Staunton, August 2 – Yesterday marked the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, an agreement that many analysts have suggested represented “a fatal triumph” for Moscow because its requirement for respecting human rights helped power the dissident movements in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
But a Russian analyst is arguing that even the Helsinki principle Moscow was most interested in – recognition of the inviolability of post-World War II borders – contributed to the destruction of the bloc by changing the calculations of the Polish people and leading to the rise of Solidarity (www.chaskor.ru/article/fatalnyj_triumf_sovetskoj_diplomatii_18866).
On August 1, 1975, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe adopted what has become known as the Helsinki Final Act. Signed by the US, Canada, and all countries of Europe except Albania, Aleksandr Golovkov writes, it simultaneously gave de jure recognition to the results of World War II and provided a legal basis for international relations in Europe.
Its ten basic principles, which as Golovkov notes journalists soon referred to as the “Ten Commandments of European Security, were “1. Sovereign equality and respect for the rights sovereignty provides; 2. The non-use of force or threat of force; 3. The inviolability of borders; 4. The territorial integrity of states; 5. The peaceful regulation of disputes.”
In addition, “6. Non-interference in internal affairs; 7. Respect for human rights and basic freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion and convictions; 8. Equality and the right of peoples to order their own fate; 9. Cooperation among governments; and 10. Good faith fulfillment of obligations under international law.”
This list, Golovkov points out, was a compromise for both sides. The United States and its allies acknowledged the right of the socialist camp to exist and in exchange, Soviet leaders committed themselves to the non-use of force and respect for human rights, something the he says nonetheless allowed the West to “retain definite levers” on the Soviet bloc.
“The Soviet leadership,” he writes, “agreed to tolerate” that because Moscow, via points three and four, which “resolved the key task of the entire post-war policy of the USSR” – Western recognition of the de facto borders as they then existed and the territorial changes which followed the 1945 Potsdam Conference.
(In fact, although Golovkov does not mention it and as many analysts forget, US President Gerald Ford in his signing statement indicated that nothing in the Helsinki Final Act had any bearing on the longstanding American policy of not recognizing the forcible inclusion of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the Soviet Union.)
Moscow and its satellites celebrated this accord as “the most remarkable triumph” of Soviet foreign policy since 1945. But this “triumph” turned out to be a “fatal” one, that initially sparked “euphoria” in that “hopelessly ill” system and then “sharply accelerated the processes of [its] dissolution and collapse.”
Most Western commentators have focused on the way in which the Helsinki Final Act laid the foundations for a dramatic increase in dissent across the Soviet bloc “from Berlin to Magadan,” as Golovkov writes. But he suggests that the communist governments were more or less capable of containing that threat, at least initially.
But there was another threat that the Helsinki Final Act contained, one that neither side appeared to recognize at the time but that was likely more important to the final collapse of the Soviet system. That was precisely the Act’s commitment to the stability of borders, something Moscow very much wanted and that the West did not see as a problem.
According to Golovkov, the recognition by the Euro-Atlantic community of the stability of the post-war borders in Eastern Europe had the effect five years after Helsinki of leading to the dissent “of an entire socialist country – Poland” with the rise of Solidarity, a working class movement that Moscow found it extraordinarily difficult to counter.
The story begins, he says, when at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, Stalin insisted on drawing provisionally the western Polish border at the Oder-Neisse rivers thereby compensating Poland with German lands for the eastern portion of pre-war Poland that the Soviet Union seized during the war.
Shortly thereafter, the US and the Western allies “refused to recognize the border lines drawn by the Stalinist cartographers,” Golovkov notes. That meant that the Poles, despite all the problems they had with Moscow, “remained over the course of several decades among the most reliable allies of the USSR” out of concerns that they might be forced to give up more territory.
But Golovkov points out, “the necessity of preserving Soviet-Polish friendship ‘for eternity’ disappeared after August 1, 1975, when all the countries of Europe plus Canada and the United States became guarantors of the inviolability of Polish borders and of Polish territorial integrity.”
As a result, he continues, the leaders of Solidarity “could without concerns for the fate of their beloved fatherland speak with anti-communist and anti-Soviet slogans, thereby calling forth a storm of delight in all strata of Polish society” and setting the stage of anti-Moscow movements elsewhere in the bloc.
“Such processes threatened to lead to a chain of bloody revolutionary and counter-revolutionary actions, with the immediate participation of the Soviet forces,” Golovkov says. But “happily for the East Europeans,” Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika after 1985 led the East European communists to cede their positions rather than fight.
Indeed, the Moscow commentator points out, “big blood was shed only there were the communist parties were not dependent on Moscow – in Romania and Yugoslavia.”
Golovkov may be overstating his case, but it is a useful reminder 35 years after Helsinki that support for the inviolability of borders, something almost all members of the international community now view as the sine qua non of political stability more generally, may under certain conditions have exactly the opposite impact.