The two leaders could hardly have been more different—the gambler Mikhail Gorbachev, staking an empire against the need to democratize a failing system; the prudent George Bush, moving with extreme caution into the uncharted waters of the post-Cold War era. But on the eve of their seaborne summit meeting off the coast of Malta, they were talking the same language. Said President Bush: “America understands the magnitude of Mr. Gorbachev’s challenges. And let there be no misunderstanding, we support perestroika.”
Declared President Gorbachev: “The Socialist countries, one after another, are crossing the line beyond which there is no return to the past.” And to cement an entirely new era in East-West relations, the Soviet leader had a historic presummit meeting with Pope John Paul lí at the Vatican. As much as the summit itself, that encounter symbolized what Bush had called “a new millennium of freedom.”
Values: Never before had the Kremlin and the Vatican, traditional enemies, exchanged such a courtesy. But in the atmosphere of reconciliation set off by Gorbachev’s reforms, the officially atheistic Kremlin clearly viewed the Pope—and religion in general—in a new light. “The moral values which religion generated and embodied for centuries,” said Gorbachev, “can help in the work of renewal in our country, too. In fact, this is already happening.” For his part, the Pope welcomed Gorbachev’s reform program and wished him success. Then, he and the Soviet leader began one-on-one talks, which concluded after 75 minutes with the announcement that Moscow and the Holy See would end seven decades of mutual hostility by establishing diplomatic relations. Gorbachev even invited the Pope to visit the Soviet Union.
For all the optimism, some officials and independent analysts on both sides of the rapidly rusting Iron Curtain remained openly apprehensive. Among America’s NATO allies, there were fears of a precipitate U.S. military with-
drawal from Europe. Bush’s critics in Washington voiced suspicions that he still did not understand the enormous implications of the Soviet empire’s collapse. At the same time, among nations in both Eastern and Western Europe, there were growing worries that Ger-
man reunification was becoming inevitable. And in many world capitals, analysts continued to express concern for Gorbachev’s political survival in a Soviet Union tom by rampant nationalism and racked by economic failure.
In Brussels, NATO defence ministers met to try to work out the future shape of their alliance in light of the fundamental changes in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, as well as the Soviet Union’s clear and urgent need to cut its substantial military spending. After two days of deliberation, the ministers decided to maintain NATO’s current military stance because, according to a joint communiqué, “a strong and united alliance” would contribute to stability at a time of rapid and unpredictable change. But there were obvious cracks in NATO’s unity. U.S. Defence Secretary Richard Cheney assured the allies
that Washington had no immediate intention to cut its forces in Europe beyond the 30,000man reduction announced by Bush last May. But Cheney made it plain that the Pentagon would make substantial further cuts after 1991, as part of a plan to trim the defence
budget by a total of approximately $200 billion by 1995 (page 44).
Burdens: That clearly worried some members of the alliance, notably the British. They expressed fears that, in planning further cuts, the Americans might undermine the East-West conventional-arms-reduction talks now under way in Vienna. Some European officials also said that Washington’s sudden shift towards more rapid disarmament could disrupt NATO’s defences and add to their own military burdens, forcing them to increase their defence budgets. That would occur at a time when European public opinion, convinced that the Cold War had ended, would be clamoring for sharp cuts in military spending.
Meanwhile, in Bonn, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl unveiled a 10-point program designed to bring East and West Germany into
a confederation that could lead to reunification. Kohl set no timetable and he was vague about the structure of a united Germany. He pledged, however, that it would “fit in with the future all-European architecture,” a reference to the closer union of the European Community in 1992. But his call—the strongest he has yet made on the subject—caused alarm bells to ring in both East and West.
Union: U.S. Secretary of State James Baker said that Germany should not opt for neutrality as a condition for reunification. French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas added that France would require “overwhelming proof” that there was no possibility of Bonn leaving the European Community in order to form a union with East Germany. In East Germany itself, both the Communists and opposition groups responded coolly to the Kohl plan. A government statement said that it “overlooks realities [and] could lead easily to irritations.” And an appeal written by Christa Wolf, a leading figure in the prodemocracy movement, called for East Germany to develop “a socialist alternative” to “annexation” by Bonn.
