Mon, Jun 19, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Remembering Kohl’s unfinished business to bring Russia into fold

By Leonid Bershidsky  /  Bloomberg View

Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who died on Friday at the age of 87, was the man who put German history to bed. It was also he who, with his idealism, helped lay the groundwork for the current confrontation between Russia and the West.

A local dialect speaker from Rheinland-Pfalz, Kohl was once summed up by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher with a sigh and three words: “He’s so German.”

He was a local politician, an activist for the Christian Democratic Union since his teens, who was ultimately brought low by a local scandal that involved illegal slush funds.

However, in the 1980s, he was reluctantly thrust into the international limelight by the historic opportunity to reunite Germany. He did the best he could for his country, although, like other major players at the time, he was overtaken by events. The world he helped shape baffled him and did not quite turn out as he dreamed.

On Nov. 10, 1989, then-US president George H.W. Bush asked for Kohl’s impressions of what was going on in Berlin, where the Berlin Wall was no longer stopping people from crossing the border.

“At Checkpoint Charlie, thousands of people are crossing both ways. There are many young people who are coming over for a visit and enjoying our open way of life. I expect they will go home tonight,” Kohl said.

Even at that point, when Communism was all but dead, Kohl was thinking in terms of two Germanys, in terms of the East reforming itself or losing its best people to westward migration.

However, soon it was clear that the imploding Soviet Union was in no position to prop up the German Democratic Republic any longer.

Less than a year later, Kohl flew to Moscow to negotiate with then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev on whether a united Germany could be a NATO member. Kohl thought Gorbachev would demand that the country remain neutral — or ask for money to consent to NATO membership.

Kohl’s advisers later named all kinds of numbers Germany would have accepted as a fair price — 50 billion to 80 billion deutsche marks.

Kohl himself later said even 100 billion marks would not have been too much. Kohl got off with a promise to spend about 300 million marks to send Soviet troops back home from Germany and help build housing for them.

The Russian troops’ retreat was personally important to Kohl. His wife, Hannelore, had been raped by Soviet soldiers at the age of 12. She could not stand to meet with Gorbachev or hear the sound of Russian.

There was all this history to take care of. Kohl the local politician did his best to make sure it was buried. He arranged emergency funding for the foundering Soviet Union and then, after its collapse, for the bankrupt Russia.

He negotiated the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which relieved tensions sufficiently enough for a freshly united Germany to join a united Europe. Even the Deutsche mark would cease to exist as part of the deal.

Germany would just wipe the slate clean and lead a quiet life as a European province in the US’ shadow. It would be a peaceful country once and for all, after paying all its dues.

However, Kohl did not factor in what his efforts to resolve Cold War rifts with the West would do to the giant to the East.

He always distrusted Gorbachev — he considered him an unreconstructed Communist who was simply forced to bow to adverse circumstances.

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