THE NEW YORK TIMES. NOVEMBER 2, 2009. By Mikhail Gorbachev
The year 1989 was a turning point for Europe and for the world, a time when history went into high gear. This acceleration was symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the velvet revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes were exiting the stage of history.
Those events, and their peaceful unfolding, were made possible by changes that began in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. We initiated them because they were overdue. We were responding to the demands of the people, who resented living without freedom, isolated from the rest of the world.
In just a few years — a very short time in history’s span — the main pillars of the totalitarian system in the Soviet Union were dismantled and the ground was readied for a democratic transition and economic reforms. Having done that in our own country, we could not deny the same to our neighbors.
We did not force changes upon them. From the outset of perestroika, I told the leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries that the Soviet Union was embarking upon major reforms but that they had to decide what they would do. You are responsible to your people, I said; we will not interfere.
In effect it was a repudiation of the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, based on the concept of “limited sovereignty.” Initially, my words were met with skepticism, seen as yet another purely formal statement by a new general secretary of the Communist Party. But we never wavered, and that is why the developments in Europe in 1989-1990 were peaceful, without bloodshed.
The biggest challenge was the unification of Germany. As late as the summer of 1989, during my visit to West Germany, journalists asked me and Chancellor Helmut Kohl whether we had discussed the possibility of German unification. I replied that we had inherited that problem from history and that it would be addressed as history evolved. “When?” journalists asked. The chancellor and I both pointed to the 21st century.
Some might say we were poor prophets. Fair enough: German unification occurred much earlier — by the will of the German people, not because Gorbachev or Kohl wanted it. Americans often recall President Ronald Reagan’s appeal: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” But could that be done by one man? All the more difficult, too, because others were saying, in effect, “Save the Wall.”
When millions of people in the East and West of Germany demanded unification, we had to act responsibly. Leaders in Europe and the United States rose to the challenge, overcoming the doubts and fears that quite naturally existed. Working together, we were able to avoid redrawing borders and preserved mutual trust. The Cold War was finally over.
Developments after German unification and the end of the Cold War did not all go as we would have wished.
In Germany itself, 40 years of division left a legacy of ruptured cultural and social ties that are even more difficult to repair than the economic gap. The former East Germans understood that all was not perfect in the West, particularly in its social welfare system.
Yet despite the problems reintegration brought, Germans have made the united Germany a well-respected, strong and peaceful member of the community of nations.
The leaders who shape global and particularly European relations fared much more poorly in seizing the new opportunities presented to them 20 years ago. As a result, Europe has not solved its fundamental problem — creating a solid security structure.
Immediately after the Cold War ended, we started discussing new security mechanisms for our continent.
Among the ideas was creating a security council for Europe. It was envisioned as a “security directorate” with real, wide-ranging powers. Policy-makers from the Soviet Union, Germany and the United States supported it.
To my regret, the events took a different course. This has stalled the emergence of a new Europe. Instead of the old dividing lines, new ones have appeared. Europe has witnessed wars and bloodshed. Mistrust and outdated stereotypes persist: Russia is suspected of evil intentions and of aggressive, imperial designs.