It’s Friday, 3 April – do you know where your American president is? I’ll give you a clue: today he is generally in the area of the French/German border where it is demarcated by the Rhine: in Germany at Baden-Baden and a village called Kehl, but mainly at French Strasbourg for a combined NATO summit and celebration of that alliance’s 60th anniversary. That organization may even get a new secretary-general as a result of this gathering; current Danish premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen is the favorite to the Dutch Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who has held that position for five years now.
Amid all the honor-guard reviews, meetings, and celebrations one prominent voice calls out forlornly from the sideline, like a jilted past lover of the bridegroom at a wedding. It belongs to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize, and a man highly “involved” (at least in terms of the measures he did not take) in the wave of revolutions in 1989-90 that took Eastern Europe out of the Soviet bloc. Both the Financial Times Deutschland (Gorbachev criticizes NATO expansion; no by-line) and the Czech daily Lidové noviny (NATO decieved the Russians, Gorbachev maintains, article by Petra Procházková) are now carrying reports of recent remarks he made to German media outlets accusing the West of breaking certain promises that were made to his government back at the time of German reunification in 1990.
It’s Lidové noviny that goes into a bit more detail about what these alleged promises were all about. They were only made orally, by the top leaders of the USA and Germany, but pledged to the Soviet leadership not only that, as Gorby put it, “NATO would not move one centimeter eastwards,” but also that no post-Soviet republic would ever be allowed to become an alliance member. Of course, the first element of that promise was broken when Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary were allowed to join in July, 1997, while the second was broken when Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined in March, 2004. So now, naturally, as the FTD reports that Gorbachev told the German tabloid Bild Zeitung, “the Russians don’t trust Western promises anymore.”
Because these alleged promises were only oral, and so not written down anywhere, it will have to always be a matter of dispute whether they were actually ever issued. But both the German and Czech articles agree that Gorbachev claimed that they were given just after German reunification, which happened at the beginning of October, 1990. By then it was really far too late for the Soviet Union to do anything about Eastern Europe, as all the countries there had new, non-Communist governments and any military move by the Soviets to crush one or more of these governments-in-being would have precipitated a major military confrontation with the West. (Admittedly, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were still in the process of breaking free from the Soviet Union by October, 1990, so there was still room for determined action to stop those countries at that point.)
So Gorbachev’s claim that the Soviets were really diverted from executing other nasty measures, that they could have put into action had they not been put off by Western false promises, rings a little hollow. But both articles also report him as saying that the reunification of Germany was already being been discussed within the Kremlin when he got called up to the top Soviet leadership, i.e. in the early 1980s when Leonid Brezhnev was still in charge. (That begs the question: “discussed” how? As something they were thinking about allowing? That seems rather doubtful.) The FTD adds that, at Gorbachev’s meeting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in June of 1989, both leaders agreed that such reunification was “a question of the 21st century.” But then the 21st century arrived a little ahead of schedule: the Berlin Wall fell five months later, followed by actual German reunification after a further eleven months.