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East/West: Analysis From Washington--Giving Yalta A New Meaning

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 13 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Yalta, the place where Moscow and the West divided Eastern Europe in 1945, is now the symbol of the new and independent role the countries between Russia and Germany and between the Baltic and Black Seas hope to play in the future.

On Friday and Saturday, 14 presidents and other senior officials from these and adjoining countries met there to promote cooperation among themselves, to denounce the emergence of any new dividing lines in Europe, and to demand that no decisions about them be taken without them.

This, the third international conference in a series launched in Vilnius in 1997, represented the latest and most dramatic effort by these countries to repudiate the great power politics that dominated thinking at the Yalta conference in 1945.

At that first Yalta conference, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill effectively created new spheres of influence in Europe without consulting any of the nations thus affected.

From that decision, one that has many precedents in European and world history, many once independent and proud peoples were consigned to Soviet rule for nearly half a century. And none of those affected has ever forgotten or forgiven either that meeting or its results.

Now and largely as a result of the efforts of these nations themselves, they are once again in a position to be the active subjects of history rather than its mere objects.

And thus virtually all of the leaders there echoed in one way or the other the words of Ukrainian Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk who said that " Yalta-99 has done away with the spirit of Yalta-45."

But that celebratory spirit was undercut not only by the tight security arrangements surrounding the meeting but also by expressions of genuine concern about whether the goals of Yalta II, as some of the leaders described it, were likely to be achieved anytime soon.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, the host of this year's meeting, pointedly appealed to the European Union not to create a new "paper curtain" of travel restrictions in place to the now-collapsed "Iron Curtain" of the Cold War.

Such restrictions on the "free movement of law-abiding citizens of states aspiring for European integration," Kuchma suggested, could effectively divide the continent in ways that would make it difficult, if not impossible for states once submerged in the Soviet empire to recover.

Then, Estonian President Lennart Meri called attention to one of the problems that many of the other leaders only alluded to. While the countries of this region are now the subjects of history, he said, "none of us are simply subjects."

As a result, the Baltic leader continued, his country and its neighbors "remain its objects as well, driven hither and yon by larger forces and larger states." Because of that, Meri said, the countries of this region cannot take anything for granted but must work together to defend their interests.

And finally, in words that confirmed both the fears and the appeals of Meri and the others, the Russian representative at the Yalta meeting used the occasion to oppose the expansion of a Western institution that many of the countries in this region hope to join.

Speaking on Friday, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko argued that "NATO's further expansion, including the Baltic states would lead to the creation of new division lines and would in no case assist in the consolidation of security."

Khristenko's appeal in itself reflects the continuing view of many in Moscow that it and no one else should play the dominant role in this region, a role that Stalin believed the West had ratified at the first Yalta conference.

But at the same time, Khristenko made these comments in a city that is now part of an independent Ukraine and that his audience consisted of leaders of countries who have either gained or regained their independence from Moscow.

And that fact demonstrates more clearly than anything else just how much the world has changed since 1945 and how significant Yalta II in fact was, both as a symbol of those changes and as an expression of hope for the future.

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