The world today marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall – a spectacular event which changed the course of history. The Sunday Times interviewed three Colombo-based European envoys — see picture above: German Ambassador Jürgen Morhard (c), European Union Ambassador David Daly (R) and Romania’s Chargé d’Affaires Victor Chiujdea (L). They [...]

Sunday Times 2

The fall of the Berlin wall: What it means today


The world today marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall – a spectacular event which changed the course of history. The Sunday Times interviewed three Colombo-based European envoys — see picture above: German Ambassador Jürgen Morhard (c), European Union Ambassador David Daly (R) and Romania’s Chargé d’Affaires Victor Chiujdea (L).

They hailed the fall of the Berlin wall as one of the greatest events in modern human history, while they rejected any suggestion that a new cold war might be emerging with the crisis between the West and Russia on the Ukraine issue. The envoys also rejected charges that they were blindly following the United States policy on issues relating to Sri Lanka. Excerpts from the interview:

-As we mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, could you take our readers back to the days of the Wall and share with them your thoughts when the wall finally fell?

German Ambassador (GA): On the ninth of November 25 years ago when it happened – the fall of the wall and the opening of the gate were spectacular events. Nobody had foreseen that a miracle could happen after 40 years of a divided Germany. This day was special to me. I was hosting a farewell party for my first foreign ministry posting to Tokyo. I remember the first guest who came to the party that evening around 5.30 from parliament telling me that the Wall was open. It was a time when there were no mobile phones. Everyone tried to get to a radio or a TV to see what was happening. For all of us it was a day on which the unbelievable happened, the impossible happened. The picture I still have in my mind is that thousands of East Germans filled with joy coming through the gates of the Wall with West Berliners welcoming them. This elation was something similar to what we experienced when we won the soccer World Cup. It was the fullness of joy which spread to the whole country.

Everybody on the Western side was saying, “I want to go to Berlin.” They took aircraft, train and whatever mode of transport to get to Berlin to witness this great moment. The people coming out through the gates were also in the similar mood. They were looking for things they couldn’t buy or see in East Germany. For instance, they were looking for bananas. For many, it was the first thing they were looking for. This may be strange, but it showed the pathetic standard of living and also what freedom means on a daily basis. Of course there were important events before the Wall fell. We had heard an important speech by US President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Facing the Berlin Wall, he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” He said it in a way that he was anticipating something might happen.

In 1989, we saw a movement of people, which we can compare now to a revolution which helped Germany to catch up in history with France and the US. Germany never had a revolution. It was basically a case of people, who had been deprived of basic rights, taking to the streets; these people had been subjects who wanted to be citizens; they were looking for the rights of freedom and they wanted to overthrow the oppressive regime. This would not have been possible without the major changes that occurred in the Soviet Union under the then leader Mikhail Gorbachev.He changed the Brezhnev doctrine. It would not have been possible if not for the courageous people at Gdansk in Poland; the people in the Wenceslas Square in Czechoslovakia, the people of Hungary. I believe that the first piece of the Berlin Wall was removed by the Hungarians when they cut the fence open and allowed people to cross to Austria. This was the first blow to the Berlin wall and the iron curtain.

Romanian Ambassador (RA): The fall of the Berlin Wall not only led to the reunification of Germany but also opened a new chapter in the history of Central and Eastern Europe. It opened a new era of reconciliation after centuries of tension, an era of democracy, harmony, peace and prosperity. Romania was the last, but the bloodiest change of regime in the area, with more than 1000 people killed and 3,500 injured. Romania was under the hardest totalitarian regime in Eastern Europe. People were subjects to the arbitrary will of the state and of the communist party, with no civil society, but a severe control of the political police. In December ’89, Romanians won their right to be individuals with rights and freedom, as any other citizen of the free world. Freedom has helped millions of Romanians recover their normality and shape up their lives and their country.

EU Ambassador (EA): When the Wall fell, I had just moved from my posting in the Irish diplomatic service in New Delhi to the European Commission in Brussels. The whole thing was unexpected. It happened suddenly. What had been a trickle became a flow and unstoppable. It was also a demonstration of the power of the people coming together. While it is such an important day for Germany, it was also for the rest of Europe and the world.

As the German ambassador just said, we have to remember the fall of the Wall was preceded by the efforts of the brave Germans, the people of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and citizens all over the Soviet bloc. When change took place, the rest of Europe was looking on with amazement and joy.

