Lost hopes in Rus­sia af­ter wall’s fall

NATO’s ex­pan­sion seen as proof of hos­tile in­ten­tions

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By Vladimir Isachenkov

MOSCOW — When the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union stepped back, let­ting East Ger­many’s com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment collapse and then quickly ac­cept­ing Ger­man unificatio­n. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin now blames the Soviet lead­er­ship for naiveté that paved the way for NATO’s ex­pan­sion east­ward.

Many in Rus­sia share that view, see­ing the collapse of the Berlin Wall and re­uni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many as a mo­ment when Moscow reached out to the West hop­ing to forge a new era of part­ner­ship but was cheated by West­ern pow­ers.

For­mer Soviet Pres­i­dent Mikhail Gorbachev en­cour­aged the Com­mu­nist lead­ers in Cen­tral and East­ern Europe to fol­low his lead in launch­ing lib­eral re­forms and took no ac­tion to shore up their regimes when they started to crum­ble un­der the pres­sure of pro-democ­racy forces. Dur­ing 1989, re­form­ers took power across Soviet bloc coun­tries, end­ing more than four decades of Com­mu­nist rule.

The swift­ness of the change took Gorbachev him­self by sur­prise.

The ex-Soviet leader said in a re­cent in­ter­view, ahead of the 30th an­niver­sary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, that he wel­comed demo­cratic changes in East Ger­many and other Soviet bloc coun­tries but didn’t fore­see the Berlin Wall to come down that quickly.

“Not only us, but our West­ern part­ners didn’t ex­pect that the pace of his­tory would be so fast,” Gorbachev told news­pa­per Izves­tia.

The morn­ing af­ter the Berlin Wall’s collapse, Gorbachev called a ses­sion of the Com­mu­nist Party’s rul­ing Polit­buro to dis­cuss a Soviet re­sponse.

“The Polit­buro unan­i­mously de­cided that the use of force must be ab­so­lutely ruled out. Some were cer­tainly ea­ger to ‘re­store or­der’ with tanks, but they kept mum then,” he said in the in­ter­view.

Pavel Palazhchen­ko, who worked as Gorbachev’s in­ter­preter at the time, said that “any other de­ci­sion could have had ex­tremely se­ri­ous, grave con­se­quences, could have been the be­gin­ning of a dis­as­ter.”

The Soviet Union had more than 300,000 troops and more than 12,000 tanks and other ar­mored ve­hi­cles in East Ger­many.

“Prac­ti­cally they could have closed the en­tire bor­der with their tanks, but they stayed in their bar­racks,” said Vladislav Zubok, an ex­pert on Soviet his­tory with the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics. “It was clear to the Soviet lead­er­ship that it was im­pos­si­ble to put the paste back into the tube. A new era started.”

Niko­lai An­dreyev, who was a Soviet army colonel in East Ger­many, said he was re­lieved to see that the Soviet lead­er­ship didn’t try to re­claim con­trol by force­ful means.

“I was happy that it all hap­pened peace­fully, with­out a mil­i­tary con­flict, with­out any shoot­ing and blood­shed,” he said.

The Soviet Union it­self was go­ing through a tu­mul­tuous pe­riod of change.

Lib­eral re­form­ers in the newly elected Soviet par­lia­ment pushed for end­ing the Com­mu­nist Party’s mo­nop­oly on power and proin­de­pen­dence move­ments quickly gained lever­age in Soviet re­publics. The Soviet me­dia, trans­formed by Gorbachev’s pol­icy of open­ness, freely re­ported on the Berlin Wall’s collapse.

“I was sure that our mil­i­tary units wouldn’t take any rad­i­cal ac­tion. Gorbachev’s pol­icy war­ranted that,” said Vy­ach­eslav Mos­tovoi, who cov­ered the wall’s fall for Soviet state tele­vi­sion.

