17 April 2017
Interview with Mikhail Gorbachev
He has become old. Supported by his walking stick, he slowly and laboriously drags himself out of his office and walks a few steps to the brightly lit conference room – to the big, long table.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last President of the Soviet Union. The man without whom the Berlin Wall would not have come down so peacefully. The man who – in the eyes of many Russians – is responsible for the demise of the glorious Soviet Union. To the great majority of Germans, he is a hero. In his home country, he is considered by more than a few to be a tragic figure. In March he has turned 86. Illness and age have left their marks on his face.
However, his passion for the great questions of history has not suffered from this at all. His latest book, “Plea to the World” has just been published. “How is Helmut Kohl?” is his first question. A conversation about Germans and Russians, war and peace.
BILD: President Gorbachev, 30 years ago now, you initiated the end of the conflict between East and West with your politics of Glasnost and Perestroika. Today, Russian tanks are stationed in Eastern Ukraine, and Crimea has been annexed by Moscow. Can you understand why Europe fears Russia again?
Mikhail Gorbachev: “Independently of who is feeling what, one must take Russia seriously – as a nation that deserves respect. Nobody is more concerned about Ukraine than we Russians are. I’m sitting in front of you here, and the question makes me think of my mother. My mother was Ukrainian. The second woman in my life, Raissa, whom I also lost, was Ukrainian, too. You mustn’t lump everything together and engage in propaganda. It seems that there are forces that have an interest in sowing hostilities between Russians and Ukrainians and in creating tension between our two countries.”
Let us take a look back at more peaceful times. When the last Russian solider was pulled out of Germany in 1994…
Gorbachev: “As I had promised.”
…some people even proclaimed the “end of history”. What went so terribly wrong with the relationship between Russia and the West?
Gorbachev: “The relationship between the Russians and the Germans was great. It’s impossible to overestimate this: two nations that were dragged into a horrible, bloody war by fascism, and who used to be enemies. Almost half of the European part of the Soviet Union was occupied by the Germans. I experienced this personally as a child; I experienced first hand what it meant to live under German occupation. And despite all of this, we still managed to trust each other, to approach each other and to reconcile with each other. Stalin once said: Hitlers come and go, but the German nation, the German people, remains. All Russians share this view.
Together, we Russians and Germans possess a unique combination of qualities and skills. We Russians lack much of what characterizes the Germans, and the Germans probably lack something that we Russians have. We complement each other in an astonishing, unique way. We must not allow for the destruction of what our two nations have created together.”
Nevertheless, you accuse the West of not having kept its promises. Are you personally disappointed by friends like Helmut Kohl or George Bush when it comes to their commitment to Russia?
Gorbachev: “I do think that they could have done more. Much of what has since happened has been directly related to the collapse of the Soviet Union. We cannot blame anyone for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, many people in the West were secretly rubbing their hands and felt something like a flush of victory – including those who had promised us: ‘We will not move one centimetre further East.’”
Does Russia feel cheated by the West?
Gorbachev: “I would put it like this: the West – and primarily the US – have moved away from central joint agreements. Please remember, in the second half of the 1980s, the USSR and the US took unprecedented steps together! They began reducing their nuclear arsenals. Just think of it: 80 percent of the nuclear potential that had been built up during the Cold War years was destroyed back then. Moreover, both sides conceded that nobody’s security was compromised by this process.
However, the West then used Russia’s weakness after the dissolution of the Soviet Union to declare itself the “winner” of the Cold War. The principle of equality in international relations was forgotten, and thus we all ended up where we are today.”
These days, both the US and Russia are talking about modernizing their nuclear weapons more openly than they have for decades. Is a new arms race imminent?
Gorbachev: “It is not merely imminent. In some places, it is already in full swing. Troops are being moved into Europe, including heavy equipment such as tanks and armoured cars. It was not so long ago that NATO troops and Russian troops were stationed quite far away from each other. They now stand nose-to-nose.”
Are you concerned about your life’s work – the end of the Iron Curtain? Should we be preparing for a new Cold War?
Gorbachev: “The language of politicians and the top-level military personnel is becoming increasingly militant. Military doctrines are formulated increasingly harshly. The mass media pick up on all of this and add fuel to the fire. The relationship between the big powers continues to worsen. This creates the impression that the world is preparing for a war. So all the indications of a Cold War are there.”
Could the Cold War turn hot?
Gorbachev: “Well, anything is possible if we just keep watching, sit back and do nothing.”
Let us talk about Russia. Does Russia still feel like a European state? Do we still share the same values?
But is Russia still a democracy, at all?
Gorbachev: “Russia is on the path to democracy. It’s halfway between. There are approximately 30 emerging nations that are in transition, and we are one of them. Since nothing works perfectly all the time, we are constantly being provoked by the accusation that we are not a democracy.”
Do you personally trust Vladimir Putin?
Gorbachev: “I have often criticized certain steps taken by our state leadership. But yes, I trust him.”
How much longer will Putin be able to maintain his policy of confronting Europe and the West if the economy continues to decline?
Gorbachev: “Don’t have any false hope in this respect! We are a people willing to make whatever sacrifices we need to. I cannot think of another people that would be similarly willing to make so many sacrifices. In the war alone, almost 30 million people were killed.
And today? What can we expect today? What can we now expect from many friends who were once devoted to Russia? Today, many of them, of all people, are toughening sanctions or demanding new sanctions. Are they doing this in order to punish Russia? I think that we – Russians and Germans – must re-establish contact, solidify and develop our relationship, and find a way to trust each other again. Remember my words: we are in favour of being friends with the Germans – for all times. Our people also want this. I am speaking for the Russian public here. I represent the public opinion.”
In his interview with BILD, the new American president, Donald Trump, called NATO obsolete…
Gorbachev: “I share his opinion. Back in the days, we dissolved the Warsaw Pact. There was a meeting of the NATO Council in London that concluded that what was needed then was a political alliance, not a military alliance. I hope that NATO will return to this question.”
What are your expectations of the new President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier…
Gorbachev: “I congratulated him …”
…who is considered to be someone with a great understanding of Russia?
Gorbachev: “We do not need any special understanding. Nor do we need a particularly large amount of understanding. Simply understanding would be enough. Maybe some people are profiting from Russia’s having mud thrown at it. I am deeply saddened that the German leadership – I deliberately say “German leadership”, because I find it hard to imagine that the German people are in support of this – has allowed for the decline of the German-Russian relationship. For I am absolutely convinced that the Germans, the people in Germany, do not want for there to be a newfound enmity between them and the Russians.”
By “German leadership”, do you mean Chancellor Angela Merkel, who primarily supports the sanctions against Russia?
Gorbachev: “I like her; I hold her in very high esteem. On a personal level, I feel great sympathy for her. This is probably why I sometimes pass judgement so emotionally.”
Mikhail Sergeyevich, what will your compatriots remember you as: a hero, who brought freedom, Glasnost and Perestroika, or the man who lost a vast empire?
Gorbachev: “You know, history will ultimately make the right judgement. I firmly believe that my work and my efforts were not in vain. I will continue to further the cause to which I have committed myself until the very end.”