I was not even three years old when the declaration was signed but my father, an emigré from Croatia, understood its meaning. As a younger it was impressed on me the importance of a document that, among its provisions, was a statement of several important principles:
- The inviolability of national borders in Europe, and that border disputes could only be resolved via peaceful negotiations.
- There should be no threat of use of force from one nation to another.
- Every country had a right to its own internal affairs without interference from another.
- That there were basic human rights that all persons had that could not be violated, including free speech, a free press and due process.
There were other areas discussed, including scientific cooperation and the opening of trade between western and eastern states, but it was these main points that came to the fore. While not a binding treaty, many dissidents took Helsinki seriously and used it to fight for what they saw were inalienable rights. Eventually, they were successful.
It's notable that NATO continued to stress that they did not recognize the illegal occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by the Soviet Union, and that Helsinki did not change this. Nor could Helsinki keep the former Yugoslavia from collapsing. When Germany reunited, it was tacitly a merger of equals but everyone knows that in actual fact the West annexed the East with the latter's consent.
It therefore seems pathetic that the West seems to be willing to let Russia get away with its games in the Ukraine. First, by illegally annexing Crimea (only five countries, including erstwhile western ally Afghanistan, have recognized Russian sovereignty). Second, by overtly arming Russian rebels in the east of Ukraine. And Putin is on record as saying he could take over all of Ukraine in just two weeks.
Helsinki was also about reducing tensions in Europe. Which it did. Merely by threatening to cut off the natural gas that heats a quarter of homes in the EU, Putin is raising the stakes.
And let's not forget, all the networks and most of the papers in Russia are government controlled or sympathetic. And that titans of industry have been imprisoned for wanting to speak the truth. Not to mention there haven't been any free elections in Russia since Boris Yeltsin resigned.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the permanent body that was established by the Helsinki framework, should be on top of this. This is the best forum, I think, to deescalate the tensions.
But Canada as a founding member as well as long time champion of the Accord (and far as I can tell has been faithful to its rules) needs to firmly put its foot down. If Russia won't call a timeout of its own to give a chance for things to calm down then perhaps it is time for the West to say that, if Russia won't play by the rules that ended communism and has helped keep the peace in Europe all this time, then perhaps it should be expelled or suspended from Helsinki. On top of current and coming sanctions, this is not a palatable option, but at stage I think it may be the only way to make Putin wake up.