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Western Press Review: Commentary Sticks With Wall

Prague, 10 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- For the third consecutive day, that dramatic symbol the Berlin Wall continues to draw Western press commentary. On the day after the actual anniversary, commentators look at The Wall's periphery.

DIE WELT: A single question changed the map of Europe

Sandra Garbers, writing in a commentary in Die Welt, recalls that it was a nudge by a little-known Italian journalist that started The Wall tumbling down. Garbers writes that Italian reporter Ricardo Ehrmann arrived at the East Berlin press center in Mohrenstrasse on November 9, 1989, late due to traffic. East German Politburo spokesman Guenter Schabowski was at the lectern saying things like this: "With regard to the present work of the Central Committee, one can sum it up by saying that it is determined by very intensive discussions of the report presented by Comrade Krenz..." and on and on.

As Garbers puts it, "By now, the politburo spokesman had succeeded in sedating the assembled journalists with Communist Party jargon." After a while, she says, Ricardo Ehrmann was able to get in a question. It was this: "Ricardo Ehrmann from Ansa, the Italian press agency. Herr Schabowski, you mentioned mistakes. Don't you think it was a big mistake, this draft travel law you presented a few days ago?"

Here's Garbers' account of what happened next: "Schabowski stammered. In a you-ought-to-know-that-Comrade tone he pulled out a crumpled piece of paper with a new travel law proposal written on it -- a proposal that had yet to be adopted by the Politburo -- and explained more or less incidentally that in the future, private journeys abroad could be applied for without any preconditions. Finally, he stuttered, 'To the best of my knowledge it comes into force immediately, without delay.'"

Garbers writes that none of the other journalists present reacted immediately. But Ehrmann hurried from the room and sent a report that reverberated around the world, most loudly in East Germany itself. Within hours, East Germans were clamoring at the Brandenberg Gate.

Die Welt's commentator writes, in her words, "The fall of the Wall. A single question, neither particularly original nor investigative, changed the map of Europe to a degree that otherwise only wars and the like can do. A single reply and a whole people seized freedom and achieved in a single night what politicians would not have thought possible, at least not in this millennium."

NEW YORK TIMES: Gorbachev chose not to defend a dying system

The New York Times in an editorial credits Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev with creating the environment that enabled The Wall to fall without bloodshed.

In the words of the editorial: "The Berlin Wall was bound to fall eventually. But that it came down as bloodlessly as it did 10 years ago this week is largely a tribute to one leader. Today Mikhail Gorbachev is a political pariah in Russia and increasingly forgotten in the West. But history will remember him generously for his crucial role in ending the Cold War and pulling back the Iron Curtain that [Josef] Stalin drew across Europe in 1945."

The Times observes that the crumbling of the Soviet empire was not what Gorbachev planned when he came to power in 1985. But he came to realize that the Soviets could not afford an empire. As the editorial puts it: "For permitting its dissolution, Mr. Gorbachev paid a high price. Within two years he had been pushed from power in Moscow." The newspaper adds this: "This week, especially, [Gorbachev] deserves to be remembered. With a wisdom and decency that is sadly rare in international power politics, he chose not to defend a dying system with a final, futile spasm of murderous force."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: Mr. Gorbachev opened the sluices of reform

The Daily Telegraph, London, in an editorial today, also chooses to memorialize Gorbachev. In the Telegraph's words: "Like Egon Krenz in East Germany and Karoly Grosz in Hungary, Mr. Gorbachev opened the sluices of reform only to be swept aside by the flood released. Yet to compare him with those minor figures is to belittle him."

The editorial continues with this: "He deserves to go down in history as the man who permitted, with an astonishing lack of bloodshed, the dismantling of an empire based on terror. He did not set out with that in mind, but, confronted with the forces he had unleashed, he had the grace to yield."

In the editorial's words: "His unpopularity at home is all the more reason for the rest of us to acknowledge that he was the right man for the hour."

GUARDIAN: Mr. Yeltsin's reported decision to join the OSCE summit meeting offers a ray of hope

Turning to Chechnya, the Guardian, also from London, says in an editorial that Russia's generals are acting like a runaway horse with the bit in its teeth. As the editorial puts it: "Are Russian politicians losing control of Russia's military? Since the Soviet Union disintegrated, an armed forces rebellion in Russia has been the West's ultimate nightmare. Now the iniquitous war in Chechnya is emboldening the generals as a weak, end-of-term government looks on."

The Guardian concludes with this: "Mr. Yeltsin's reported decision to join the summit meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Istanbul next week offers a ray of hope. Bill Clinton and other Western leaders will be there , though not Tony Blair. Mr. Putin had been expected to represent Russia in the talks on Chechnya. If he does show up in Istanbul and if he does finally take personal charge of this crisis, Mr. Yeltsin may, with Western incentives, be persuaded to sideline Mr. Putin, order a ceasefire, and begin peace negotiations. If the generals let him, that is."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Mr. Yeltsin and his allies are themselves terrorizing an entire civilian population

Britain's Financial Times says in an editorial that the OSCE may be the body to influence Russia, especially since OSCE members are scheduled to sign a new Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty at the Istanbul summit. As the editorial puts it: "The OSCE is an organization that Russia respects and would like to see replace NATO has the effective guarantor of security in Europe. It should condemn Russia's conduct of this war."

In the words of the editorial: "Mr. Yeltsin and his allies have said they are simply fighting terrorism. But by using the blunt instrument of bombardment, they are themselves terrorizing an entire civilian population."