Unity Day looks pretty fun, though.

Europe Missed Its Chance 25 Years Ago

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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As Germany celebrates its national unity day today -- on a rather random date set by politicians in the 1990 unification treaty -- my thoughts go back to the actual unification, on Nov. 9, 1989.

Then, U.S. and Western European leaders were swept along by a tide of events in Eastern Europe that was bigger and faster than anyone had envisioned. It was a revolution that might have pulled Russia into a united, peaceful Europe. Instead, Russia was left behind, and Eastern Europe is once again a troubled, disunited buffer area between the West and what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the "Russian world."

Germany does not celebrate unity on Nov. 9, because that is the date of the 1938 Kristallnacht. Nevertheless, Nov. 9, 1989, was the day East Germans began dismantling the Berlin Wall and streamed unhindered through the checkpoints. It is now remembered as a victory for the U.S. and its Western allies, but here's how West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl described the day to U.S. President George H.W. Bush in a Nov. 10 phone conversation:

It's like witnessing an enormous fair. It has the atmosphere of a festival. The frontiers are absolutely open. At certain points they are literally taking down the Wall and building new checkpoints. 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. I would cautiously tell you that it appears that the opening has not led to a dramatic increase in the movement of refugees. It may be with the frontier open, people will simply go back and forth, looking, visiting and going home. This will work only if the GDR really reforms and I have my doubts.

Kohl was not sure then that Germany would reunite. He was mostly worried that the Wall's spontaneous toppling would saddle the prosperous West with more East Germans than the 230,000 mostly young people who had already abandoned the German Democratic Republic.

The U.S. president, too, was worried that things were going too fast, as documents from his presidential library show, and he was concerned that acknowledging the event might provoke the Soviet Union. "I want to see our people continue to avoid especially hot rhetoric that might by mistake cause a problem," he told Kohl.

Later, as Bush established a dialogue with new East European leaders, he sought their advice on how the U.S. should behave as the Soviet Union disintegrated. In May, 1990, two months after Lithuania declared independence, Bush asked Arpad Goncz, Hungary's acting president, how he should react. "We are trying to conduct ourselves in such a way that we do not inadvertently exacerbate a situation for Gorbachev," Bush said, referring to the last Soviet leader. Goncz advised that the U.S. back the Baltic nations' independence but call for a two-year transition period. In fact, the U.S. didn't recognize Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia until 1991, after the abortive hard-line coup in Moscow.

When Russian President Boris Yeltsin called Bush on Dec. 8, 1991, with the news that he and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus had signed the Soviet Union's death sentence, all Bush could say was "OK," "I see" and "Uh-huh." He asked only about Gorbachev's response: "What do you think the center's reaction will be?" Yeltsin, however, hadn't even called Gorbachev.

Declassified documents from those years make it clear that the East European revolutions were not a Western victory, not a NATO triumph. In Germany, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia, people needed little prompting to rebel against the idiocy and corruption of Communist rule. The West acted like a disbelieving lottery winner, and improvised all its reactions. And that's how it blew its chance to establish a truly stable security architecture in Europe, drawing all of the former Soviet Union, not just the westernmost part of its empire, into an economic and political union.

It would have been possible. Germany did it in a smaller scale; it is now a united nation, despite some residual tension. But to Western leaders of the day, Yeltsin's dream of a Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok seemed too big and too expensive. They could not have foreseen the rise in energy prices, which helped Russia restore much of its old might -- and become a threat instead of a useful ally.

The pull that Russia exercises on Eastern Europe -- even on the eastern part of Germany -- is seen in the West as hostile. In a Thursday speech, Victoria Nuland, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Europe and the former Soviet Union, attacked the leaders of Hungary and Bulgaria for succumbing to that pull:

How can you sleep under your NATO Article 5 blanket at night while pushing “illiberal democracy” by day; whipping up nationalism; restricting free press; or demonizing civil society! I ask the same of those who shield crooked officials from prosecution; bypass parliament when convenient; or cut dirty deals that increase their countries’ dependence on one source of energy despite their stated policy of diversification.

I cannot help but think that, had truly inclusive European unity been an option at the start of the 1990s, Nuland's critisism would have been as impossible as a Russian-Ukrainian war. Russian energy would have peacefully fed a continent, and any corruption and authoritarian tendencies in Europe would have been seen merely as unpleasant throwbacks to a nasty common past, not signs of disunity in the face of a common enemy.

The seeds of current instability and conflict were sown 25 years ago, in a time of euphoria. Things were happening too fast for leaders to think clearly, and the world is now paying the price.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net