Yalta, Helsinki and now?

The Big Three

From February 4th to 11th 1945 Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met in the Crimean town of Yalta. After longer discussions about where to meet,  the three top representatives of the future winning powers agreed to meet at that place on the fringe of the Soviet union. This meeting was preceded by the Teheran summit and followed by the Potsdam conference, where the US were represented by the new president Harry Truman. These conferences have to be seen and analysed together, as Yalta concluded and confirmed agreements of Teheran and Potsdam did the same with the Yalta agreements. Nevertheless, Yalta can be interpreted as the decisive meeting for the division of Europe and the „handover“ of some Central and Eastern European countries to Stalin. Churchill and especially Roosevelt were and are still today accused of naïveté and of giving in to pressure from Stalin.

To be fair to the Western leaders one has to recognize the specific situation they were in. Their main objective was to end the war as soon as possible, to defeat Germany and also Japan and to save the life of their soldiers. To reach these targets especially Roosevelt wanted Stalin to enter the war in the East against Japan. As Tony Judt wrote in his  book “ Postwar“ about the „Impossible Settlement“ : “ The point of the Second World War in Europe was to defeat Germany, and almost all other considerations were set aside so long as the fighting continued.“ In addition Churchill and Roosevelt wanted the commitment of Stalin for postwar cooperation within the United Nations. And as Melvyn P. Leffler in his analysis stated : “ Roosevelt evidently hoped that Yalta might allow Stalin to safeguard Soviet strategic interests without too overtly violating American principles.“

Stalin had on his side the argument, that Russia/Soviet Union was the main target of German aggression and had the majority of soldiers and civilians killed by this war. This was the basis of Stalin’s demand of having a ring of „friendly governments“ at the borders of the Soviet Union. And that was especially true for Poland, which was the main issue of the deliberations in Yalta. And as, so Tony Judt, “ Stalin hardly needed Western permission to do whatever he wished in eastern Europe “ the West was probable not able to reach a better deal. And this attitude is correlated to the policies of all major powers at that time, who have had an interest to preserve or even extend their own zones of interest.

It is true, the agreements on the division of Europe in two influence zones was for many citizens in the countries of the future Eastern block a fatal decision. There were Russian promises of including the different political forces in the new transitional governments and of free elections. But these promises were not supported by an agreement on election observation and supervision to guarantee their implementation. Although Yalta – in connection with the other meetings- created the basis for a comprehensive and common multinational peace organization, the United Nations, it did not create such a structure for a common and comprehensive European peace and security structure. And another deficiency was characterizing the new European order. The citizens themselves were not really free in their choices, because as Stalin confessed in Potsdam himself : “ A freely elected government in any of these countries would be anti- Soviet, and that we cannot allow.“

Again it must be underlined, that a dictator like Stalin representing the country which had to bear by far the biggest burden of defeating Germany and its allies was in a stronger position than the Western leaders with a critical population at home, whose main interest was to end and win the war as soon as possible. And they needed  Stalin’s consent and active participation at the war, especially a Soviet engagement in the Pacific to bring this war to an end.

The Cold War

There is also a debate about the time after Yalta concerning the question who violated the agreements more, the Soviet Union or the USA. And if the violations by the US and the West were justified retaliations to the Soviet expansionary policies, which asked for containment. As Melvyn P. Leffler sees it : „From the onset of the postwar era, American officials were interpreting the wartime accords in ways that placed a higher priority on containing Soviet power and projecting American influence than on perpetuating the wartime alliance!“ So Yalta and the contradictory interpretations of the Yalta agreements laid the foundation for the Cold War.

During the Cold War there were again and again hot crises like those in Berlin at the end of the forties, Cuba and especially again in Berlin with the building of a wall through the city in the early sixties. And there were few moments of detente for example with the agreement on the independence and sovereignty of Austria 1955. And again in 1975 with the CSCE conference in Helsinki, when a decisive step for the later dissolution of the Soviet empire and for the reemergence of sovereignty of many European countries has been taken. In addition, with the foundation of the OSCE a first step towards an all –  European security system has been realized.

Containment has become anew a popular word in view of Putin’s policy which again is trying to create a ring of „friendly“ governments around Russian borders. Certainly Europe cannot accept unilateral changes of borders and the EU should always repudiate the concept of one sided proclaimed influence zones, enforced by big countries on their neighbors. Finally even the US is slowly lifting the blockade on Cuba, which was clearly founded and based on the concept of influence zones, as also stated in the Monroe doctrine. But of course the Russian and especially Putin’s view is different, it is one of „necessary“ containment of Western and specifically NATO expansion.

The balance of power has certainly been changed due to the break down of the Soviet empire. But this empire – one can object- was one of enforced „friendliness“ towards Moscow and the big Soviet brother. It de facto created a status of total dependence as the military interventions in Budapest and Prague and the threat of such an intervention in Poland demonstrated.  However we see it, the order of Yalta, which was favoring „Moscow“ was overthrown by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the destruction of its influence zone. The developments after 1989 shifted the balance clearly towards the West. But it was and is generally also a shift towards democracy and self- determination, without seeing our Western world as paradise, especially taking into account Orban’s policy in Hungary.

Francis Fukuyama had the „End of History“ on his mind, when he wrote his famous article and book: „What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post – war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.“ Others at least envisaged the end of the Cold War proper, without a vision of the future. Nearly everybody thought the Cold War was over.  Only few thought, as Charles Krauthammer expressed it, that without the Marxist – Leninist ideology Russia will return to its old imperialist policies. Francis Fukuyama repudiated that idea and thought, that, while ethnic and nationalist violence would still exist, large scale conflicts, involving large states would disappear. But he also ended his famous article with some doubts : “ Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started again.“ And  maybe Europe is just getting out of this boredom, dominated by economic calculation and „the time when history existed“ has come back. And for the moment we have the feeling, that the Cold War was only interrupted.

A Way Forward

Let’s come back to the Yalta summit and the tasks for tomorrow. The two vital elements missing from the Yalta agreement should be the guiding principles of European policy for the future: no changes of borders and no political allegiance to a foreign state without the consent of the citizens and a comprehensive multilateral peace and security structure for Europe. We would need an organization, in which all countries find themselves respected and can contribute to. The Helsinki process and the founding of the OSCE after the Helsinki conference of 1975 was a step into the right direction. Unfortunately the OSCE has not got the necessary competence and power to develop all its potentialities. On the one hand NATO had not had the interest to invest too much into that „soft“ organization and was concentrating on its own strengthening and extension. On the other hand also Russia was not keen to hand over too much influence and interference into „domestic“ issue like free and fair elections etc. Both big powers did not invest much into that all – European security organization and Europe also did not care too much to strengthen the OSCE.

Therefore a new initiative would be necessary to rethink the possibility of creating a new peace and security structure in Europe. For the moment the differences and gaps in the attitude towards such a structure may seem to big, but that was also true in the years and times before Helsinki. Of course any victim of the war in the Eastern Ukraine makes the job to find a new peace structure in Europe more difficult, but also more important. In this connection the establishment of a High Level Panel of Eminent Persons to think about such a reorganization and strengthening of the OSCE can only be welcomed. But it would need a strong determination of leading politicians on all sides to overcome hesitations, prejudices and other obstacles towards a new security system in Europe. Not too many of these political forces can be seen today.  Nevertheless, as the Beatles once sang : Let’s give peace a chance!