Old adversaries become new partners
The first signs of wavering within the Communist bloc appeared in 1989 as NATO celebrated its 40th anniversary. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was determined to revive the country’s economy. He therefore introduced a policy of openness (Glasnost) and restructuring (Perestroika), which together with other initiatives, accelerated the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In parallel, tensions between East and West were easing as Moscow engaged in several nuclear and conventional disarmament agreements with the United States such as the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START).
However, while these measures were being implemented, at Moscow’s doorstep Soviet-controlled countries started to press for independence either through symbolic gestures or political reform. In August 1989, millions of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians formed a human chain – the Baltic Way - that linked their capitals in protest against Soviet rule; anti-communist movements opened the way for free elections in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria; other states unilaterally declared independence or in the case of Yugoslavia, collapsed into civil war. Events culminated on 9-10 November 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall marking the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
In this turmoil, representatives from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its satellite countries approached the Alliance and came to meet the NATO Secretary General in Brussels.
The Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, came to NATO Headquarters for talks on 19 December 1989.
And Soviet military representatives came on 25-26 October 1990, dressed in their distinctive military attire.
The Warsaw Pact, NATO’s military counterpart, was disbanded on 25 February 1991 and dissolved later that year. This was followed by the dissolution of the USSR on 26 December 1991. Countries that had been bound by a centralised system for decades, were free to decide their own fate.
From the dissolution of the Soviet Union emerged 15 independent states: Russia, internationally recognised as the successor state to the USSR; the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; Central Asian countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; East and Central European countries: Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine; and countries from the Southern Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania, which together with the USSR had been members of the Warsaw Pact, distanced themselves from Communist ideology.
Many of these countries knocked on NATO’s door and responded to the “hand of friendship” that NATO extended to them, turning old adversaries into new partners.
Six days before the dissolution of the USSR, NATO had already brought its members and former Warsaw Pact countries together around the same table at NATO Headquarters and, in 1994, started to engage individually with them through the Partnership for Peace programme. A new era had begun...