ZHELEZNOVODSK, Soviet Union — 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.