July 1, 2021 is a special day for the former member states of the Warsaw Pact – the day marks the 30th anniversary of the disintegration of the military alliance. At Vaclav Havel’s invitation, Czechoslovak President, the official document heralding the end of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact was signed in the Černín Palace in Prague on July 1, 1991. This closed a historic chapter for the eight member states of the Eastern alliance.
The building had already undergone a democratic transformation. In 1928, the renowned architect Pavel Janák rebuilt the grand baroque hall of Černín Palace in the Prague castle district into a modern location of a functionalistic style. The palace had just been chosen as the seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the in 1918 newly founded Czechoslovak Republic, and one wanted to ensure that the representation there also met the standards of a progressive liberal democracy.
Subsequently, it is more than fitting that in this hall, which has already been tainted by the republican spirit of the First Republic, another great democratic and liberating transformation took place on July 1, 1991, that stirred up international public attention. For on that day, in the Ministry’s magnificent hall designed by Janák, the Warsaw Pact was laid to rest.
When the former dissident and current president of the country, Václav Havel, received the delegations of the other member states of the Pact, the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Hungary, the once terrifying alliance, was already a shadow of its former self. One important member, East Germany, had already left in September 1990 when Germany’s reunification had been imminent. A united Germany could not have been a member of the rival military alliances NATO and Warsaw Pact at the same time.
At a special meeting of the Warsaw Pact’s Consultative Political Committee in Budapest on February 25, 1991, the six remaining member states had already decided to abandon the alliance as a military structure. Formally, however, it still existed as a political mutual assistance pact. On Havel’s initiative, they now wanted to dissolve the pact completely, though. But why were they so eager to do so? What even was the “Warsaw Pact”?
The Warsaw Pact: Soviet Hegemony in Disguise
The underlying document was actually only called the “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance,” but because it was signed in Warsaw, Poland’s capital city, on May 14, 1995, it was quickly ascribed the name Warsaw Pact.
It was at the time of the Cold War. The former alliance of Western democracies, spearheaded by the United States and Great Britain, with Stalin’s Soviet Union and its common goal of defeating Hitler, had broken down.The promise to build democracies in all territories formerly occupied by Nazi Germany was trampled on where the Soviet army was in control. Soviet satellite states emerged throughout Central and Eastern Europe with brutal dictatorial regimes. The blockade of West Berlin in 1948, which was under Western control, was one of many attempts to radically expand communist influence and power, prevented only by the determined Western Allies.
This determination of the Western Allies was converted into a formal institution in April 1949: The defense alliance NATO was founded. Initially, there was no communist counterpart to the new transatlantic alliance of democratic countries.
The communist world was ruled by a central superpower, the Soviet Union; there was no alliance of countries with equal rights. Whenever anti-communist upheavals impended in a satellite state (as in Eastern Germany in 1953) or unwelcome reform-communist movements came to power (Hungary in 1956), immediately, the Soviet Union intervened militarily without respecting the theoretically existing sovereignty of the respective countries.
However, this principle of hegemonic unilateralism slowly began to falter. It wasted power and energy of the satellite states and reinforced them feeling marginalized. Furthermore, the Federal Republic of Germany had joined the NATO in April 1955. The principle of collective and voluntary self-defense, as exemplified by the West, seemed more attractive. For this reason, the East subsequently pursued a new propaganda offensive with a “friendship treaty”.
The Brezhnev Doctrine
This was also obvious in August 1968, when the reform-communist liberalization efforts of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia were brutaly crushed with tanks. Of course, the violence was carried out “by command” of the Soviet Union, but officially it was portrayed as a response to a cry for help by the Czechoslovakian people and as an act of mutual assistance by “socialist brother countries”. Not only Soviet, but also Polish, Hungarian and Bulgarian tanks drove down Prague’s streets.
In November of the same year, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev announced the Warsaw Pact’s newly applicable basic doctrine. Stability in the communist world was the supreme motto (which in essence meant complete stagnation). And under the pretext of indulging in a multilateralism of “brother countries”, the military and political autonomy of the member states were almost completely undermined.
Due to the imbalance of power, it was clear that multilateralism was again only a euphemism for Soviet hegemonic power – and its “right” to maintain and enforce the communist system in every “brother country” by force if necessary. With this so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, the Warsaw Pact lost all credit among the population, if it ever had any.
