Shevardnadze: Opposition to tearing down Berlin Wall fierce
Eduard Shevardnadze, who as the Soviet Union's last foreign minister was one of the key figures in the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, says that he always knew the Berlin Wall would come down.
Tbilisi -- Twenty years later it may seem like a foregone conclusion, but one of the chief architects of the fall of Berlin Wall says it faced fierce opposition from both the Soviet military and some Western leaders.
Eduard Shevardnadze, who as the Soviet Union's last foreign minister was one of the key figures in the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, told AFP in advance of the November 9 anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall that he always knew it would come down.
"The news came as no surprise to me. I knew it would happen. The process had long been started already," he said.
But Shevardnadze also recalled how he and then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev had to fight against longstanding fears and prejudice to avoid bloodshed.
While neither man was hoping to see the Communist states fall like dominoes as they did in January 1989, by doing nothing to prop up flailing regimes with Soviet military might they have earned much of the credit for the fall of Berlin Wall.
"There were many obstacles," Shevardnadze said in his residence in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. "The most eager opponent was Erich Honecker, then East Germany's leader.... Some Politburo members were against of this as well."
One of the biggest obstacles, he said, was the Soviet military, which was keen to use force to prevent the collapse of the wall and the reunification of Germany.
"We were extremely concerned over our army's stance towards this issue ... we knew that the situation may escalate and that our military may intervene," Shevardnadze said.
"The Soviet army's eventual intervention would have lead to disastrous consequences, possibly to a new world war."
This prompted Gorbachev and Shevardnadze to go to Berlin in order to prevent military from interfering.
"We calmed our military down ... we ensured there would not be bloodshed. This visit helped to prevent a disaster," Shevardnadze said.
Surprisingly, joining the Soviet military in its opposition to reunification were some Western leaders, he said, including then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
"Britain's perception was that it bore an enormous threat to their security," he said. "The French were less resistant."
Shevardnadze, who was also instrumental in implementing the reforms that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, was widely praised, especially in Germany, for his role in bringing down the wall.
He keeps a small piece of the wall in his office, bearing the words "Thank You Eduard" in German.
His reputation has fared less well in his native Georgia. After becoming president of the newly independent country in the early 1990s, he was eventually overthrown in the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution amid allegations of authoritarianism and corruption.
He has spent the last six years writing his memoirs, rarely leaving his residence, and surrounded by framed photographs of his younger self shaking hands with world leaders. At 81, Shevardnadze is showing his age, his movements slow and his once lustrous hair -- which earned him the moniker the "White Fox" -- thinning.
He has been critical of his successor, Mikheil Saakashvili, particularly over his handling of last year's war with Russia over Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But he has also strongly condemned Russia's decision to recognise the two regions as independent states following the war.
"Russia made fatal mistake by recognizing two tiny regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as independent states," he said, warning that the decision will promote separatism and provoke instability throughout the ethnically diverse Caucasus region, including in Russia.
"Russia has created a precedent which is hazardous for Russia itself," he said.
Still, Shevardnadze said he sees today's world as far safer than during the Cold War, when the threat of a nuclear conflict hung over the globe.
"Today's world is incomparably safer than it used to be some 20 years ago, especially compared with the Cold War time," he said.
But he warned that the danger of a new Cold War remains, pointing to previous US missile defence shield plans, which Washington recently scrapped amid Russian anger, as a sign that tensions persist.
"Another Cold War may erupt tomorrow," he said.