Gorbachev takes tumble off pedestal in Germany

January 16, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- When he came back to Germany to raise more money for his relief efforts in Siberia, Dr. Norman Methe expected an easy visit and a sympathetic audience.

By Monday, however, he realized that his program was in trouble as more and more potential donors in his home country questioned why the Soviet Union needed help when it was able to send troops to Lithuania, kill 15 people and wound 160 more. Donations after a television appearance were down 50 percent from similar appeals a month earlier.

"It's become a difficult job. Raising money for our program used to be easy; all we had to say was, 'Gorby needs help.' But because of the events in Lithuania he isn't popular, and we aren't getting the money," Dr. Methe said of Help for the Soviet Union, a charity sponsored by a German TV station and magazine.

The effect on Dr. Methe's program is one example of an almost overnight transformation in Germany of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev from hero to bum, or, as the left-wing Berlin newspaper die tageszeitung put it, "From Nobel Peace Prize winner to gravedigger of freedom in the Baltic."

The disappointment that Mr. Gorbachev either ordered the army to go in or, as he maintains, that he knew nothing of the attack, is a "bitter experience for us Germans and Europeans," Gerhard Stoltenberg, German defense minister, said in a parliamentary debate on the crisis in Lithuania.

The events over the past few days in Lithuania did so much damage to Mr. Gorbachev's image in Germany because he had been set on such a high pedestal by Germans of all political persuasions and in both halves of the country. During last fall's election campaign, for example, praising Mr. Gorbachev for having made German unity possible became a cant intoned by both conservatives and socialists hoping for voter approval.

Mr. Gorbachev's visit to Chancellor Helmut Kohl's hometown was another example of "Gorbymania," where television commentators strove to outdo each other in describing the novelty of the situation: Here was a Soviet leader who wasn't hated, tolerated or even just respected. He was someone genuinely liked and admired -- a first in a country with a long tradition of strong anti-Soviet feelings.

And so late last year when the call went out to help the Soviet Union through the coming winter, Germans responded generously with millions of dollars donated privately to various charities.

The government also became involved, realizing that Germany not only owed gratitude to the Soviet Union for not having blocked German unity but also needed a stable neighbor. In all, more than $8 billion has been sent to the Soviets in the past year.

Wolfgang Leonhard, Germany's top Soviet expert, urged Germans this week to continue sending help to ordinary Soviet citizens but said that Germans now had to reassess their view of Mr. Gorbachev and his reform plans.

"We have to realize that perestroika is going to be much slower than we realized, if Gorbachev manages to keep control at all. We can't expect the Soviet Union to reform overnight as many people had hoped," Mr. Leonhard said.

Another person who may have overestimated Mr. Gorbachev's ability to change the Soviet Union was Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German foreign minister, who had been a strong supporter of helping Mr. Gorbachev. At Monday's meeting of European Community foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, he and several other colleagues fought off attempts by Britain and Belgium to limit aid to the Soviet Union, but aides described it as a "black day" for him and his pro-Gorbachev policies.

At a rally in the bitter cold Monday, Germans and Lithuanians listened as Joerg Eich from the former East German opposition group, New Forum, told Germans and Lithuanians:

"I used to be a great fan of Gorbachev because of what he did for us and the hope he represented for us Germans. I never really looked at what he did or could do in the Soviet Union. At least one thing is for sure. He's not Gorby anymore. Now he's just Gorbachev."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.