Revisiting Yalta

FORTY years ago, the Yalta meeting of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt with Joseph Stalin was hailed as laying the foundation for cooperation among the allies for a secure peace. Churchill toasted Stalin as a ``friend whom we can trust.'' Only a year later, in his Fulton, Mo., speech, he was denouncing Stalin for ringing down the Iron Curtain, splitting Europe. Yalta became a synonym for that partition. After Yugoslavia escaped and Czechoslovakia was absorbed, the boundaries of the empire in Eastern Europe were fixed and have remained intact. Western talk of rollback was quickly proved hollow. Indeed the West stood aside in 1953 when the Soviets repressed the uprising in East Berlin. In Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, they showed their determination to keep these nations communist and under their control.

Yet the situation has not remained static. Hungary has developed a much more flexible and mixed economy than the Soviet model. Poland has its church and its private agriculture. Romania asserts some independence in foreign policy. Such variations are mainly due to internal factors.

But the West has helped to create conditions of facilitating evolution. Thus by accepting that the Oder-Neisse border would be changed only by agreement, the Federal Republic of Germany made Poland less dependent on the Soviet Union for its security. With d'etente, lower tensions between East and West fostered freer trade, credits, and travel, especially for the East European states. The Helsinki accords reaffirmed the inviolability of territorial borders and provided commitments on human rights.

Yet some actions have a negative impact. For example, in June, Chancellor Helmut Kohl plans to address a meeting of Silesian refugees, who assert claims to former German territories, now part of Poland. This is bound to be disturbing in Eastern Europe and to be exploited by the Soviets as evidence of German ``revanchism.''

The German Ostpolitik has brought about major changes in relations between West and East Germany. In 1972, the Federal Republic abandoned its efforts to isolate the East German regime and initiated a program of loans, trade, and freer access designed to foster contacts and alleviate some of the impact of division. Over more than a decade these measures have created extensive interchange and a growing sense of identity.

Some see these activities and interests as displacing German unity even as a long-term goal. Others view them as keeping alive that eventual possibility. In any case they have generated a strong West German concern to perpetuate these relations and to protect them from being disrupted by other issues, such as reactions to Soviet actions outside Europe or even events like those in Poland. This can cause friction with allies. And since the Soviets can ultimately control East German actions (as in forcing Erich Honecker to cancel a planned West German visit), it has some leverage over West Germany. But the West German political leaders and public appear to give definite priority to West European and Atlantic ties.

Should the West do more to encourage greater freedom and autonomy for the East European states? In addition to humanitarian motives, good reason exists for concern that future turmoil in this region could spark a dangerous confrontation under some circumstances. What could the West do?

The reality is that significant change can take place only with concurrence by the USSR. It has the power to crush any deviant regime as it has done in the past. Such actions have their costs, however, and incremental changes are much less likely to provoke a reaction.

Various proposals have been made for inducing the Soviets to relax their control. The premise of such proposals is that the primary Soviet concern in Eastern Europe is to ensure its military security. That may have been Stalin's motivation. If that were still true today, it might indeed be feasible to work out arrangements based on neutrality (like Austria or Finland) or other safeguards for Soviet security.

Their interests as they see them go much beyond security in the normal sense. Ideologically, they are committed to keeping these states communist -- a reversal would gravely undercut their conception of communism as the wave of the future. In Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, their concern was that rule by the Communist Party was in jeopardy -- and that was unacceptable.

Without the prop of Soviet power, none of the East European regimes could stay in power for long. These states might retain a socialist economy, but they would surely create a more pluralist political order. The Soviet Union will not be ready to accept that until its ideology is no longer essential to the legitimacy of its domestic regime.

Second, the Soviets continue to seek to achieve predominance in Western Europe. They may not expect or aspire to impose their power as in Eastern Europe, but they may well hope to exert influence over a Western Europe that recognizes their primacy. Continued domination of Eastern Europe is relevant to this purpose.

Obviously neither of these Soviet interests can be satisfied on any basis acceptable to the West. Basic change in Eastern Europe will depend on shifts in Soviet priorities or purposes, which the West can do little to bring about directly. It can continue to create conditions fostering gradual evolution. It can make clear its readiness to negotiate safeguards for security and stability in a freer Eastern Europe when that becomes relevant. In the meantime it will have to be patient while time and forces within the USSR and its empire work their effects.

Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for nearly 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant.

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