Fol­low­ing the wall’s collapse, Gorbachev agreed to fast-track the talks on the unificatio­n of Ger­many and, to much West­ern sur­prise, eas­ily ac­cepted its membership in NATO. He told Izves­tia that it “removed a source of ten­sion in the cen­ter of Europe” and helped rad­i­cally im­prove re­la­tions with Ger­many.

But many in Rus­sia con­tinue to hold Gorbachev re­spon­si­ble for be­tray­ing Soviet ally East Ger­many and fore­go­ing Moscow’s vi­tal in­ter­ests in talks with West­ern pow­ers.

They in­clude Putin, who charged that the Soviet leader naively trusted West­ern prom­ises that NATO wouldn’t seek to incorporat­e Soviet bloc coun­tries in­stead of get­ting a writ­ten pledge.

“Gorbachev made a mis­take,” Putin said. “It’s nec­es­sary to doc­u­ment things in pol­i­tics. And he just talked about it and thought that it was done.”

Gorbachev coun­tered that it would have been ab­surd to ask the West for writ­ten guar­an­tees that the War­saw Pact mem­bers wouldn’t join NATO be­cause it would have amounted to declar­ing the Soviet-led mil­i­tary al­liance dead even be­fore it for­mally ceased to ex­ist in July 1991.

For Putin, how­ever, Gorbachev’s Ger­man pol­icy was a show of un­for­giv­able weak­ness that left a deep per­sonal mark. A month af­ter the wall’s collapse, Putin, a KGB lieu­tenant colonel posted to Dres­den, East Ger­many, was left to face demon­stra­tors who tried to break into the KGB’s head­quar­ters there af­ter the Soviet mil­i­tary ig­nored his des­per­ate plea to pro­tect the build­ing.

He even­tu­ally man­aged to turn the crowd back with­out vi­o­lence.

As the Krem­lin was ne­go­ti­at­ing Ger­man re­uni­fi­ca­tion, the Soviet Union be­gan to un­ravel amid a mas­sive eco­nomic cri­sis and po­lit­i­cal tur­moil. The coun­try’s hard cur­rency re­serves de­pleted and the Krem­lin strug­gled to pay its bills, leav­ing Gorbachev and his gov­ern­ment in a weak ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tion.

“The Soviet Union was in cri­sis and couldn’t ne­go­ti­ate from the po­si­tion of equal­ity with the West,” Zubok said.

The coun­try’s eco­nomic woes con­tin­ued af­ter the 1991 Soviet breakup, leav­ing Rus­sia heav­ily de­pen­dent on West­ern fi­nan­cial aid through­out the 1990s.

In the years that fol­lowed, the Krem­lin could do lit­tle to op­pose the en­large­ment of NATO that em­braced Poland, Hun­gary and the Czech Repub­lic in 1999 and in­cor­po­rated other for­mer Soviet bloc na­tions and the three exSoviet re­publics in the Baltics.

NATO’s ex­pan­sion east­ward was widely seen in Rus­sia as a proof of its hos­tile in­ten­tions, help­ing fo­ment anti-West­ern sen­ti­ments.

“The mis­trust to­ward the West, to­ward the po­ten­tial part­ners on the other side, is still there,” said Kon­stantin Kosachev, the Krem­lin­con­nected head of the for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee in the Rus­sian par­lia­ment’s up­per house.

He ar­gued that the West, ea­ger to claim vic­tory in the Cold War, squan­dered a chance to build a safer world.

“In a cer­tain sense, this dam­age is some­how ir­re­versible,” Kosachev said. “The Soviet Union and then Rus­sia did make its own choice to stop con­fronta­tion with the West and start co­op­er­a­tion. It could have been a win-win sit­u­a­tion, but for that the West­ern coun­tries should have been much wiser, much more gen­er­ous.”

JOCKEL FINCK/AP 1989

The Soviet me­dia, trans­formed by Mikhail Gorbachev’s pol­icy of open­ness, freely re­ported on the Berlin Wall’s collapse.

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