The Final Act: Is The Curtain Coming Down?
№3 2005 July/September
Anatoly Adamishin

Deputy Foreign Minister from 1986-1990, Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister from 1993-1994, and Russian Minister for CIS Affairs from 1997-1998. Presently, he is a member of the Board of Advisors of Russia in Global Affairs.


August 1,
1975 has gone down in history as the date when the leaders of 35
countries gathered in Helsinki, Finland to sign the Final Act of
the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document
was intended to have long-term effects on international politics.
Thirty years later, it has proven to be a powerful catalyst for the
tectonic changes that have transformed beyond recognition the
European and international political landscape.


The Soviet
Union, which was among the initiators of that forum, sought to
perpetuate, on a multilateral basis, the political and territorial
outcome of World War II and the postwar period, that is, the
division of Europe between two opposing blocs. At that time, it was
obvious to Moscow that it would not be able to advance the
“positions of Communism” any further westward; thus, it was
necessary to establish the status quo in the Old World.


Of course,
the principle of “inviolable” frontiers, which seemed to be
established in Helsinki forever, did not survive the deep crisis
which hit the Communist system in the second half of the 1980s.
Today, the Helsinki process involves 55 states, instead of the
former 35. The new members are comprised of the former constituent
parts of three of the founder nations which later broke up: the
Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Ironically, the one
form of integration the signatories to the Final Act sought to
prevent – the reunification of Germany – did take place.


Thus, the
initiative – which had been on the drawing board since as far back
as the mid-1960s – ultimately failed. On the other hand, however,
subjects that the Soviet leadership viewed as secondary – the
so-called ‘third (humanitarian) basket’ and the human rights issue
– moved into the foreground. The importance of this aspect of
interstate relations was first emphasized in the Final Act. Now it
has become a major instrument of international politics, and this
instrument can be very useful if it is used in an honest




to popular belief, the idea to convene a pan-European conference
was the brainchild of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. The
form proposed for the conference – a kind of party functionaries’
meeting convened on an international scale – reflected the
bureaucratic way of thinking in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the
idea promised a lot; its implementation would fix the boundaries of
Europe without there being the need to discuss the delicate issue
of a peace treaty with Germany. In any event, the slogan “Europeans
should sit down at one negotiating table” was a good propaganda


It was
Gromyko who was the first to test the West’s reaction to the idea
to convene an international conference. It happened in Rome in
April 1966 at negotiations with Italian leaders, where the author
of this article was an interpreter, as well as a witness. Italy at
the time had “special relations” with Russia (the two countries had
just signed an agreement for the construction of a car-making plant
in the Soviet city of Togliatti), and the Italians immediately
supported the Soviet minister’s proposal. However, the experienced
descendants of the ancient Romans immediately proposed that the
Soviet wording for the name of the conference – “Conference on
Security in Europe” – also include the word


The Soviet
Union gave its consent to U.S. participation in the conference,
although originally Washington had been excluded from the list of
conference participants. The United States, however, was a
signatory to the Yalta and Potsdam agreements and one of the
guarantors of the quadripartite agreement on West Berlin; so, the
project would have died before it was born without the
participation of the U.S. To make Washington’s participation less
pronounced, however, Moscow made the decision to invite Canada as
well. Moscow’s allies gave their approval to this modified concept
in a special declaration of the Political Consultative Committee of
the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Now it was already a joint
initiative of the Communist countries.


implementation of the idea took a long time. Events in
Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968 were a blow to pan-European
prospects, not to mention the prospects for a conference; the
momentum could not be stopped, however. The “Eastern policy” of
West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, and the treaties which Bonn
concluded with Poland and the Soviet Union in 1970, served as new
incentives for the commencement of a European conference. In order
to overcome the skepticism of the West, the Soviet Union resorted
to the entire arsenal of diplomatic techniques, above all,
influencing of partners at top level. The United States was among
the last countries to accept the idea of a pan-European conference
on security and cooperation. It agreed to participate only after
President Richard Nixon’s negotiations in Moscow in May 1972, which
resulted in the ratification of START-1 Treaty. Before this time,
however, Nixon and, most importantly, his mighty Secretary of State
Henry Kissinger, did not hide their negative attitude to the
European plan.