Meanwhile, in Rome, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze rejected Kohl’s plan, saying that “facts must be accepted”— one of them being that “we have two Germanys.” But in a mass demonstration in Leipzig last week, many participants carried signs and chanted slogans demanding reunification, a clear indication that the issue is gaining support among many East Germans.
‘Wimp’: In Washington, liberal analysts criticized Bush for failing to respond more positively and swiftly to the recent dramatic events in Eastern and Central Europe.
Said John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution:
“Bush has no sense of what he wants to accomplish. His psychology is lagging behind events. He can’t quite believe what he is seeing.” At the other end of the spectrum, conservative analyst Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said flatly that “Bush is a wimp.” But, added Luttwak: “To respond with caution to everything that he is offered on the Soviet side is perfectly appropriate. When something is changing to your advantage, you just wait and see, so there is a nice coincidence between wimpishness and the right thing to do. I wouldn’t fault him at all.”
Clearly, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who met Gorbachev in Moscow two weeks ago,
feels that Bush is pursuing the right strategy. Last week, he flew to Washington and, over a veal dinner at the White House, he briefed the President on his recent trip to the Soviet Union. Afterward, Mulroney said that Bush was taking a very constructive approach towards the Malta summit and the opportunities it presented. He even echoed Bush’s own favorite word to describe his policy: prudent. Declared Mulroney: “The administration has a responsibility to act with prudence. And as the leader of the Western alliance, it is important that he act not with haste, but that he act effectively.” As for Gorbachev, said Mulroney, he “looks upon the Malta summit not to achieve miracles, but as a step towards building a solid relationship with President Bush.”
For Gorbachev, the summit took place at a
time when problems were growing within the Soviet Union itself. Long-simmering differences between the Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan appeared likely to erupt again at any moment. That prospect followed the Supreme Soviet’s decision last week to return control of the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. In response, the Armenian parliament last Friday denounced the Kremlin’s move as unconstitutional and formally declared the union of NagornoKarabakh with Armenia—its most extreme act of defiance since the crisis blew up nearly two years ago. Since that time, more than 120
people have been killed—two of them only last Wednesday—in ethnic violence between Christian Armenians and Moslem Azerbaijanis. Last week, ethnic violence continued in other areas as well, including the autonomous region of South Ossetia within the southern republic of Georgia. And in the west, the rebellious Baltic peoples of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania continued their agitation for independence.
At the same time, there were increasing signs of a conservative backlash against Gorbachev’s reforms. One indication was an article that appeared last week in Pravda, the Communist party daily, in which Boris Gidaspov, the Leningrad party leader, denounced what he termed “unlimited democracy.” Gidaspov also contradicted Gorbachev by urging continued party control of the economy. “Our flag was and will remain red,” wrote Gidaspov. “Communists are definitely against denationalization of the economy and the legalization of private property.”
Misery: But most troubling of all was the generalized misery brought about by the near-breakdown of the Soviet economy and the unemployment caused by Gorbachev’s restructuring of industry. A report by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization last week said that some 140,000 workers in the petroleum industry had lost their jobs through restructuring, and that about 263,000 civil servants were dismissed or reassigned last year. Annual inflation was officially running at 11 to 15 per cent, although some economists said that the real figure was much higher. As well, by official count, up to 1,200 basic consumer items, including winter boots, were either unobtainable or in short supply. Over much of the country, such commodities as meat, fish, sugar and soap were strictly rationed.
As the lines for such necessities lengthened, it was obvious that the Soviet Union faced a grim winter of discontent. With Gorbachev’s reform program so far failing to improve his people’s living standards, the Soviet leader was clearly in need of whatever promise he could bring back with him from the stormy Mediterranean. For Bush and the Western alliance, there was every reason to encourage Gorbachev to sustain the pace of reform—and to do whatever possible to help him remain in power.
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