In the 1970s/80s, ever stronger resistance movements gained momentum, which also criticized not only Brezhnev Doctrine at best moderately concealed form of foreign domination, but also the associated social, political and particularly economic stagnation of the Brezhnev era. Movements, such as the Czechoslovak Charter 77 inspired by Václav Havel or the Polish free labor union Solidarność could hardly be suppressed any longer – especially since the communist governments had to make more and more (initially nominal) concessions to the frowned-upon financially strong West because of their economic mismanagement, for example in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. As a result, all countries were bound to guarantee the “effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person”.
The End of Communism
Even though the Warsaw Pact constituted a militarily quite veritable opponent to the NATO in their permanent arms race, the Western alliance was able to prevent the communist expansion in the free parts of Europe completely. Eventually, the status quo changed only because – in contrast to the West and the NATO – military strength was built on shaky political and economic ground in the communist world. This not only meant that, for economic reasons, the Warsaw Pact was no longer able to counter the political and military strength of NATO and the United States under President Ronald Reagan in terms of rearmament. Above all, it led to the regime’s internal collapse.
When the new head of government of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried to change tack by introducing reforms in 1985, he heralded in the final phase of the Soviet empire. In the end, his reforms, based on greater transparency, participation and freedom of expression, did not strengthen the regime’s ultimately irredeemably lost legitimacy, but weakened it.
Forceful independence movements emerged in the Baltic countries. In Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other countries, dissidents dominated the political discourse. 1989 was the end.
In April, the first free elections took place in Poland, in May, the barbed wire borders of Hungary fell, in December, those of Czechoslovakia fell, in November, the wall of the “GDR” had already fallen. In this new democratic world, there was little room left for the Brezhnev Doctrine and the Warsaw Pact. In vain, the commander-in-chief of the Red Army in the “GDR”, Army General Pyotr Luzhev, still asserted in the summer of 1990 that “as long as the North Atlantic Alliance exists, the Warsaw Treaty must also exist.
Therefore, it is also the Warsaw Treaty members’ task to fulfill their alliance obligations, as long as the Warsaw Treaty exists.” This was only a token gesture because in September, he himself already had to sign the document that confirmed the withdrawal of the National People’s Army of the GDR.
But: The mere existence of the Warsaw Pact remained a symbol of oppression. Consequently, the leaders of the new democracies had two basic security policy goals: First, the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, which still represented what General Luzhev had formulated, although it lacked its “military muscle” now. Second, membership in the NATO. Most citizens of Central Europe and the Baltic states saw a guarantor of freedom, peace and prosperity in the NATO, rather than in the EU.
In 1999, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined the NATO, followed by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004. And for most people in the region, the NATO – the antithesis of the Warsaw Pact – is probably still the most trusted international institution.
The Historical Lesson
And for this reason the festive ceremony on the 1st of July 1991, hosted by Václav Havel to finally and completely abandon the Warsaw Pact, became not only the end point, but also the beginning of a development. For Havel and most of the politicians who helped overthrow communism in 1989, joining the NATO was the consequence of the end of the Warsaw Pact.
Prior, Havel repeatedly reminded that Czechoslovakia, the only truly functioning democracy that had emerged after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, could only be destroyed by Hitler because of the fragile alliance with the democracies of the West, which then allocated parts of the state territory to Germany in the 1938 Munich Pact.
For the history-conscious ones among the participants of the conference, the decor of the ballroom in the Palais Czernin, reminiscent of the fall of the First Republic, must have clearly demonstrated this historical lesson. Even without, one could see that the geostrategic dangers for Central Europe were far from being averted. When, after the signing of the disintegration document, all participants broke into rapturous applause, the head of the Soviet delegation, Gennady Yanayev, remained in his seat with a stony expression on his face.
In August, he would organize the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev to change tack and restore the hegemony of the Soviet Union (along with the communist regime). The coup failed, thank God. But the dangers for the future were not averted. The countries from the territory of the former Warsaw Pact, which could not join the NATO, made this experience. Georgia was annexed by Russia in 2008, Ukraine was annexed in 2014 – both annexations violated international law.
The zero-tolerance, and without remnants of the Warsaw Pact since July 1, 1991, rapprochement and linking to the NATO was seen then, as it is now, as the completion of a historic mission for the region to secure its proper place in the world. Or, as Václav Havel said retrospectively in 1999: ”We have never been part of such a broad, firm and binding security alliance, which at the same time respects in its essence the sovereignty and will of our nation.”
The article was also published at: https://www.freiheit.org/central-europe-and-baltic-states/historic-mission-accomplished