November 1972, Helsinki hosted multilateral consultations at the
ambassadorial level, which continued for almost 9 months. Finally,
in early July 1973, the foreign ministers of 35 countries gathered
in the Finnish capital. Europe had not seen such a representative
assembly since the Congress of Vienna (1815), which was described
as a “joyous holiday of all diplomacies in the world.” The first
stage of the pan-European conference was a success: the ministers
gave instructions to the experts on how they believed Europe should


It was an
enormously difficult task and took almost two years to fulfill:
from September 18, 1973 to July 21, 1975. The concluding document,
which was entitled the Final Act, had 35 authors (including the
Vatican – it was the first time the Holy See participated in a
major international forum since 1824). One dissenting voice against
the phraseology of any part of the document was enough to make all
of the participants go back and search for new wording. Never
before had the principle of consensus – the highest manifestation
of democracy – been used on such a scale; it will take a long time
before something like this happens again – if ever. And think of
the scope of the Final Act! The 30,000-page document comprised
every possible aspect: from the principle of the inviolability of
frontiers and various military aspects of security to specific
matters of economic and humanitarian cooperation, specified in the
minutest detail; the Follow-Up to the Conference section provided
for further development of the process.




The second
stage of the conference took place in Geneva. The Soviet delegation
was headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Kovalyov, a very
talented individual with advanced views, who built a strong team of
leading experts from various government agencies. The walls in his
office in the “bunker,” a gloomy building where the European
negotiators worked, were covered with large sheets of paper, on
which we put agreed-on, or “registered,” pages of the future
document. These were brought from various committees and
commissions. I was on the Soviet delegation to Geneva for two


At the
Soviet Foreign Ministry, the person in charge of preparations for
the conference at the level of deputy foreign ministers was Igor
Zemskov, a real professional who fully devoted himself to his work.
As regards his views, he was the exact opposite of Kovalyov. It was
typical of Gromyko to make pairs of this kind. During the course of
preparations for the conference I was promoted to the head of a
department which made me in charge of everything at the working
level. My office was several blocks away from the ministry, and I
often had to rush between the two buildings. The most difficult
part of my work was getting approval for Kovalyov’s liberal touches
in the text from Soviet officials with more orthodox


In keeping
with their strategy, the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw
Pact (although they had different degrees of conviction) fought for
the unconditional establishment of the inviolability of frontiers,
which implied that the territorial and political setup of Europe
established by that time could not be altered. This principle would
thus perpetuate the division of Germany and keep East Germany in
the Communist bloc. In a sense, the Soviet Union flipped the
chessboard: during the early postwar years, it was Moscow that
advocated the unification of Germany, while Washington (and
actually the entire West, although not officially) vehemently
opposed the idea. The Americans believed, and not without certain
grounds, that they would have much more difficulty maintaining
control over a unified Germany. Thus, the lengthy suppression of
Germany’s striving for unification is a painstakingly concealed
skeleton in the American closet.
(Incidentally, West
Germany’s allies agreed to unification only when developments
became irreversible. Even as East Germany ceased to exist of its
own free will, the unification of Germany still worried many in the


During the preparation of the Final Act,
the Germans – not only in West Germany – were well aware of the
hidden motives behind the principle of the inviolability of
frontiers. Its wording caused the most heated debates, but of
course no one intended to reject it. The very thought of
territorial claims was contemptible to Europe which had passed
through horrible wars. Yet it was beyond the Germans to give any
hope for a re-unification, no matter how much they spoke about the
absence of revanchist sentiments in their country. Finally, the
negotiators found a way out of the impasse. They included in the
Final Act a reservation which provided for the possibility of
changing frontiers between states “by peaceful means and by
agreement.” Theoretically, this provision could not be challenged,
but in practice who would give such consent to West Germany? The
Soviet Union would never provide it; nor would East Germany. And
the West itself, it seems, would not have been too anxious to
extend the offer. Who could imagine then what would happen to the
Soviet Union in a mere 15 years?




The West displayed goodwill with regard
to the fixing of the territorial and political realities in Europe
in the hope that the Soviet Union would make concessions on its
home affairs. The main motive behind this goodwill, however, was
not the wish that the Soviet people would live in a more democratic
state. Western leaders held that the more predictable the Soviet
policy, and the more founded on generally accepted international
terminology, the more secure Europe would be.


