MOSCOW (Reuters) - Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, has warned against building a new physical or invisible wall between Russia and the West, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In written comments to Reuters before the anniversary of the Wall being brought down on Nov. 9, 1989, Gorbachev also accused Washington - Moscow’s former Cold War enemy - of destroying the nuclear arms control architecture that keeps the world safe.
Gorbachev, now 88, played a pivotal role in the events leading up to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, and was later president of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev announced Soviet troop withdrawals from countries in central and eastern Europe that had been dominated by Moscow for decades, and made clear he would not interfere in the internal affairs of the then German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Gorbachev also made sure that Soviet troops garrisoned in the GDR stayed in their barracks and later agreed to allow Germany to reunify.
On the night of Nov. 9, 1989, East German border police opened crossing points in the Berlin Wall, which had been erected in 1961, and East Berliners poured into west Berlin.
Three decades on, and suffering intermittent health problems, Gorbachev said he was concerned by the dire state of East-West relations and in particular by the lack of dialogue between Washington and Moscow about nuclear weapons.
He referred to Washington’s decision to withdraw from a landmark 1987 nuclear missile pact, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which he negotiated with then U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from it in August was “not the work of a great mind,” said Gorbachev.
But despite his criticism of U.S. foreign policy, Gorbachev warned against throwing up real or invisible Cold War-style barriers akin to the Berlin Wall to formalise East-West differences.
“Any wall is an attempt to seal oneself off from the real problem by not solving it and that’s why I’m against walls. And in Europe I’m against any dividing lines or any ‘Iron Curtains’,” Gorbachev told Reuters.
“However dangerous the current situation is, I don’t think it’s a re-run of the Cold War. There’s no ideological struggle between Russia and the West. But there are economic links, freedom of movement, communication and a cultural convergence. So I’m convinced that a new Cold war can be avoided.”
Gorbachev, who led the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991, used to travel widely and spend some of his leisure time in Germany at his estate.
But he said he still lives in Russia, had never left it permanently and still cared about what Russians thought of him despite his greater popularity in the West than at home. In Russia, he is still reviled by some for presiding over the collapse of the Soviet Union which was followed by a grinding economic crisis.
Still listened to by some in the Kremlin because of his vast experience managing relations with Washington and his role in ending the Cold War, Gorbachev is now seldom seen in public.
At a rare public appearance in November last year at a Moscow cinema to watch a documentary about his own life, he had to be physically helped by aides to walk.
Recalling the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s reunification, Gorbachev said the speed of events at the time had taken him and other world leaders by surprise.
“History itself moved forward with incredible speed. In cities of the GDR crowds gathered on squares and expressed their views. It became clear that things were moving towards reunification much quicker than anyone expected,” he said.
Gorbachev said he deserved some credit for the fact that Germany’s reunification had passed off without bloodshed.
“At that time 380,000 of our (Soviet) soldiers were on GDR territory. They were ordered to stay in their barracks. An incredibly complex process passed off without bloodshed. I think I deserve credit for that,” he said.
Editing by Timothy Heritage