The Helsinki process and the death of communism

About the author
Timothy Sowula works for the British Council in London. He writes here in a personal capacity

The Czech lands have been at the heart (and frequently the mercy) of great-power conflicts for much of the last century, but this small central European region is also a place where creative thinking has long been pioneered. The communist period that lasted in Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989 is a prime example: although these four decades of communist rule were characterised (the “Prague spring” of 1968 excepted) by rigid intellectual conformity, the “dissident” critics of the regime were able to use a series of agreements made by the state and its Soviet partners in 1975 to develop arguments and advance ideas that were crucial to communism’s overthrow across the continent in 1989.

The Prague foreign ministry of the Czech republic – one of the successor states after Czechoslovakia’s split in 1992 – was, therefore, an appropriate venue for an international conference on 5-7 June 2005 in which former dissidents, academics, activists and statesmen debated their roles in the fall of communism. The occasion was the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the international agreement between the states of the Soviet bloc and the states of western Europe (including Turkey), the United States and Canada, known as the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords.

The signing of the Helsinki Accords began a momentous process that would change Europe and the world. The 1975 signatories – representatives of thirty-five sovereign states covering an area from Vancouver to Vladivostok – could have had little notion that this transformation would occur. But for the few who were looking hard enough, the Helsinki Accords created a chink in the armour of “state socialism”, a small opportunity to hold their leaders to account. To those trapped in the gloom of oppression from Moscow, the crucial incorporation of human-rights principles into the documents helped lay the foundation of 1989’s bursting illumination.

Many of the accords focused on issues of state sovereignty, and involved a codification of the spheres of influence controlled by Washington and Moscow respectively. The dominant western aims at Helsinki focused on the policies of “détente” then pursued by United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s resignation and Gerald Ford’s inauguration as president. They did not envisage the promotion of human rights as a key goal. Nevertheless, Article 7 of the accords – on “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” (the so-called “third basket”) slipped through relatively undebated. The article, in theory, guaranteed freedoms of thought, speech, conscience, religion and faith of all citizens of the signatory states.

The Soviet side (comprising the Soviet Union itself, Hungary, German Democratic Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Poland, plus the more independently-minded socialist Yugoslavia) had no intention of respecting Article 7, and expected no demands to honour it. So it was up to the “dissidents” – that tiny band of activists, critics, writers, and independent-minded oppositionists of several political stripes, operating under conditions of stringent control, surveillance and often more severe repression – to try to ensure that the Helsinki Accords became more than just another set of papers prepared by diplomats, sealed by state executives and then ignored.

The Helsinki Process of debate and dialogue that led to the accords, and the agreement itself, were focal-points of dissident activity, sources of empowerment to challenge the injustices of their societies. The exact contribution of this work to communism’s collapse is hard to measure amidst other factors – from economic competition to the election of a Polish pope, from the election of Jimmy Carter as United States president to the selection of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader. Vilém Prečan, veteran historian and organiser of the Prague anniversary conference, emphasised at the conference that the past is so multilayered that it always resists capture. What can be said is that the accords gave a generation of dissidents the confidence, energy and partnerships to feel that their work had history in its sails.

From order to freedom

A key question raised in Prague was: how was it possible for a people deprived of all power to eventually topple a totalitarian regime? Svetlana Savranskaya suggested one answer. She described the Soviet KGB’s characterisation of “dissidents” as people who thought differently from the state. What the powerless people possessed, collectively, was a loathing of the regime, and nothing nurtures dissent like the inability to express it. By themselves – and with no space between state and individuals, no organic civil society – the people could do very little. But when a window of opportunity was offered through the Helsinki Accords, the collective tension was channelled through means that could only undermine the state.

If there had been a functioning arena for civil society, with freedom of information and expression, then the tension might have dissipated. But with the suppression of the people’s will and thus their dignity, their will was transformed into the potential for power. Every further arrest, detention and dissolution of the dissidents’ networks simply served to create more hostile publicity in the west, and an even stronger build-up of power amongst the people desperate to express it.

The communist regimes contained no humanity – far less “socialism with a human face”. There was nothing that connected the faceless technocrats to the people they were supposed to govern, and thus no true social contract. Milan Šimečka, Slovak author of the pathbreaking book about the post-1968 Czechoslovak regime The Restoration of Order, once described socialism as “total order” – not mere political order, but a “total unity of everything”. The Helsinki Accords provided the opportunity to chip away at this unity.

Petr Pithart, Šimečka’s Czech fellow-dissident (and later Czech prime minister), commented at the Prague conference that the dissident Charter 77 movement simply asked the Czechoslovak regime: why, given that it had made commitments at Helsinki, didn’t it stick to them? Charter 77 acted in this way to discredit and demoralise Communist power, and once the regime was forced to lie ever more to defend its position, this had the effect of discrediting them further.

Throughout the 1980s, the Soviet-bloc regimes gradually became more and more hollow until, in 1989, they spectacularly imploded. During the interim period, a stable, confident, and relatively well-developed network of civic organisations had developed to fill the vacuum and take over power without mass unrest or bloodshed.

Today, with much world attention directed at Africa and the middle east, and “regime change” again on the international agenda as it was fifteen years ago, the demise of communism, and the role of the Helsinki Process, offer many lessons. Karel Schwarzenberg, former chief adviser to Vaclav Hàvel, reminded delegates of the dangers of the temptation to seize power frontally and by force which so often characterised the communist way to power; Jacques Rupník highlighted the impact of political “unintended consequences”, such as the Helsinki Accords had on the Soviet system.

From this perspective, the success of the Helsinki Process was that the peoples living under communism never had a clear opportunity to seize power – until the very end when such an action became inevitable. With no massive source of illicit funding, or access to arms, or even specific ethnic divisions to exploit, the dissidents had to make do with the power of words alone. The only thing they could exploit was the “third basket” of Helsinki, and they dedicated their lives to transforming formal, even ritualistic words in a document into values that enriched their lives.

The power of belief

Prague was full of talk about Belarus (often called “Europe’s last dictatorship”), and representatives from Belarus’s Helsinki Watch committee described the situation under Alexander Lukashenko’s regime as even worse than Czechoslovakia ‎‎in 1977; a stark reminder that the independence of nation-states does not guarantee of the freedom of the peoples within them. The effects of the Helsinki Process are just as relevant in today’s post-cold war world as they were thirty years ago. The enabling of a civil society to occupy the gulf between state and individual and stabilise the social contract is crucial everywhere in the world – from Belarus to Nepal, from Zimbabwe to Iraq.

It is critical to note that the Helsinki Accords were not a legally binding document. It was only the belief, commitment and perseverance of relatively few people that enabled them to be used to change lives and enlarge freedom. This is perhaps Helsinki’s greatest legacy: that wherever a society is mired in oppression, injustice, fear and hopelessness, the precondition of progress is a belief (even among a few people) that things can change for the better.