The only goal of the Soviet leadership
when discussing the principle of non-interference in internal
affairs was the containment of the “price.” As Gromyko once stated
in one of his speeches, “internal affairs and internal laws are a
boundary at the gate of each state, before which the others must
stop.” This approach prevailed under the Soviet leadership. This is
why it still remains a mystery to me how the Final Act, with its
humanitarian “heresies,” successfully passed through the Politburo
of the Soviet Communist Party. There are authors of memoirs and
other observers who believe that the Kremlin simply underestimated
the explosive nature of the bomb which the ‘third basket’ planted
under the Soviet ideological edifice. I do not believe this theory
to be correct. Conservatives, who made up a majority in the
country’s top leadership, could not overlook such an obvious
attempt to “undermine the foundations of the Soviet system.” Yet
they kept silent. The reason was that General Secretary Leonid
Brezhnev, who was full of life and mental vigor at the time,
patronized the pan-European conference. His attitude, in turn, was
shaped by professional and intelligent Soviet functionaries.
Furthermore, they were good writers (which was particularly
valued), honest and, most importantly, really cared for the
interests of their country.


These people held that the movement
toward the observance of human rights was not a concession to the
West but an indispensable prerequisite for the country’s
development, that democratic reforms had long been ripe, and that
if foreign policy could help to promote them, this should only be

And was it not in the interests of the
Soviet Union to see Europe transformed from a zone of bitter
East-West confrontation into a friendly region; to materialize the
policy of détente, including in the military sphere, and
establish the much-needed level of cooperation? It was particularly
enticing for war veteran Leonid Brezhnev to sum up the collective
results of the war and, jointly with the leaders of Europe, the
U.S. and Canada, to solemnly open a new page in the history of the
European continent. The third stage of the conference – the
adoption of the Final Act at summit level – was the triumph of the
policy of détente. Brezhnev’s advisers had told him that
without a counterbalance – the human rights issue – the West would
never sign the Act. And they were right. Although the number of
those advisers was small, some of them held positions that enabled
them to influence top-level politics.

Who would oppose the General Secretary?
The Politburo, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the Council
of Ministers of the U.S.S.R., in a joint document highly assessed
the results of the European conference, and it seems their
conclusions were warranted.


For the Soviet liberals, however, the
trouble began shortly after the euphoria had vanished and the aides
to the hawks in the Soviet leadership attentively read the Final
Act. It was discovered that the 10 principles, by which the
signatory states were now to guide themselves on the world stage,
included such commandments as “respect for human rights and
fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience,
religion or belief.” The aides wondered, was it no longer “our own
home affair?” And holy Moses! The Soviet Union, according to the
declaration, would have to provide facilitated access to
information, put up with the reunification of families, and invite
observers to its military exercises. The strong reservations
forwarded against all of those provisions by the wise Kovalyov were
not taken into account.


The more orthodox members blamed the
“doves” that they paid the West with a ‘third basket’ for what the
country already had: territorial integrity in Europe, the existence
of the German Democratic Republic and other Communist countries.
Now, they argued, the West received loopholes for interfering in
the Soviet Union’s home affairs, thus making it more difficult to
foil the enemy’s plans.


Without much publicity, the authorities
took disciplinary action against the main “perpetrator,” Kovalyov.
The punishment was not harsh, though – he was only denied election
to the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The unofficial
conclusion was that the humanitarian provisions – and other
unwelcome provisions – would have to be quietly buried, especially
since they were not legally binding but merely moral and political

The intuition of the conservatives did
not betray them. Indeed, the commitments assumed by Moscow, even
though only formally, soon were turned into an instrument of
pressure on the Soviet regime – not only by the West but also by
domestic human rights activists who demanded that Moscow abide by
the Final Act’s provisions. When détente gave way to a new
cold wave in East-West relations in the late 1970s, the human
rights issue became a battering ram used by the Americans against
the “evil empire.” Anti-Western politicians in Russia still argue
that the Soviet Union collapsed as a result of the Soviet
leadership’s “weakness”  which it
showed on the liberals’ advice in 1975. I think the reality was
quite the opposite. It was not the commitments assumed by Moscow
that proved fatal for the country, but its unwillingness to follow
the path outlined in the Final Act. This resulted in yet another
round of confrontation with the West, which proved to be a burden
Russia could not bear.




