Amid talk of historic change and the start of a new epoch, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on Monday swept away the final major barriers to German unification.
Gorbachev agreed to accept a united Germany as a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the leaders reached agreement on a range of other key issues that are likely to influence the Continent's future for decades.
"Whether we like it or not, the time will come when a united Germany will be in NATO if that is its choice," Gorbachev said in response to questions after the agreement was read by Kohl at a joint news conference. "Then, if that is the choice, to some degree and in some form, it can work together with the Soviet Union."
It was a performance that surprised even their closest aides and left political analysts once again underestimating the pace of events driving Europe forward.
And once again it was the 59-year-old Soviet president at the center of it all.
"We are now leaving an epoch in the development of international relations and entering another era," Gorbachev told the news conference in this north Caucasus spa town. "I hope it will be a long and peaceful one."
"This is a breakthrough, a fantastic result," Kohl told West German television after the news conference.
Two days of intensive talks between Kohl and Gorbachev, frequently only with note-takers and interpreters present, brought the following breakthroughs:
Gorbachev swept aside the worries of his domestic political opponents and agreed to a united Germany's membership in the Western military alliance. His acceptance met a key demand of both East and West Germany and of NATO itself.
The two also agreed to negotiate a treaty for the withdrawal within three to four years of the 360,000 Soviet troops stationed in East Germany. The withdrawal period, shorter than most observers had anticipated, is considered the fastest feasible time frame for pulling out those forces, which constitute the Soviet Union's largest single concentration of military strength outside its borders.
Western military forces, however--including U.S. troops--can remain in Berlin during the withdrawal period. West German officials said the Western military presence in Berlin during this period was a point that the United States specifically wanted.
U.S. and other NATO forces in what is now West Germany will remain, German officials stressed. "The American forces will stay, that's no problem at all," Kohl adviser Horst Teltschik said.
In return for these Soviet concessions, Kohl declared that a united Germany will renounce nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and limit its future military strength to 370,000 personnel. The limit will be formalized at the signing of an arms reduction treaty, expected in November.
Kohl said a united Germany will pay at least part of the costs of sending home the Soviet forces, which have been on German territory since the final months of World War II.
The West German chancellor also said that during the Soviet withdrawal period, no NATO forces, either West German or those of a third country, will be stationed in the area that is now East Germany. Instead, members of a united German territorial army will be positioned there.
Once all Soviet forces are gone, however, regular, NATO-integrated German army units can be moved into the region, he said.
President Bush, in a statement released at the White House, praised Gorbachev: "This comment demonstrates statesmanship and strengthens efforts to build enduring relationships based on cooperation. We think this solution is in the best interests of all the countries of Europe, including the Soviet Union."
NATO, in a statement from Brussels, also praised Gorbachev's acceptance of a unified Germany as a member of the Western alliance. It said such membership "will increase stability for all . . . including the Soviet Union."
In Paris, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said the agreement is "the right development for all of Europe."
Baker, who was traveling from Washington for talks about German unification with the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union, France, Britain, Poland and the two Germanys, was taken by surprise by the accord. He first learned of it from news accounts.
He said, however, that he had long anticipated Soviet agreement to NATO membership for a unified Germany and that "the only surprise is that it happened in July rather than August or September." Baker added that some points of the agreement leave room for interpretation. "I think we ought to reserve judgment on the details of the pact," he said.
Gorbachev agreed that negotiations on the external aspects of German unification under way between the two Germanys and the four victorious World War II powers should be completed in time to present the results to a conference of all European nations that is scheduled for Nov. 19-21 in Paris.
Those talks, known as the "two-plus-four" talks, will also negotiate an end to the remaining rights of the four victorious powers in both Germanys and in the old German capital, Berlin, where they are still sovereign.
West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher is expected to brief his East German counterpart, Markus Meckel, and the three allied foreign ministers, including Baker, today in Paris.
Referring frequently to the bitter history of war between the two nations, Gorbachev and Kohl also agreed to conclude a treaty that would set the basis of political, economic and cultural relations between Moscow and a united Germany.
Kohl said he and Gorbachev had "talked intensively" on economic and technical assistance for the Soviet Union, but he also stressed that such aid would most likely come in the form of multilateral aid from the West rather than from Germany on its own.
Mainly at Kohl's urging, leaders of the 12-nation European Community and at last week's Group of Seven economic summit in Houston buried their doubts and agreed to study possible aid to support Gorbachev's reforms, aimed at implementing a market economy.
"It's in the common interest that the policy of perestroika succeed," Kohl said. "It serves democracy in the Soviet Union but also the development of Europe."
There will be negotiations between the Soviet Union and many Western forums.
"Our goal is to help Mikhail Gorbachev during this interim period," Kohl added, describing such support as "a considerable contribution to peace."
Both men spoke of a historic moment, and Kohl specifically referred to the suffering in both nations from the war that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler launched on the world 51 years ago next September.
Said Kohl: "We undertook this task as a special duty of our generation, which consciously experienced the war and its results but which now has the great and possibly unique chance to shape the future of our countries and our continents for a long time in peace, security and freedom."
Gorbachev's willingness to accept a unified Germany in NATO followed a dizzying variety of Soviet proposals, including German neutrality and membership in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
While Gorbachev and his foreign minister, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, came to realize the benefits of a Germany bound tightly within a stable alliance, conservative opponents within the Soviet military and the Communist Party resisted. In recent weeks, the diplomatic task for the West had become one of providing the Soviet leader with a package that he could then get past reluctant conservatives.
On Monday, Gorbachev defended his decision, citing the NATO alliance's offer of a declaration of nonaggression to Warsaw Pact member states and the agreed ceiling on German troop strengths as two important steps that led to the agreement.
"We must not forget the times in which we live," said Gorbachev, taking note of the conventional arms talks nearing agreement in Vienna.
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