In the months leading up to the attempted Soviet coup of August 1991, events moved rapidly in the USSR and in its satellite states. The Baltic states and Georgia declared their independence, and the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Bloc's military alliance was brought to an end, and Mikhail Gorbachev's position as leader of the Soviet Union looked increasingly tenuous.
Then, on August 18th 1991, Gorbachev was placed under house arrest by hard-line Communist generals, who then launched a coup to seize power in the USSR. But despite the multitude of tanks and troops that flooded into Moscow, the Russian people and reformers refused to acknowledge the coup's leaders. Faced with this resistance, the generals faltered and the coup failed. All of main ringleaders 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 rest of the republics declared their independence from Moscow and on December 30th 1991, the USSR officially ceased to exist.
At the conference organised in Prague to reflect on the events of 1991, former Polish foreign minister, Professor Krystof Skubiszewski, told of the expectation that some day the USSR would collapse, but it was anybody's guess as to when:
The Soviet Union's last foreign minister, Boris Pankin, who was the USSR's ambassador to Czechoslovakia at the time of the coup, told of how for him, as with many others, the roots of dissent had been sown way back, during the harsh year's of Stalin's rule:
The fall of the Soviet Union did not just bring political change to those countries that declared their independence during the course of 1991. The Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia, saw the last of the Soviet troops based in the country leave, after almost thirty two years of occupation. The current Czech Foreign Minister, Jan Kavan, told of how the final break up of the USSR, coming just two years after the fall of communism in Central Europe, heralded a new era for the region:
Ten years on, and the region has seen massive changes, some peaceful like the reunification of Germany and the split up of Czechoslovakia, some violent, such as the break-up of Yugoslavia. But the one of main issues that has arisen in the past ten years is EU enlargement. Former Dutch foreign minister Hans van den Broek believes that the events of 1989 to 1991 have fundamentally altered the world and led to a process that will further change the shape of Europe:
For many of the post-communist countries seeking membership in the EU, this process has a particularly strong meaning after forty years of totalitarian rule, not just for the economic benefits, but, as Czech Foreign Minister put it, for the security it will bring the continent after a century that saw two world wars:
But there was not just praise for the process of integration at the conference. There were also warnings of economic exclusion and nationalist belligerence. Donald McKinnon, a former foreign minister of New Zealand and currently the secretary general of the Commonwealth, warned that building trade barriers that would exclude Third World countries could prevent the spread of democracy:
Donald McKinnon further advised the EU member states and candidate countries that in any plans for expansion, they should pay special attention to the Third World:
Former Czechoslovak foreign minister and UN special envoy to Yugoslavia, Jiri Dienstbier, believes that thorny issues on the path towards European enlargement could upset the whole process. Mr Dienstbier referred in particular to a German and Austrian proposal to limit the access of workers from candidate countries to their labour markets after EU accession:
Mr Dienstbier feels that although the fall of the Soviet Union brought in a new and better era, it also came at a time when people throughout the region were waking up to deal with the new realities that were part and parcel of life in a democratic society, but they also had to begin to face problems that had been suppressed by communism for forty years:
Boris Pankin feels that after ten years progress has been made, but that there still a lot of problems left unresolved:
Mr Pankin supports the idea of such conferences as the one held in Prague last week, as he believes these issues must be discussed if people are to learn from the past:
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