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R.I.P. Helsinki Accords

Four decades ago, the Helsinki Final Act established the inviolability of borders, territorial integrity, and noninterference in domestic affairs as pillars of European security.

Today, Ukraine has seen its borders violated, its territory annexed, and its citizens kidnapped by Russia. Ukraine is also enduring a humiliating form of interference in its domestic affairs as Moscow insists on the right to dictate the very content of its constitution.

The Helsinki Accords also enshrined respect for human rights and freedoms as a bedrock European principle. Today, basic rights like the freedom of speech, press, and assembly are violated as a matter of course in much of the former Soviet Union.

The accords led to the establishment of Russia's most venerable rights watchdog, the Moscow Helsinki Group. Today, that group is fighting against being branded as a "foreign agent" by the Kremlin.

Signed by 35 countries on August 1, 1975, the Helsinki Final Act marks its 40th anniversary this weekend. Many people begin to seriously think about their mortality at 40. So are are the Helsinki Accords on life support? Or are they just suffering a midlife crisis?

Negotiated at the height of detente, the accords were at their heart a political compromise.

Eager to legitimize its domination over its Eastern Bloc satellites, the Soviet Union wanted Europe's post-World War II borders fixed. And sensitive to criticisms of its authoritarian political system, Moscow also pushed for the principle of noninterference in domestic affairs to be included.

And the West, over Moscow's objections, insisted on the human rights clauses.

The accords were initially seen as a diplomatic victory for the Soviet Union as Moscow touted the apparent legitimation of its empire in Eastern Europe -- and pretty much ignored the human rights clauses.

But over time, they emboldened dissidents throughout the Eastern Bloc to monitor and chronicle human rights abuses, and challenge their governments to honor their commitments to respect basic freedoms.

From the Moscow Helsinki Group in the Soviet Union to Vaclav Havel's Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, the accords meant "that the people who lived under these systems -- at least the more courageous -- could claim official permission to say what they thought," John Lewis Gaddis wrote in his 2005 book The Cold War: A New History.

And in this way, the Helsinki Final Act helped facilitate the implosion of the Soviet empire from within.

Today, Vladimir Putin's Russia has little use for any aspect of the Helsinki Accords.

Like the Soviet Union, the Putin regime ignores its commitments to respect human rights.

But now that the Helsinki Final Act sanctifies post-Cold War borders and not post-World War II borders; and now that they uphold the self-determination of Moscow's former satellites -- rather than the Kremlin's domination of them -- Russia has no time for these principles either.

Which means as they turn 40, the Helsinki Accords may not be on life support. But they are resting on very shaky foundations.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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