The First Word: The Lessons of Helsinki

July 28, 2005
The Jerusalem Post
Natan Sharansky

Success, it is said, has many fathers. Yet when the Helsinki Accords were signed on August 1, 30 years ago, they were met by many with deep skepticism, if not fear.

The 1975 agreement that today seems to have been the natural and predictable triumph of common sense over tyranny was, somewhat understandably, greeted with horror by the Soviet dissident community, of which I was a part. Here, it seemed, were the Western democracies handing the Soviet Union a deal the latter could only dream of: legal recognition of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and economic benefits in exchange for Soviet declarations accepting principles of human rights.

Sure, proponents said the agreement had teeth because 35 countries in Eastern and Western Europe, the US and Canada had created a direct linkage between the three "baskets," or underlying basic principles - recognition of territorial borders, economic cooperation and human rights. But my dissident friends were sure that the Soviets would successfully drown their commitments in endless conferences defining "human rights" and proving that such rights were violated in the West no less frequently than in the Soviet Union.

Nor was the dissident community alone in its worries. The Israeli Liaison Office (Lishkat Hakesher), which was making important headway while working under difficult conditions behind the Iron Curtain, felt that the West risked undermining its pragmatic campaign to free Soviet Jews. If Soviet Jews were themselves to join the international community's abstract demands for democratizing the Soviet regime, the Israelis felt, it would endanger their concrete efforts, and this for a campaign with no visible chance of success.

HOW IS it, then, that the Helsinki Agreement turned the last decade of the Cold War into one of ever-increasing international pressure on the Soviet Union to change its human rights policy, leading to the collapse of the totalitarian regime from the inside? What can we learn from this experience regarding today's challenges?

Though the dissidents and the Liaison Office had somewhat divergent concerns, the explanation for Helsinki's success lies in their very different reactions.

We, the dissidents, created the Moscow Helsinki Monitoring Group, headed by the esteemed Prof. Yuri Orlov. We decided to monitor the Soviet Union's fulfillment of the human rights obligations which it took upon itself - and to inform the world of its failings in doing so.

Many dissidents were certain that the Soviet Union would not abide by any of the commitments, but they were determined to turn Helsinki into a test case. Virtually all the founding members of the Helsinki Group paid for this decision with our freedom - either in prison or in Siberian exile. But the work of the Group and the international support which it gained made it impossible for the Soviet Union, despite all its efforts, to turn the Helsinki Agreement into a dead letter. A seemingly empty abstraction turned into the fulcrum of international pressure leading directly to the Soviet regime's inevitable implosion.

At just the time that the dissidents, with all their concerns, worked to leverage the Helsinki process, the Israeli Liaison Office categorically opposed the participation of Soviet Jews in this monitoring effort. When Vitali Rubin and I became founding members of the group, the ire of the Liaison Office knew no bounds.

Unambiguous messages were transmitted to my family and friends that if I did not cease from this activity, I would no longer be considered a loyal Zionist, and could not expect Israeli support even in case of arrest. Though the Liaison Office was doubtlessly a source of authority, fortunately for me, my friends, and many other activists, it was neither the absolute nor the only source.

In retrospect, Helsinki's outcome is indisputable today. Helsinki was one of the most effective and durable mechanisms ever confronting and defeating dictatorships. History has clearly shown that in Helsinki the Soviet Union signed its own death warrant.

Doubtlessly, Soviet Jewry was one of the prime beneficiaries of this battle; all were offered the opportunity to leave or to live as a Jew. More than one million of them emigrated to Israel, and another 500,000 to other parts of the world.

TODAY, THE question of linkage between human rights and international relations again tops the international agenda. President George W. Bush has made democratization the cornerstone of his pursuit of peace and security. The US is making every effort to promote the idea of a Helsinki process for the Middle East.

As expected, this new-old approach is running into hostility on the part of the totalitarian regimes in the region - Western "partners," like Saudi Arabia, and adversaries, like Iran, alike.
In our neck of the woods, Arab governments and the Palestinian Authority, very much like the late Soviet Union, demand concrete concessions from the Israeli side, while their own commitments to democratic reform are consigned to lip service, academic papers, and multilateral conferences on moral relativism.

The skeptical approach of the Israeli leadership today to America's democracy strategy is strangely reminiscent of the Liaison Office's approach 30 years ago: any real and tangible demands for democratization of the regimes in the region only create an unnecessary stumbling block in the progress of the elusive peace process. Our leaders and experts fear that the peace process may get lost in the discussion of democratization which, they point out, has never existed in this part of the world.

Once again, any attempts to link the peace process with real changes in human rights are viewed at best as a very naive tactical mistake, and at worst as a deliberate effort to throw the peace process off track.

On the eve of Helsinki's 30th anniversary, marking the initial push of the snowball that toppled the world's most daunting dictatorship, one wonders whether it might not be more prudent for Israel to take the approach we dissidents took toward joining that push, rather than dismissing the potential leverage being handed to us on a silver platter. Looking back, it seems that it is not those who put their faith in the power of democracy and human rights who were naive, but those who, again and again, sought deals with tyrants.

The writer, a founding member of the Helsinki Group in Moscow and former prisoner of conscience, is a distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center. This essay inaugurates his monthly column in The Jerusalem Post.

link to original article