USSR: The West must learn the lesson of a wicked month.

USSR: The West must learn the lesson of a wicked month. - Dr Kissinger had the right reaction to the Kremlin coup and it remains valid, writes Peter Wilsher.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Dr Kissinger had the right reaction to the Kremlin coup and it remains valid, writes Peter Wilsher.

Henry Kissinger spelled out the key point within hours of the announcement of the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. "The primary task", he said, "is to tie Eastern Europe to the West." And this remains valid. The fact that the coup could have taken place at all was a dramatic demonstration of how fragile the era of glasnost and perestroika was - and, surely, will remain. Optimism might have led us to hope that it was otherwise but the strategy for the West must be to bind Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the rest of the freed satellites to democracy and the European ideal.

I am writing just as the Soviet embassy in London is saying that the bungled coup is over. But whatever the future holds, the objective stated by Kissinger must be pursued.

What has also been established is that the western democracies can no longer pursue the half-baked, half-hearted, self-serving policies which characterised the months that followed the breaching of the Berlin Wall. It is no longer sufficient, if it ever was, for London, Paris and Washington, in particular, to rely on shouts of encouragement and cheap rhetorical gestures to get the former dependents of Comecon and the command economy back on their independent, free-market feet.

The requirement now is a coherent, sustained and, let us face it, initially costly programme of support. And above all, it must mean a much wider opening of the European Community's still overprotected markets. Without a drastic boost in trade, and the early prospect of income-earning, job-creating export activity, there is little hope that the fragile, beleaguered reform governments in Warsaw, Budapest and Prague (let alone Sofia, Bucharest and Tirana) can hold on much longer. But if they too are allowed to fail - and in their case "allowed" is an appropriate word - the whole extraordinary achievement of the Gorbachev years will have been casually and unforgivably thrown away.

Academics will debate whether more far-sighted and sympathetic backing from the people who thought that they could "do business with" Gorbachev might have averted the coup in the first place. Whatever their conclusion, it is clear even now that, as he drifted further into the shadows of unpopularity and failure, the summiteers who patronised and lectured him did not score highly either for sympathetic understanding or grasp of the real challenges that he was facing.

The sheer magnitude of the task that he had set himself almost beggars the imagination. As one commentator graphically put it, it was the equivalent of simultaneously creating both the United States of America and the European Community, while at the same time presiding over the orderly break-up of the British Empire and converting its components almost overnight from communist sclerosis to the full rigours of competitive capitalism. Small wonder that there was the risk of failure.

But that does not absolve the West entirely from the charge of niggardliness and suspicion. In assessing the relatively small amount of discretionary aid that could usefully be thrown in his direction, the tendency was always to err well on the side of caution, and it cannot have been much help with his critics back home when Gorbachev left the London meeting of the Group of Seven this summer with little more than seven pats on the back and an almost insulting offer of "technical aid".

Maybe they had some justification in the case of the USSR. The problems were - and are - too huge and daunting for outsiders to have more than marginal influence; and there was a genuine danger that all the charity and sympathy in the rest of the world could easily vanish down some Siberian or Ukranian black hole. But that does not apply to the much more manageable situation of the ex-satellites to the east of the Oder. It is their comprehensive detachment from the Warsaw Pact which has created the most significant part of "the peace dividend" that is Gorbachev's most significant legacy. It would be truly tragic if this were allowed to be lost through short-sighted neglect.

The point for the West, and particularly the EC partners, to grasp is that the great Eastern experiment is nearing its most critical point. Most of the unavoidable pain is now out in the open - the soaring unemployment, the rocketing prices, and the realisation that the technologies are antediluvian, the factories worse than useless and most of the industrial designs and products unsaleable. But the pay-off - the wealth and job-creating opportunity, the managerial autonomy, the self-determining freedoms that will come with the lifting of today's grinding poverty - are still tantalisingly ahead. And the message and the danger of August's events is that all of this could still be dashed away.

Newly unified Germany, with all its benefits of linguistic homogeneity, ready access to capital and a patriotic commitment to success, shows both how close the breakthrough could be and how substantial still are the obstacles to success. Behind all of the well publicised moans about inflation, chaos and plunging output there were heartening signs, before the news of the Kremlin shake-up, that spring might at last be on the way. Amid the still-growing dole queues came the news that two million people had found new jobs this year. The Treuhandanstalt, after an achingly slow start, and the assassination of its hard-driving top official, is now successfully selling off 20 former state firms every day and has so far restored 2,600 of them to the private sector. West German investment in its eastern junkyard was set to top £20 billion this year, and the signs of money flowing through were becoming visible everywhere: in newly painted shop fronts, bustling building sites, lorry queues on the motorways and no fewer than 370,000 more new businesses starting up than had prematurely failed.

That is the achievement that is at risk, if the West loses its nerve, pulls in its horns and withdraws even its present level of backing from the newly emergent eastern democracies. The test of true statesmanship, at this point, is almost certainly to do precisely the reverse and strain every sinew to carry out the Kissinger injunction. And the best gesture of all - meeting the heartfelt desire of everyone east of the Oder, and a growing number in the West as well - would be to speed up the process of EC expansion, and welcome at least Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia as soon as possible into full membership of the Single European Market.

If they are discouraged or spurned, the future may indeed be bleak, as the courageous Czechoslovakian president, Vaclav Havel, warned just after news of the coup broke: "I believe there is no immediate danger to Czechoslovakia, but in the long term we can't exclude certain complications in the fields of international relations and international security."

An accelerating meltdown of the Soviet economy will be almost as alarming to Moscow's erstwhile allies as the threat of Russian tanks was. They still depend on the Soviet Union for oil, and disruption to these supplies would simply shatter their first tentative moves to a market economy. The West, particularly oil-rich America, Britain and Norway, must guarantee the fuel necessary to keep eastern power stations running this winter.

If the former satellites are overwhelmed by refugees from Byelorussia or the Ukraine, the generous western aid that was so conspicuous by its absence at the G7 summit in London must be immediately available. The recent events at Bari on the Italian coast, with rioting by thousands of Albanian refugees, could be a minor foretaste of what the West should expect if Soviet disunion leads to civil conflict.

Even before the current crisis broke, the refugee problem was beginning to alarm western governments. French academics forecast that in the next four years Polish unemployment will rise from one million to six million, creating the conditions for a huge exodus westwards. Add in Soviet refugees and the mixture will be a volatile cocktail for far and not so far right groups to exploit in German, French and Italian elections. Even the left appears to be jumping on this particular bandwagon, judging by some of the recent pronouncements by Edith Cresson, the French premier.

The possible scenarios for conflict and turmoil in Europe are almost endless but there is also opportunity, and the sobering events of mid-August should spur the EC leaders to take it.

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