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Masterpieces of History

Svetlana Savranskaya
Thomas Blanton
Vladislav Zubok


Document No. 63: Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl June 12, 1989

Traduction de Svetlana Savranskaya

Texte intégral

1In June 1989, Gorbachev travels to West Germany in pursuit of his foreign policy strategy of building the “common European home,” and to satisfy concerns over the “pause” in U.S.-Soviet relations. The ensuing “Gorbymania” among West Germans marks the peak of Gorbachev’s popularity in the West and evokes serious apprehensions in the Bush administration. However, as this document reveals, Gorbachev badly wants to resume the dialogue with the U.S. president, whom he really does not understand—“where is Bush genuine, and where is Bush rhetorical?” Gorbachev has already been talking with the key European leaders—Thatcher, Mitterrand, Kohl—but it would not be until December at Malta that he would come face-to-face with Bush.

2In particular, during this visit Gorbachev is seeking an understanding with the Western countries that no-one should take advantage of Solidarity’s victory in Poland. His clear rejection of the “Brezhnev doctrine” in his talks with Kohl follows the two leaders’ tacit understanding that both sides would steer clear of developments in Poland, Hungary and other Eastern European countries. (“[Y]ou should not poke a stick into an anthill. The consequences of such an act could be absolutely unpredictable.”) Only a few weeks later, speaking to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on July 6 (see Document No. 73), Gorbachev would make the rejection of force even more public.

3We can also see in these notes precisely the kind of development Honecker was so concerned about, as Gorbachev and Kohl agree to establish a backchannel involving Kohl’s assistant Horst Teltschik and Anatoly Chernyaev. By this time, for Gorbachev, relations with West Germany have taken priority over relations with the East.


4Kohl: […] I have known George Bush for a long time, we have a very good, friendly relationship. In evaluating him as president, after just several months on the job, we have to take into account his previous career.

5George Bush was vice president under President Reagan for eight years. He was always a loyal person. In this respect we probably have a common point of view; we perceive such qualities as positive. However, for George Bush personally, such an assessment had a negative aspect, hurt him, because everybody was constantly asking whether he would be able to emerge from Reagan’s shadow and acquire his own political face, or whether he would always remain in a position of loyalty.

6In terms of public relations, Bush has a long way to go to compete with Reagan: he has neither the actor’s charisma, nor the art to communicate with people via TV, nor any other similar qualities. He is an intellectual. In America they distinguish between people from the West coast and from the East coast. People from California are very different from people from the Western [sic: Eastern] United States.

7In this sense Bush, as a politician, is very important for Europe—he has a more European vision of things than Reagan had. By the way, Reagan, as a politician, grew literally before my eyes; I have known him since 1979 when he still was the leader of the opposition. One time he came to Bonn, I received him, and we talked for three hours. Helmut Schmidt, who was chancellor then, did not receive him, stating that he did not have time. I had a depressing impression from that conversation with Reagan. It became clear that he did not understand anything in European affairs. My assistant, [Horst] Teltschik, was present at that conversation, and he can tell you even now how discouraged we were then. But later Reagan became president, and you, Mr. Gorbachev, were able to find a common language with him.

8Bush is a completely different person. Do not forget that he inherited a difficult domestic political situation, above all in terms of the economy. Now the ghost of the united European market, which will be created in 1992, is knocking at the U.S. door. Japanese entrepreneurs are working in the United States, and they are capturing new positions all the time. The living standards of the U.S. population, above all those of the disadvantaged strata, continue to stagnate.

9Recently I had a chance to see it with my own eyes. Last week I flew to America on a personal, unofficial trip, to visit my son, who took exams at Harvard University. I spoke with students and with professors—and I did not hear any positive assessments from anybody of how the American people now live. Bush has an overwhelming load of things to do in the social sphere, which could become his Achilles’ heel. At the same time, in Congress his situation is more favorable than Reagan’s was. I would say that dramatic changes have happened there. The current leader of Congress, [Rep.] Tom Foley [D-Wash.], represents a politician of a quiet, non-aggressive type. He is oriented toward cooperation, not confrontation. He wants to build positive political capital for himself, so that in the future he might become a presidential candidate for the Democrats. In short, it is important to follow American domestic developments, and to account for them in formulating your own political line. […]

10Gorbachev: I had many meetings with Bush, including personal meetings. Last time we talked in [New York City in] December of last year, when he had already been elected president. We agreed confidentially that we would develop Soviet-American relations on the basis of the following formula: continuity, plus what we should supplement it with. There are a lot of sensitive issues in our relations, which is why it is important to improve trust between Moscow and Washington. So far, I have not noticed any significant deviations from the agreement on Bush’s part. However, as I have already mentioned, his last speeches gave us grounds for concern.

11Kohl: Are you talking about his statements on arms control? What speeches do you have in mind?