While we were stunned by the suddenness, we were extremely joyous at the liberty that was involved. At the same time, nobody knew where it would end as it was also a period of uncertainty. But the joy and euphoria of the moment took precedence when the Wall actually came down.

-The Berlin Wall symbolised the Cold War divide. Its fall eventually led to the end of the Cold War. But recent developments in Europe have stoked fears that a new cold war with Russia is in the making over the Ukrainian crisis. Will we be going back to the Cold War days?

GA: The first ten years after the fall of the Wall gave us a lot of hope. The cold war had ended and we were entering a new era of peace in Europe as democracy had conquered dictatorship in Eastern Europe.

Today we are caught up in new realities – failed states, terrorism, fundamentalism, violence and civil wars. The norms of international laws are being disregarded or ignored. In Ukraine military means are being used where peaceful coexistence would be possible. The term cold war is not appropriate anymore because what was meant by the cold war at that time was of a global dimension and a military standoff between two superpowers. What we see today in Europe is a regional armed conflict. I do not want to underplay what is happening, but it is not of a global conflict nature between two ideological camps.

EA: I would agree. We should not downplay the seriousness of the issue where one state annexes illegally parts of another state’s territory. Such action goes against the process of European integration which has been fundamental in understanding the western part of Europe over the past sixty years.

When the Wall fell, the joining process of European integration became possible also for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

One of the major challenges when the countries in Eastern Europe were liberated was to accommodate their aspirations for European integration. They wanted to join the European Union which was then called the European Community. They expressed their clear desire to join this democratic club. That was a challenge for the EU. It was a huge political and historic opportunity and the EU was not going to miss that opportunity. But it was not easy and it took a lot of work on the part of the newly liberated countries. They had to undertake political, administrative, economic and legal reforms to join the Union.

With time, it happened. Ten countries joined the union in 2004. This transformed the EU. The countries that were on the other side of the Iron Curtain were now part of the larger union which promises stability and prosperity. So there was a process – a democratic process – and it took time.

So when we look at the problem you referred to, I would say it is inappropriate to use the term cold war, although it is an extremely serious situation. The whole process of European integration is a peaceful and democratic one with the countries being free to decide whether they should join the EU or not. Ukraine also has to be free to make that choice.

- You say it is inappropriate to use the term Cold War. But the Ukrainian crisis and the Georgia war indicate otherwise. Besides, there was little effort by the EU to integrate with Russia. What prevents you from making Russia part of the integration process?

GA: The first step towards integration would be the expression of the intention. This, Russia, never did.

- The divide is a reality now because Russia does not want to be part of the political West.

EA: Membership in the EU is open to any democratic European country. The EU is keen to have friendly relations with all European countries, including Russia. For this reason, Russia is a strategic partner with the EU. There has been a high level of relationship with summit meetings and regular dialogue at the highest level. However, Russia has never considered being in the EU.

RA: It is not appropriate to say that events around Ukraine represent a full-fledged new cold war, although Russia’s annexation of Crimea reminds us the divided line of Europe.

GA: The European Union is a structure – a kind of community of economies. During the past 25 years we have seen a process by which Russia and other European countries were communicating within military structures of NATO. We have seen forms of cooperation between NATO and partner countries, including Russia. There was a form of dialogue between NATO and Russia – a mechanism for regular meetings in Brussels. There was complete openness of cooperation. So there was no new cold war borderline being shifted to the Russian border.

Until recently we saw a process where Russia and other European nations wanted to be part of Europe.

-But Russia has a different take on the situation. It fears the EU and NATO are coming closer to its backyard to encircle it. Just as the US would not tolerate a hostile nation intruding into its backyard, Russia also has some security concerns. Why cannot the EU respect Russia’s security concerns and let Russia deal with Ukraine?

EA: That is preposterous. Ukraine is a democratic country in its own right and therefore it must have the freedom to decide for itself what is good for it.

- There was a democratically elected government but it was overthrown by a EU-supported uprising where the EU’s commitment to democracy was highly questioned?

EA: That is a misreading of what happened because Ukraine for many years has been saying that it wanted to have closer cooperation with the EU. We had been negotiating with Ukraine an Association Agreement that had many components – political, economic and so on. The talks for a Free Trade Agreement were going on well and had reached completion. Then the Ukrainian president after being part of the process walked out of it under pressure from Russia. This was what precipitated the crisis and brought the Ukrainian people to the streets. So it was not the EU that brought about this uprising. It happened because the Ukrainians’ hopes for economic prosperity through closer cooperation with the EU were frustrated by an outside force. The fundamental point is: who decides for the Ukrainian people?

