Those events, and their peaceful unfolding, were made possible by changes that began in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. We initiated them because they were overdue. We were responding to the demands of the people, who resented living without freedom, isolated from the rest of the world.
In just a few years — a very short time in history’s span — the main pillars of the totalitarian system in the Soviet Union were dismantled and the ground was readied for a democratic transition and economic reforms. Having done that in our own country, we could not deny the same to our neighbors.
We did not force changes upon them. From the outset of perestroika, I told the leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries that the Soviet Union was embarking upon major reforms but that they had to decide what they would do. You are responsible to your people, I said; we will not interfere.
In effect it was a repudiation of the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, based on the concept of “limited sovereignty.” Initially, my words were met with skepticism, seen as yet another purely formal statement by a new general secretary of the Communist Party. But we never wavered, and that is why the developments in Europe in 1989-1990 were peaceful, without bloodshed.
The biggest challenge was the unification of Germany. As late as the summer of 1989, during my visit to West Germany, journalists asked me and Chancellor Helmut Kohl whether we had discussed the possibility of German unification. I replied that we had inherited that problem from history and that it would be addressed as history evolved. “When?” journalists asked. The chancellor and I both pointed to the 21st century.
Some might say we were poor prophets. Fair enough: German unification occurred much earlier — by the will of the German people, not because Gorbachev or Kohl wanted it. (text integral)