12Gorbachev: The speech at the University of Texas on May 12, and the speech at the Coast Guard Academy [May 24]. Also, he made quite unpleasant statements concerning Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union at the [March 6] “Veterans of Foreign Wars” conference before Americans of Polish origin, and so on. This is what comes to mind. However, there were other statements of this kind in recent months, too. I don’t see either realism or a constructive line in those statements. Frankly speaking, those remarks reminded us of Reagan’s statements about the “crusade” against socialism. He appealed to the forces of freedom, called for an end to the “status quo,” and for “pushing socialism back.” And all this at a time when we are calling for de-ideologization of relations. Reluctantly, the questions come to mind—where is Bush genuine, and where is Bush rhetorical? Where does he just play up the rhetoric, and where does he lay down the state line?

13Kohl: We will wait and see. I am convinced that everything will take its course, and with good speed. There will be progress in disarmament also. Here everything depends on the two great powers.

14If we can achieve decisive progress in Vienna in the next 12-15 months, it will change the situation on all arms control issues in a crucial way. Now there are no taboos or irresolvable problems any more.

15[…] We are watching developments in Hungary with great interest. The United States, and of course you, Mr. General Secretary, are following them too. I told Bush that as far as Hungary is concerned, we are acting on the basis of an old German proverb: let the church remain in the village. It means that the Hungarians should decide themselves what they want, but nobody should interfere in their affairs.

16Gorbachev: We have a similar proverb: do not go to another monastery with your own charter.

17Kohl: Beautiful folk wisdom. Both sides share it. And if so, there can be no talk of “crusades.”

18Gorbachev: I am telling you honestly—there are serious shifts underway in the socialist countries. Their direction originates from concrete situations in each country. The West should not be concerned about it. Everything is moving in the direction of a strengthening of democratic foundations. Every country is deciding on its own how to do it. It is their internal affair. I think you would agree with me that you should not poke a stick into an anthill. The consequences of such an act could be absolutely unpredictable.

19Kohl: There is an opinion on one side, there is an opinion on another side, but there is also a third opinion—a common opinion. This is the common opinion of the Soviet Union, of the United States, of the FRG, and of other countries. In short, we should not interfere with anybody’s development.

20Gorbachev: The situation is very tense in a number of countries. If someone were to try to destabilize that situation, it would disrupt the process of building trust between West and East, and destroy everything that has been achieved so far. We want a rapprochement, not a return to the attitudes of confrontation. […]

21Kohl: However, it is no secret to anybody that Erich Honecker is not inclined to undertake any changes or reforms, and thus he himself destabilizes the situation.

22I have problems because of that in the FRG. I say all the time that I am not interested in destabilizing the situation in the GDR. However, the people ask me all the time, why does the GDR remain frozen in its positions? I am told that we should do something in order to let the people there experience the same freedom that now characterizes Hungary, Poland, and, of course, the Soviet Union,

23You cannot imagine what was going on here when the GDR banned distribution of the Soviet magazine Sputnik. Everybody laughed. But I did not, because they demanded that I, as chancellor, take new steps to improve relations with the GDR, and I could not do anything about it.

24Gorbachev: As far as our friends are concerned, we have a firm principle: everyone is responsible for his own country. We are not going to teach anyone, but we are not asking anyone to teach us either. I think that what I have just said makes it clear whether there is a “Brezhnev Doctrine.” We are in favor of positive changes in all spheres, in favor of political normalization, and strengthening the economy. But at the same time we are also in favor of preserving the special features and traditions of the socialist states. […]

25Kohl: I support your ideas. To tell you honestly, we understand Moscow much better, and we feel much closer to it than to [East] Berlin now. Ninety percent of the population in the GDR watches our television. They are informed about everything but are afraid to speak publicly. I just feel sorry for the people. But let me reiterate that I am not doing anything to destabilize the situation. This applies to Hungary and Poland as well. To interfere with anyone’s internal political development now would mean taking a destructive line which would throw Europe back to the times of caution and mistrust.

26Gorbachev: That is a very important statement. It fits the spirit of the times.

27Kohl: […] As far as conventional weapons are concerned, the key to that issue is in your hands. We have a real opportunity to reach an agreement—and in a fundamental sense—on conventional weapons in the next 12, or if not, then in the next 14-15 months: An agreement on conventional weapons would put the entire arms control agenda on a qualitatively new level. I will be one of those who makes a clear and sound statement about that.

28I would like to propose to you, Mr. General Secretary, that in the next several months we should stay in direct contact—not via departments—on the issues of negotiations in Vienna. And in general, I believe that we should intensify our contacts, call each other more often, even if there is no concrete business to discuss. If we talk regularly, hear each other’s voices, all problems will be easier to solve.

29As far as special representatives are concerned, as I have already told you, I will send my closest assistant, Teltschik, who is present here. And you can send Chernyaev to me.

30Gorbachev: I agree.

31Kohl: We are not exaggerating our role, but we are not underestimating it either. Others will listen to our opinion more and more. I can already feel it.

32Gorbachev: We need to cooperate more closely, because our cooperation can produce very effective impulses and lead to positive changes on still-unresolved issues.

33[Source: Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation, Fond 1. Opis 1. On file at the National Security Archive. Translated by Svetlana Savranskaya.]

© Central European University Press, 2010

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