Many observers view the triumph of the
Helsinki forum as the funeral of the Cold War. Yet, the “witch”
proved to be long-lasting and was buried many times. The
pan-European process, which reached its peak at the signing of the
Final Act, began to die out. Despite some early hopes very little
changed in Russia’s home affairs. In the realm of foreign policy,
however, the climate improved somewhat. Those years witnessed the
buildup of bilateral political and economic relations and
cross-border people-to-people contacts, although in very small
degrees. The Soviet Union signed its first long-term agreement
(until 2003) for natural gas supplies to Europe. The climate in
European politics improved, as well: Italy and Yugoslavia, for
example, reached final agreement on Trieste.


At the same time, Moscow was
increasingly accused of failing to fulfill the Final Act, which in
the West was often presented to the public as a document consisting
of just the ‘third basket.’ The first post-Helsinki meeting of the
participants who were previously involved in the European
conference – convened in Belgrade in 1977-1978 to follow up the
process – made no headway.


The late 1970s marked the beginning of
gloomy times for détente and its advocates. The tone on both
sides of the East-West border was set by forces that were not
interested in reducing international tensions. I personally doubt
that the Soviet leadership really believed the two different social
systems could peacefully co-exist. Many generations of Soviet
leaders were brought up in the belief that, sooner or later, one of
the systems would “bury” the other. This belief suggested that
détente would not last long, and eventually we would be
deceived, thus, we should not go beyond a certain threshold.
Besides, our class enemy would do the same. A buildup of armaments
was inevitable, although the introduction of some limitations would
certainly not be a bad thing. Moreover, the mighty
military-industrial complex was quite happy with how things were


Incidentally, détente, the way it
was understood thirty years ago, ruled out any “ideological
convergence.” Despite Moscow’s signature under the Final Act, the
Soviet mass media continued to write the words “human rights” in
inverted commas and adding “so-called” before them. The Kremlin
only began to speak of common human values at a much later date,
after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and launched his perestroika

Finally, the status quo was maintained
only in Europe. In other parts of the world – in Southeast Asia,
Central America (Nicaragua) and Africa (Angola) – the bitter
struggle continued. In Africa, for example, only months after the
signing of the Final Act, Angola, led by “Marxist” Agostinho Neto,
chose the “socialist path of development” with Moscow’s and
Havana’s military and political support, which caused a wave of
protests in the West. But when the Soviet Union launched its Afghan
campaign in December 1979, the sky became ominously dark for
Moscow. After Ronald Reagan came to power, the Americans came to
the conclusion that the task of crushing their strategic rival was
not at all unfeasible; intensifying the arms race and increasing
pressure on Moscow over the human rights issue proved very


In the above situation the Helsinki
process almost ceased to exist. The second post-Helsinki meeting,
held in Madrid, was more like a clash which lasted three years.
This should have come as no surprise, however, considering that it
was held amidst the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, the boycott of
the Moscow Olympic Games, conflicts over the deployment of
medium-range missiles in Europe, the introduction of martial law in
Poland, and finally, the scandal over the downing of a Korean
Boeing airliner by the Soviet air defense.


The pan-European process was again saved
by a Soviet General Secretary, this time Yuri Andropov. The
following is what I myself witnessed. The Soviet delegation to
Madrid was headed by Leonid Ilyichev, an outstanding person, yet
not someone who could be described as a “dove.” (Later, he was
replaced by Anatoly Kovalyov.) Ilyichev was very tough with the
Americans, who had lost any interest in the European process unless
it was a pretext for putting pressure on Moscow over the
humanitarian issue. The Madrid meeting was nearly concluded by a
purely formal document or statement, as was proposed by the U.S.,
that the parties simply failed to agree. From my frequent contacts
with the minister (I then headed the Foreign Ministry’s First
European Department, whose scope of interests included, among
others, Spanish affairs) I concluded that Gromyko viewed the latter
variant as possibly acceptable.


Such an outcome, however, would have
meant that plans to convene a conference on military détente
and disarmament in Europe, which we had been advocating for several
years, might be disrupted. At the risk of being punished for
letting things out of the bag, so to speak, I nevertheless
contacted Anatoly Blatov, an aide to Andropov. Blatov failed to
sense the urgency of the situation, however, since not all the
wires from Madrid had reached him (that was an old bureaucratic
trick), yet he grasped the heart of the problem immediately. On the
following day, he called me back: “Your alarm signal has worked,”
he said. But by then I had already understood as much, since my
superior had changed the course of his policy. In the long run, we
had prevented a failure of the Madrid meeting, while the
aforementioned conference opened in Stockholm in January 1984.


