WORLD

Breaking the ice

Soviet-West German relations are improving

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 7 1988
WORLD

Breaking the ice

Soviet-West German relations are improving

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 7 1988

Breaking the ice

WORLD

THE SOVIET UNION

Soviet-West German relations are improving

It was a call that electrified his hosts. At a banquet inside Moscow's ornate Grand Kremlin Palace last week, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl issued a ringing demand for a reunification of the two Germanys. And he made that bold statement in the face of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s open and often-repeated opposition to such a development. Said Kohl: “It must become possible for Germans to overcome the division of their country by peaceful means. This division is unnatural: the cohesion of the Germans is a historical and human reality which politics cannot ignore.” Gorbachev, however, again rejected the proposal. Quoting the famous German philosopher and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, he declared, “Nothing is more dangerous for the new truth than the old delusion.” But the leaders were clearly too intent on improving relations between their two countries to allow the reunification issue to disrupt Kohl’s four-day visit. Last Wednesday, Kohl announced that officials had assured him that the Soviets will release all political prisoners by the end of the year.

As well as raising reunification and the prisoners, the two leaders ranged over a variety of other topics. Those included the future of two million ethnic Germans living in the Soviet Union—many of whom want to emigrate to West Germany—as well as a possible international role for divided Berlin. But economic issues, particularly trade and investment between the two countries, dominated the talks as Kohl and Gorbachev sought to put relations between their countries on a more solid footing.

In the nearly 40 years since Germany was partitioned following its defeat in the Second World War, relations between the Soviet Union and West Germany have frequently been strained. And many people in the Soviet Union—which lost more than 20 million people in the war—still seem to harbor deep resentment and suspicion toward Germans. Gorbachev himself reflected those feelings when he told Kohl last week, “There is much in the memory of the two peoples that one cannot think about without a shudder.”

In 1983, Moscow vigorously protested Bonn’s decision to allow U.S. Pershing 2 missiles to be deployed in West Germany. At the same time, personal exchanges between Gorbachev and Kohl, leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Party, have been infrequent but barbed. Relations hit their lowest ebb two years ago when the German leader compared Gorbachev’s public relations skills to those of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. But by the time Kohl ended his visit to Moscow last Thursday, both leaders declared that the diplomatic ice between them had been broken.

The only real controversy arose when Kohl announced that Soviet officials had promised to free political prisoners. He added, “The Soviets confirmed that they will release before the end of the year all political prisoners as we understand it in the West.” Kohl—who had earlier met with prominent Soviet dissidents Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner— declined to identify the source of the undertaking, or to say how many prisoners would be affected.

At first, Soviet officials refused to confirm that any such promises had been made to Kohl. But on Thursday, Gennady Gerasimov, the chief spokesman for the foreign ministry, clarified the situation. Gerasimov said that a “dozen or two” prisoners would be released in “a matter of weeks”—a number far lower than various Western estimates of between 150 and 500 people held in Soviet prisons for their political beliefs.

While Gorbachev and Kohl were clearly far apart in their positions on the future of the two Germanys, they were also clearly determined to avoid jeopardizing the still-fragile spirit of mutual goodwill. Gorbachev and Kohl, who was accompanied by several cabinet ministers and about 50 leaders of his country’s business community, signed a series of agreements ranging from co-operation on environmental control to the establishment of a $1-billion credit line from West German banks to upgrade the Soviet food-manufacturing industry. West German businessmen and bankers also signed agreements for more than a dozen joint-venture projects in the Soviet Union.

At the same time, the leaders discussed a topic of particular emotional importance to West Germany: the future of two million people of German ethnic origin now living in the Soviet Union. Since emigration requirements were relaxed this year, more than 30,000 Soviets of German origin, some of whose ancestors settled on the Volga River more than two centuries ago, have settled in West Germany. Only 14,500 were allowed to emigrate in 1987. Last week, Gorbachev pledged to address the problems of the ethnic Germans—including their calls for greater religious freedom, cultural rights and a further easing of emigration limits—but pointedly warned Kohl not to interfere in Soviet domestic matters.

Talks between representatives of the two sides often encompassed topics that were both practical and emotional. The status of West Berlin is a key element in trade talks between countries from the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc and the European Community, of which West Germany is a member. The EC insists that West Berlin be regarded as part of its community. Moscow has opposed that request, arguing that it formally shares control of the city—which is located inside the territory of East Germany—with Britain, France and the United States. Last week, Gorbachev said that the Kremlin is “not against West Berlin’s participation in European and international relations, providing that the city’s special status remains intact.”

But the two sides were in clear agreement on their interest in heightening economic co-operation. Trade between the two countries dropped to less than $10 billion in 1987 from more than $12 billion in 1986 because of plunging international oil prices that sharply reduced one of Moscow’s principal sources of hard Western currency. At a meeting of the Supreme Soviet last week, Finance Minister Boris Gostev said that economic losses since 1985 as a result of falling oil prices amounted to $79 billion. And citing Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness), Gostev for the first time publicly announced that the 1989 budget would have a deficit of nearly $71 billion. This year, Soviet officials expect total trade volume to stabilize and to increase next year.

At the same time, many West Germans clearly regard the Soviet Union as a ripe prospect for trade at a time when their own country’s traditionally strong economy shows signs of weakening. With unemployment in West Germany now at eight per cent, some economists predict that economic growth next year will slip to a relatively poor 1.3 per cent. By strengthening ties with Moscow, West German industries will attempt to tap into such projects as development of the mineral-rich Kola Peninsula in the northwestern part of the country. As well, West German companies are planning to build a massive $324-million trade complex in Moscow that would include a hotel, apartments and office space for West German banks and companies. Said one West German trade official: “By helping the Soviet Union modernize now, we can create the climate and conditions for an even larger trade market in future.”

Most political leaders in the United States and EC countries formally support improved relations with Moscow. But some of them say privately that they fear Western countries, by investing heavily in the Soviet Union, will allow Gorbachev badly needed time and money to rebuild a system that opposes them. Said The Times of London in an editorial last week, criticizing Kohl’s visit: “There must be evidence of a will to change principles as well as practice. Mr. Gorbachev’s promise of ‘more socialism,’ not less, is not encouraging.”

In an era of improved relations between the two countries, few West Germans seem to share that view. A poll conducted by a West German television station last week showed that 83 per cent of respondents believe Gorbachev is a “man who can be trusted.” As well, 85 per cent of those polled said that they considered relations with the Soviet Union to be “good,” and 51 per cent of respondents said that they had a “high degree” of interest in Soviet affairs.

Still, a similar poll conducted in Moscow last month showed that the Soviets are less enthusiastic. In a survey conducted by Moscow’s Sociology and Research Academy of Science, only 39 per cent of Soviet respondents said that they considered relations between the countries “good,” and only 21 per cent said that they were interested in news about West Germany.

Despite his desire for closer economic ties with West Germany, Gorbachev is clearly aware of the potential strength of such antipathy. In a brief appearance on Soviet television shortly after Kohl’s arrival, he stressed the importance of putting aside past differences. Said Gorbachev: “The ice has started to move, and we hope it will start to float away.” For the leaders of two countries that have sometimes seemed inextricably bound in both triumph and tragedy, that caution was understandable.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Moscow