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End of Warsaw Pact Means a New Europe

But the withdrawal of Soviet forces from central Europe leaves a security vacuum the West cannot ignore

By Daniel N. NelsonDaniel Nelson is senior foreign policy adviser, office of the majority leader, US House of Representatives. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the majority leader. / April 15, 1991

THE Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO or Warsaw Pact) has ceased to exist. As this alliance folds up its tents in Eastern Europe, the continent passes from an era of hegemonic control and bipolarity into a time that appears to be, simultaneously, hopeful and discomfiting. The pact's demise has been in the making since communist regimes were pushed aside from the Baltic to the Balkans in 1989. After those revolutionary events, there was no rationale for an entity meant less to threaten the West than to reinforce illegitimate Communist Party rule. Among erstwhile allies of the Soviet Union - particularly the Hungarians and Czechoslovaks - calls were heard frequently for an end to the military alliance.

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Unraveling within the Warsaw Pact, however, began almost as soon as it was created at Moscow's behest in 1955. Six years after NATO was inaugurated, two years after the death of Stalin and anti-communist riots in East Germany, and coincident with the integration of West Germany into NATO, a new Soviet leadership was fearful of losing its hold on Eastern Europe. The pact rationalized the continued deployment of Soviet troops to quell uprisings and served as an ostensibly multilateral structure through wh ich to denude East European militaries of their national identity.

That the principal role of the WTO was to reinforce Communist Party control and Soviet hegemony in the original seven East European members (Albania officially withdrew in 1968) became clearer with hindsight. The pact was not an instrument for aggressive designs, since it added very little to the USSR's offensive capabilities.

For the first six years of the pact's existence, indeed, its armies did not even train together. Even into the 1980s the equipment of East European forces was less modern than those of Soviet units and thus inadequate for combat with most NATO forces. By the 1970s and 1980s, joint exercises were large but infrequent. But even in wartime, the WTO would not have functioned. Rather, East European armies would have been absorbed into Soviet command within ``theaters of military operations.''

As a tool of policy coordination, the pact was also of limited utility. East European states, notwithstanding their communist governments, did not behave uniformly and were never regarded by the Kremlin as reliable allies. Some, like Bulgaria, mirrored Soviet practice by devoting an enormous proportion of human and financial resources to military ends, while Hungary tried to minimize its defense commitments. The communist government in East Germany or Czechoslovakia slavishly replicated every Soviet for eign policy statement, while Romania's Ceausescu snubbed Soviet interests.

If the Warsaw Pact accomplished so little in its 36-year history, why note its passing as a significant event? There are three reasons for acknowledging the historic aspects of March 31.

First, the death of this military alliance marks the end of post-World War II Soviet hegemony in the corridor of Europe from the Baltic to the Bosporus. Moscow's control was neither complete nor sturdy - but it extracted a terrible cost from the societies and economies of a region that includes over 120 million people. Such a capacity to deny to Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Bulgarians, Germans, and other nationalities any control over their own national affairs persisted for two genera tions, and has left a legacy of weakened states, plundered economies, and fractious societies. The WTO's death symbolizes the rebirth of a part of Europe's heartland - no longer ``Eastern'' Europe beneath a yoke imposed from Moscow.