In hindsight, perhaps we should not have
tried to save the European process? At that time, however, we did
the right thing, since the political situation was so tense that
one more blow could have been fatal. Andropov understood that
“shutting down” détente was not in our interests. Yet, in
principle, we asked ourselves that very same question many times.
Indeed, the political task was accomplished and the inviolability
of frontiers ensured, so why try to continue with a process that
only brought problems?


Gorbachev’s perestroika allayed those
doubts for some time. Moscow began to implement the Helsinki
accords even in those aspects that it had formerly ignored, and the
country only gained from that decision. This referred, for example,
to the shameful and costly act of jamming foreign radio broadcasts,
which was only fully terminated in 1988, in the third year of
Gorbachev’s rule. This was one of Moscow’s concessions that
contributed to the success of the third European conference held in
Vienna from November 1986 to January 1989, where discussions of the
human rights issue with the Americans were less confrontational. My
American counterpart at the time, Richard Shifter, Assistant
Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, still
holds that our interaction on that issue was the decisive factor in
the meeting’s success. (Human rights were among the issues I was in
charge of at the Foreign Ministry after I was appointed deputy
minister in 1986. It was then that we began to write the words
“human rights” without inverted commas.)


Gorbachev and his team began to build a
state based on the rule of law, while removing certain injustices
and absurdities from Soviet society. That was our home affair, our
own initiative, and we did not need any impulses from the outside.
Simultaneously, that was the main cause for the peak in
pan-European activity. We even came up with an idea to hold a
conference on human affairs in Moscow, and organized it during one
of the most dramatic periods in Soviet history: September 1991.


But the most important international
document of those times – the Charter of Paris for a New Europe,
adopted in November 1990 at a summit meeting held in the French
capital within the OSCE framework – played a rather negative role.
It failed to help build a European home for all, gave rise to
inflated and impossible expectations, and clouded the vision of
real European problems: the unification of Germany, the collapse of
the Communist bloc, and the progressive weakening of the Soviet




After the Soviet Union left the
political stage, the European process began to lose any sense. The
Helsinki idea served agreements between the East and the West when
these were understood as two different social systems. But when
this division ceased to exist – despite the Final Act’s principles
of inviolability of frontiers and territorial integrity, rather
than in accordance with them – the initial idea lost all its


As a rule, even very good international
agreements do not live long. Any specific situation is determined
not by officially stamped documents but by the correlation of
forces. On January 1, 1995, the CSCE was reorganized into the
Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, but the move
did not help much, as the institutionalization of the process was
never completed. The OSCE’s enlargement – due to the inclusion of
all the former Soviet republics – did not bring with it any new
goals or new agendas to the organization. Over the ten years of its
existence, the OSCE has brought little benefit to Russia, and in
the last few years its mission has been reduced to giving verdicts
on the level of democracy in the elections of the post-Soviet
space. Even though the majority of the newly independent states in
the ex-Soviet Union cannot boast achievements in building
democracy, the objectivity of the OSCE raises certain doubts.


We cannot bring ourselves to bury the
OSCE – it would be a pity to lose this unique Eurasian forum which
still operates on the basis of consensus. Russia even has veto
power there and has used it, although not as often as it once did
in the UN. On the other hand, we cannot forever remain captives to
our own ideas, however wonderful they may appear to be. Europe and
the world have changed dramatically, and if we were to cite the
international organizations through which Russia promotes its
national interests, the OSCE would appear at the bottom of the list
(far below the European Union or NATO – in any case, Russia’s
relations with these organizations do bear fruit through regular
practical interaction, despite some problems.


The OSCE has not become – and will now
hardly become – a major factor in building a European security
system that would encompass all aspects of cooperation, from
military cooperation to humanitarian activity. Presently, this
organization is busy discussing minor subjects that do not match
its initial idea. It is not accidental that the OSCE has not held a
single summit meeting since the 1999 summit in Istanbul.


The OSCE has two options available to
it. Either, as the successor to the CSCE, it will remain in its
glorious past, with its experience of unprecedented cooperation and
accomplishments in improving the general climate in Europe. This
includes its past promotion of détente and cooperation, as
well as the involvement of a large number of countries, including
neutral states, in big politics. Or it must transform into a purely
specialized organization to fulfill a really important task – that
of promoting democratic changes, modernizing law, and protecting
human rights. But this requires the organization’s own
modernization that would suit all the participating nations. It is
a consensus-based organization, after all.