The news compass of the Western world, the New York Times, usually writes its headlines in a moderate way. But in the fall of 1989 almost every day the letters were in huge bold print, because the news was not only very important, it was sensational. Why? Because the partition of Europe was coming to an end, day by day, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall––the most important symbol of all, because it had divided not only one city, one country, one continent, but the entire world.
The New York Times had another reason for the large print. The fall of the wall was followed by the end of an empire, the Soviet Union: the West’s archrival in the Cold War. The author of these words witnessed Mikhail Gorbachev’s speech of December 25, 1991 and walked in the evening to Red Square to see the monumental change of flags above the Kremlin.
The future looked very bright from Berlin, as it did from Warsaw, Riga and other Central European states. The citizens in Leningrad (at the time), Vladikavkaz or Murmansk had mixed feelings; the future was unclear, but there was a lot of hope for better times. In general, the world was united in anticipation of a peaceful and meaningful future with less confrontation and conflict and more cooperation among nations.
Cooperation seemed to be an achievable and universal goal within the framework of stability and prosperity. But instead of using the amazing opportunity to pursue precisely that goal, the world’s Cold War mentality continued. Trust between the West—meaning the European Community (now the European Union) and the US—and Russia improved somewhat, but already in December 1992 Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev pointed out at a CSCE Conference in Stockholm that Russia had its own national interests and would defend them. The West was stunned.
At the time Russia was struggling to survive, whereas the focus of the Western capitals was for the rapid transformation of the reform-willing states of Central Eastern Europe. It was still the Zeitgeist of US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who were pushing chiefly for economic reforms and were less interested in trying to understand cultural struggles or even wounded pride. This concerned not only Russia, but basically all states within the throes of transformation.
The West was triumphant. There was no thought of gratitude––to the citizens of the East, and particularly to Mikhail Gorbachev—for having enabled a fairly peaceful end to the Cold War. And there was no serious thought on using the political momentum. The East had to modernize its political system towards democracy, rule of law and pluralism, which was necessary and very much hoped for. It also had to convert towards a market economy. That was in general also a good thing, since both transformations happened in countries making their own choices as sovereign states, not as satellites or republics of the Soviet Union. But the West, focused on this “economization of freedom”, as historian Philipp Ther wrote, took far less account of the social and psychological stresses this entailed.
Many citizens in the East felt left behind during this process. Social hardship had an effect on almost every family. When Timothy Garton Ash recently wrote that the tenth and twentieth anniversaries of 1989 were both very positive and only the last ten years not so good, one must ask whether perhaps certain negative signs in the years before 2009 might have been missed. The shiny new buildings in Warsaw, in Moscow, in Budapest are impressive. But they tell only part of the story of the last 30 years.
The promise of the 1990 Paris Charter of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) “For a New Europe” has been only partly realized. It is up to the next generation to overcome this new division and not waste the opportunity that arose with the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago. A genuine erasure of Europe’s schisms would light up the media. And lead once again to some big fat headlines on the front page of all our newspapers - and of course again of the New York Times.