WORLD

‘A COMMON HOME’

ON BOTH SIDES OF THE EUROPEAN DIVIDE, GORBACHEV PROMOTES HIS VISION OF AMITY AND PEACE

HOLGER JENSEN July 17 1989
WORLD

‘A COMMON HOME’

ON BOTH SIDES OF THE EUROPEAN DIVIDE, GORBACHEV PROMOTES HIS VISION OF AMITY AND PEACE

HOLGER JENSEN July 17 1989

It was to have been a triumphal return to the city where Mikhail Gorbachev first unveiled his plans for perestroika—the restructuring of Soviet society—to Western Europe four years ago. His advance men, clearly hoping for the same “Gorbymania” in Paris that their president had generated in Bonn the previous month, scheduled more than 50 media interviews for his three-day visit that began on July 4, and numerous other opportunities for him to charm the French public. But the star of the show appeared tense—in sharp contrast to the relaxed crowd pleaser of West Germany—and the French mood quickly soured. Gorbachev’s contacts with Parisians were few and strained. Journalists expressed outrage when many of their interviews were abruptly cancelled. A senior French official said that the Soviet leader, preoccupied with problems back home, had asked for large amounts of free time in his program so that he could stay in touch with Moscow. But a member of the Soviet entourage, Vadim Zagladin, conceded, “As far as the popularity of Mr. Gorbachev is concerned and the [French] attitude toward perestroika, there has been some lagging behind.”

Still, Gorbachev did not come empty-handed. Addressing the 23-nation Council of Europe in Strasbourg—the first Communist leader to do so in its 40-year history—he offered more unilateral nuclear cuts if NATO agreed to talks on eliminating short-range missiles from Europe. As well, Gorbachev and President François Mitterrand signed 22 accords on trade, technical and industrial co-operation. But NATO quickly rejected his terms for the arms cuts. And the French accords will not alleviate the hard currency shortage in the Soviet Union, which needs some $36 billion to modernize industry and import consumer goods before Gorbachev’s reforms have a chance to produce results. Gorbachev left France on July 6 with little to look forward to except a two-day summit of the fractious Warsaw Pact in Romania’s capital, Bucharest.

There, on the opening day of the annual seven-nation meeting, Gorbachev hailed a “new spirit” in the Eastern alliance and said that each member should be free to pursue its own path while respecting that of others. That theme was echoed in the summit’s closing statement. The seven leaders agreed, said Constantin Oancea, the pact’s Romanian general secretary, that “each state has the inalienable right to choose its own economic and political system.”

The statement underlined the political divisions in the affiance. Both Hungary and Poland—where, on July 4, Solidarity became the first opposition group in a Communist country to be sworn into parliament—clearly regard Gorbachev’s reforms as legitimizing the liberalization they have already undertaken. Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria have taken a more cautious line, while East Germany openly rejects glasnost and perestroika, claiming that its strong economic performance obviates the need for reform. And Romania’s dictatorial Nicolae Ceaucescu also resists change, despite his country’s precarious economic condition.

Besides the ideological rift, Hungary and Romania are at odds over Bucharest’s alleged mistreatment of its Hungarian minority—an issue discussed without resolution in separate bilateral talks last week. And Bulgaria’s forced assimilation policy has sent more than 110,000 ethnic Turkish refugees fleeing to neighboring Turkey since mid-May. Although unrelated to ethnic strife in the Soviet republics, the Bulgarian unrest has been a harsh reminder of recent bloodshed in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan caused by nationalist tensions.

In fact, in his private talks with Mitterrand earlier last week, Gorbachev said the “nationalities problem” was his major headache. It followed him to Paris, where 2,000 Armenian émigrés demonstrated outside the Soviet Embassy, demanding the return of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory ceded by Soviet Armenia to neighboring Azerbaijan in 1923.

The sinking Soviet economy is also a grave concern. That became clear when Gorbachev skipped the funeral of former president Andrei Gromyko on July 4 to woo French investors and to promote his vision of a “common European home” without nuclear weapons and with sharply reduced defence spending. Economist Nikolai Shmelev, a newly elected People’s Congress member who accompanied Gorbachev to Paris, told reporters of dwindling food supplies, stagnant industry and rising discontent over the lack of material benefits from perestroika. “Gorbachev is in danger, not politically—he is in full control now—but economically,” said Shmelev. “If the negative trends are not turned around, in two to three years there will be complete destruction of the consumer market.” But perestroika, Shmelev added, is a “matter of survival” because “we have tried everything else, including labor camps, and all have proved insufficient.”

Trying to capitalize on what he called “the historic links” between the 1917 Soviet revolution and the French Revolution of 1789, Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, toured the Bastille and twice left their limousine to walk around the historic square. The Soviet leader became visibly annoyed, however, when mobs of reporters jostled with his security guards, preventing any contact with 7,000 Parisians waiting to catch a glimpse of the visitor. A smaller crowd waiting at the Paris city hall was disappointed when Gorbachev failed to stop for a chat.

His 10 hours of talks with Mitterrand went better than his contacts with the populace. The two leaders issued a communiqué calling for peace in Lebanon, and Mitterrand guardedly endorsed perestroika during a joint news conference at which Gorbachev fielded some tough questions on communism. The Soviet leader denied causing a “crisis of Marxism” in Eastern Europe, saying that his reforms were merely designed to “give socialism a second wind.”

But the French president did not fully accept Gorbachev’s pitch for a “common European home.” Mitterrand made it clear that the concept would not succeed unless Europeans were guaranteed freedom from “arbitrariness and intimidation” by the Soviets. Later, responding to a Paris newspaper headline that accused Gorbachev of being “a Soviet Don Juan trying to seduce the West,” Mitterrand quipped, “A common home, maybe. But not the same bedroom.” It was at least a promise of platonic friendship. But, given the disarray in Eastern Europe, Gorbachev could not even be sure that members of the Communist family would stay in the same house.