“Common Europe”: A House Under Construction
The aftermath of 1989

by Oliver Bilger

Citizens of West Berlin greet neighbors from the GDR on 10.11.1989 Photo: Hans-Peter Lochmann. Bundesarchiv

The events of 1989 offered the promise of a new world order and a united Europe. That was supposed to mean democracy, human rights, the market economy and the rule of law. However, these hopes have still not come to pass.

Why did the huge changes which happened thirty years ago - the fall of the Berlin wall, the reunification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War - fail to fulfil the hopes and expectations of so many?

From a German perspective, the events of 1989 were a cause for huge joy. However, thirty years on, it is the missed opportunities which are particularly striking. In 1989, Europe was more united than ever before. However, in the following decades, East and West have drifted apart again.

Few were as involved in the historic events of 1989 as Horst Teltschik. The 79-year-old Teltschik was then Deputy Head of Helmut Kohl's Chancellery, responsible for the Department of Foreign Relations, and a key player in the negotiations on German reunification. He tells me that he did not expect post-Cold War Europe to turn out this way.

High expectations, big disappointments

Helmut Kohl and Horst Teltschik, 1986. Photo: Lothar Schaack. Bundesarchiv

Horst Teltschik

When Teltschik recalls those times, he mentions one significant result - the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, which was signed one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was meant to create a new peaceful order in Europe after the reunification of Germany, symbolising the end of the confrontation   between East and West. Leaders declared the division of Europe over, proclaimed the importance of democracy, and sought to build a common security structure stretching, "from Vancouver to Vladivostok".

The aim, from Teltschik's perspective, was "extraordinarily ambitious". Leaders of states and governments had defined principles and created tools to develop a new unified Europe. According to Teltschik, the prospect of a lasting peace in Europe was an incredible opportunity and he believes that Europe never had so much reason for hope. He says he was optimistic and is deeply disappointed today that leaders did not really take this opportunity and try to implement it.

"Europe - our common home?"

Conflicts, an arms race and so-called mutual assured destruction were what the world had experienced during decades of Cold War confrontation. However, when Mikhail Gorbachev took over the leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985, things began to change. Tensions between the East and West eased, the arms race became all about disarmament, and the political ice age began to thaw.

Mr Gorbachev considered his radical internal reforms incompatible with strained foreign relations. His perestroika - a policy for reforming the economic and political system - was only possible if the Cold War came to an end. He noted in his memoirs that, "the infernal arms race had reached such a speed that it was hard to imagine how one could act or at least slow it down…something had to happen".

Lenin looking out of the window. From inside of the flat in Russia, 1990s Photo: Uta Protzmann

Instead of confronting the West, Gorbachev chose to befriend it. He saw Russia as part of Europe, whose trade, cultural and political relations with other European nations and states were deeply rooted in history. History has, in his view, been complicated, but worth "learning from".

His famous phrase "Europe is our common home" might sound naive today, but at the time the Soviet leader wanted his words to be seen in the light of the continent's difficult history. He did not dream of a borderless Europe, instead he supported the idea of national self-determination and non-intervention in internal affairs. Moreover, according to Gorbachev, the states in this "Common European Home" could belong to different social systems, even to opposing military alliances. What mattered were, "common, reasonable rules of coexistence", so that Europeans could look after their home. For Gorbachev, this was a necessity and his vision for the future was rooted in the conflicts of the past. However, recent geopolitical confrontations on the European continent suggest this vision has not yet become a reality. 

The fall of the Wall

Helmut Kohl (right) in conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the USSR (center) and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, about the full sovereignty of united Germany and the alliance with NATO. Caucasus, 15.07.1990 Photo: Roberto Pfeil. Bundesarchiv

In July 1990 Gorbachev and Kohl met in Arkhys, a mountain resort in the Russian Northern Caucasus, to set the seal on German reunification. They discussed the final remaining questions, such as the withdrawal of Soviet military forces from East Germany, the renunciation of weapons of mass destruction, and Germany’s NATO membership. Their meeting was also about the creation of new security structures within the framework of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). At this Caucasus summit Kohl and Gorbachev wanted to reach new political heights. Their personal chemistry, which Gorbachev described as "heartfelt acceptance", undoubtedly helped them to navigate this challenging process.

George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev Photo: RIAN Archive 330109

Gorbachev’s relationship with the US President George Bush was also essential to the success of this enterprise, according to Teltschik. Their partnership was key to everything, which followed during 1989 and 1990. The Soviet Union made a large number of agreements with Germany, which included delivery of food and other goods, as well as loans. Meanwhile, President Bush tried to assure his Soviet counterpart that the US did not see itself as the winner of the Cold War. The US president promised to respect the legitimate security interests of the Soviet Union. "He always treated Gorbachev as an equal”, Teltschick concludes.

Glasnost and perestroika on the one hand, and conversations and agreements on the other, paved the way for change across many European countries. Hungary opening its border with Austria for East German refugees, free elections in Poland, and the fall of the Berlin Wall amid impending reunification created further cohesion. For Gorbachev questions linked to security issues were of the utmost importance. US assurances were key to the Soviet leader finally accepting German reunification and membership of NATO. "It was the reason why Gorbachev accepted these fundamental changes and signed the Paris Charter”, says Teltschik.

