russian–Tatar war because he had been fighting for the return
of Crimean Tatars back to their land.

The main thing is information and as soon as there are people there
who can provide the information from inside, China and you at least
know who is imprisoned, then it is not a hopeless case.

This is what I had been fighting for back in the USSR and later when
I came here. I knew that the main thing was to not let this thin
string of information to be cut off. Then it would be the end of it.

ET: You know, today in China, almost all dissidents, like the famous
human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and many others, are imprisoned.

Y-A: Even if 95 percent of dissidents are in prison and the rest 5
percent can provide you with information, there is hope.

There are so many people in China now who are involved in the
dissident movement that it is highly improbable that they all could
be suppressed. Forms of their involvement could vary from going
underground to open protests.

I judge by what we had in our country, where I had lived and
struggled. I was impudent enough to openly communicate with American
diplomats and media and I was among very few ones who had sent this
information to the West.

There were also many Soviet spies, both in the USSR and abroad, so it
looks very similar to the current situation with China.

Before I was expelled, I made a list of all the dissidents I had
known who were either imprisoned or still free and those around them
who could be providing me with information.

ET: What helped you to cope with all these adversities?

Y-A: Being a dissident, one should not be naïve or unrealistic, but
one should be optimistic. Our traditional toast was "To the Success
of Our Hopeless Case!"

ET: What is your feeling as to whether the goal of the Hoover
symposium was achieved?

Y-A: The goal of the symposium was to set out the strategy that can
be replicated, reproduced. But what is hard to reproduce is the spirit.

It is essential to revitalize that spirit in this country, in the
U.S., as well as in the Western Europe, because without that spirit,
dissidents around the world won't get any support.

Hopefully, this spirit will inspire the young people in this country,
so a new generation of dissidents in new America will be born.
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