On August 18th 1991, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was placed under house arrest by hard-line Communist generals who then launched a coup to seize power in the USSR. The coup failed, all the generals were arrested bar one who committed suicide, and Gorbachev was released. But the coup started a chain of events that saw the Soviet Union come apart at the seams, as one by one the fifteen republics declared their independence from Moscow. On December 30th 1991, the USSR officially ceased to exist.
The former foreign ministers who gathered in Prague on Monday were all in office at the time of the coup, and came to debate its historical and political significance. In his opening speech, the current Czech Foreign Minister, Jan Kavan, summed up what the break-up of the Soviet Union meant for the region:
"The countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which during the previous two years had liberated themselves from totalitarian regimes, stood on the threshold of political and economic change."
Mr Kavan, and many of those who followed him, focused in his speech on EU expansion and repeatedly emphasised its importance for the Czechs:
"The European Union as a project overcoming traditional European conflicts is of key importance for a country with our specific historical experience."
Though the consensus was that EU enlargement will benefit the region, there were those like New Zealand's former foreign minister Donald McKinnon, now the Commonwealth's secretary general, who warned against trade barriers that benefit wealthy EU member states and harm developing countries:
"The only way that economic development can continue is, of course, access to markets. And if you are a trading country in the world today, and you do not trade with the European Union, Japan or the United States, you are dead in the water."
In his assessment of the region ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union, its last foreign minister, Boris Pankin, told me the region had come a long way, but was still searching for answers to some important questions:
"Mankind, or at least this part of the planet in general, is moving in the right direction. But we still have, I'm afraid, more problems than achievements, more questions than answers, and my hope is that this gathering will help to answer at least some of these questions."
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