The Charter of Paris: roadmap for the future

Economic conference of the CSCE states, Bonn 1990 Photo: Engelbert Reinke. Bundesarchiv

In November 1990, the 34 leaders of the CSCE countries came together and signed the Paris Charter for a New Europe. The preamble stated that, "the era of confrontation and division of Europe has come to an end…our relations will be based on respect and cooperation in the future. Europe frees itself from the heritage of the past". The political declaration was intended to be the foundation of a united Europe, where freedom, human rights, democracy, the market economy and the rule of law were the building blocks. You could say it was the blueprint for Gorbachev's "Common European Home".

Time Magazine September 1991, Special Edition on the August Coup leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union

It was a great vision. However, the reality has not lived up to expectations. The roadmap did exist but it has been impossible to reach the final destination. Maybe people wanted too much at once? Was this ambitious project doomed to fail from the start?

Today we are still far from achieving a Common European Home. There are many reasons for this. For example, Germany focused primarily on the consequences and challenges of its reunification. The US, which would have played a key role in creating a new security structure, increasingly turned its attention to the Middle East and the first Gulf War. The wars in Yugoslavia brought conflict to the heart of Europe. The Soviet empire broke up and Gorbachev lost out to Boris Yeltsin.

All of this changed the status quo under which the Charter of Paris had been signed. The first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, declared that he wanted to lead his country into the European Community and possibly even see Russia join NATO. However, that initial rapport between East and West waned under the impact of social and economic crises in Russia. Euphoria gave way to disappointment among many Russians. According to Gorbachev, "Yeltsin's Russia, weakened by the destruction of the Soviet Union…proved unable to continue the constructive role that the Soviet Union played internationally in the years of perestroika". He believes that, "Russia missed the opportunities created by the end of the Cold War to lead the world community to a new world order, for a long time ahead".

Victory celebrations parade in the southern Russian city of Volgograd, May 9th, 2015 Photo: Mitya Zimin

Tensions between Moscow and the West grew as former Eastern bloc allies moved closer to Europe and NATO. Russia felt humiliated by the NATO bombings in Yugoslavia, its support for Kosovo, and the expansion of the alliance to the East. Officials in Moscow saw these actions as a violation of the security assurances they had received at the end of the Cold War. To this day, the NATO issue remains a huge hurdle in the wider relationship between Russia and the West.

Russia does not fit into the existing security structures imposed by the West and does not want to give up on its global influence. At the very least, the Kremlin would like to be seen as an equal partner. The question of how Russia can be integrated into the global security structure remains unanswered.

Gorbachev maintains that the West did not understand that for a Common European Home to work, it must also change its ways of thinking and some of its structures. "Russia sees a US-controlled NATO as a threat to its security. For Russia this means that the global superpower, the US, is now at its borders," Teltschik explains. He says that the threat may be exaggerated but it is the perception that matters.

"Putin intervenes", cover in the German news
journal Der Spiegel, 2015

Russian Military in 2015 Photo: Stas Azarov


As a result, what started as openness has given way to alienation, mistrust and rejection. The second Chechen war and the accession of the authoritarian Vladimir Putin as the new Russian president have accelerated the process.

Initially, President Putin talked about a Common Europe, particularly in his German Bundestag speech in 2001. However, his outlook then changed. Russia entered a phase, which Teltschik describes as re-nationalisation. The war in Georgia of 2008, the failed reset of US-Russian relations in 2009, the "job swap" between Vladimir Putin and his prime minister and ally Dmitry Medvedev in 2011, and the instalment of an advanced US missile defence system across Eastern Europe, drove relations between Russia and the West to a new low.


Kyiv, Ukraine: Revolution of Dignity, 2014 Photo: Andrii Kotliar

Sevastopol, Crimea, 2014 Photo: Nikolay Vorobyev

They hit rock bottom during the war in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Both were violations of the idea of the Paris Charter. They were followed by the EU imposing economic sanctions on Moscow, which isolated Russia even further. The Kremlin focused on new armaments amid the revocation of arms controls mechanisms, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Russia has found its way back into the role of a global player by becoming a major influence in many armed conflicts, including Syria and Ukraine. At the same time, Russia has strengthened relations with China and India and is looking for new partners in Africa and South America.

What can be learned from the past

Today, Europe is no closer to being a Common European Home than it was at the end of the Cold War. Teltschik believes that the only viable option is to co-operate as much as possible with Russia at all levels. This includes involving Russia in an alliance with Germany, the EU, the USA and NATO. He insists that only comprehensive co-operation can lead to a stable Europe. While it is possible to learn from the positive exchanges of the 1990s, he says that with an unpredictable president in the US and a number of major crises within the EU, only small steps are possible, at best.

Global headlines in the Time and Newsweek, 2019

Teltschik retains a keen interest in international development and his outlook for the future is mixed. He is worried about the abolition of agreements on disarmament and arms control, as well as the new global wave of rearmament. This former politician who was once at the heart of the changing world order, also does not see any emerging political leaders ready to engage in what he calls "a global agenda", or able to mobilise large numbers of people to demand change. Global problems such as climate change and the growing shortage of resources need "collaborative solutions", according to Teltschik. "There is an immediate need to co-operate", he says, otherwise the dream of a "Common European House" may be lost forever.


About the author:

Oliver Bilger is a freelance journalist, mostly working for the Berlin based newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. He studied politics and communications and did a two-year journalistic training at the Sueddeutsche Zeitung in Munich. His current work is focused on politics and current affairs in Russia, Eastern Europe and the US. He has followed Russian politics since 2004.