- But the Ukrainians are divided. For instance, the Ukrainians in the east are supportive of a union with Russia. Some believe the EU should have let the Ukrainians decide the issue of joining the EU or Russia at an election or referendum rather than precipitate a crisis.

GA: We have to stress that the Ukrainian people were unhappy about the circumstances. They were crying for freedom at the Maidan Square in Kiev. It was an upheaval for a change of government.

EA: The Ukrainian president (Victor Yanukovych) and his government were voted out by a majority of 328 lawmakers in the 450-seat parliament. We also saw that in violation of the Ukrainian constitution, referendums were held in parts of Ukraine with the support of an outside force. The bottom line is that it is up to the Ukrainian people to decide whom they should be allied with. It is not for a neighbour to decide.

GA: No Eastern European country was forced to join the NATO. There was no coercion. These countries’ wish to join NATO should not be seen as a threat to Russia.

- But Russia feels it is being encircled. Besides, it was only recently that NATTO chief Anders Rasmussen promoted a readiness action plan against the backdrop of the Ukrainian crisis. In another move, a US military base was set up in Romania recently. Aren’t these cold-war type moves aimed at Russia?

RA: Romania’s NATO membership: it was the will of the Romanian people. Nobody forced us to join NATO. Concerning the US military bases, the Mihail Kogalniceanu Airbase, an important regional hub, close to the Black Sea, is used for transit by the US, our allies and partners for soldiers from Afghanistan. As you know, operations in Afghanistan end this year. In September 2011, Romania and the US signed the Agreement on missile defence facility at Deveselu in the south of Romania. The facility has strictly a defensive character, not offensive, and it is part of the NATO missile defence system that protects Europe. It will come into operation in 2015. The system is designed to protect Europe against short and medium-range missiles, and it is not designed to undercut Russia’s strategic deterrent. I have to mention that the Strategic Partnership with the US is one of the central elements of our country’s security.

- Do you think that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO should have been disbanded?

GA: After the end of the Cold War, NATO changed its role. It has been taking many positive steps. One such step is cooperation with Russia. It is part of the system. Russia until recently was a part of the European security structure. But there are other threats for Europe – though not formally — from other parts of the world.

- The EU’s foreign policy is often seen as an appendage of the US foreign policy? For instance, the EU en bloc backs the
US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka?

EA: The EU as a Union in its own right has been evolving towards having a strong foreign policy decided by its 28 member states – not in consultation with the US. History has shown that from the origin of the Union, the EU had a common stand on economic issues. Over time, particularly in the past 20 years, the member states have shown a tendency to follow the same foreign policy. When the EU takes a foreign policy decision, every member state has to agree. There are times when EU members do not have a common position on a foreign policy issue. Then the member states take their own stand. But the momentum increasingly has been towards a common position. We reach foreign policy decision based on the merits of the case. These foreign policy decisions in many cases are the same as the US or another country. That’s fine. We don’t have the monopoly of wisdom. But we differ, too.

Take for instance, the question of death penalty. We take a serious view of death penalty and articulate our views in a whole range of countries, including the US. We do not shy away from it.

RA: I fully agree with my EU colleague, as an example, on the Kosovo issue, the EU members took different foreign policy decisions. For instance, five EU countries, including Romania, have not recognised Kosovo’s independence. Every country defends its own interest and not all the time EU reached the consensus.

- There is a perception in Sri Lanka and other developing countries that EU countries make use of principles such as human rights, democracy and good governance to punish countries which do not toe their line.

EA: I do not agree with your charge. We believe in universal human rights.

-But you treat your West Asian allies which are big human rights violators differently.

There is not so much pressure on them as is on Sri Lanka or countries like Iran.

GA: We firmly believe in the fundamental principles enshrined in the preamble of the UN charter. There are several instruments within the UN System. We support the UNHRC where there is a periodic review system and this process points to the maturity of the UN system. Now there is a perception that these instruments are used in different ways with regard to certain countries. But I don’t subscribe to such perception. Within the UNHRC, all countries are screened. However, I understand the perception in some countries where the UNHRC proceedings are seen as unfair, because the focus is for the time being more on them. Sri Lanka is just one point in the agenda of UNHRC issues. The other countries being discussed will also feel the same when the focus is on them.

Individually, we are small countries. A majority of the countries today believe in and subscribe to international law. We need rules to live globally in peace and prosperity together. At the moment, UN is the best rule setting body we have.

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