The Magazine

Charter of Democracy

Will the dissidents in Beijing ever get the support their Soviet counterparts did?

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By ELLEN BORK
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In thinking about the Cold War era as a model for supporting dissidents in China, it is important to remember that the West's record was not always clear. For example, although the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 is now viewed as a major contribution to the fall of communism in the Soviet bloc, it was not intended to be. The Helsinki accords were a "document of détente," as Jeri Laber, the founder of Helsinki Watch, put it. The Warsaw Pact countries and the West agreed to confirm the Soviet Union's postwar boundaries. Human rights provisions, relegated to a "third basket," were not taken seriously by the Warsaw Pact countries. Not surprisingly, many dissidents were pessimistic about Helsinki. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, by then in exile in the West, anticipated the "funeral of Eastern Europe." Comparisons were made to the conference at Yalta.

Yet other dissidents, learning from the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other Western broadcasts about the human rights commitments their governments had insincerely undertaken, sensed that something had changed. "Everyone here has his own reaction to this," one wrote from Prague: "We, the people from the ghetto, feel a cautious hope; the secret police feel an increased nervousness." At least, there was opportunity. In Moscow, Yuri Orlov, Natan Sharansky, and others reasoned, as Sharansky later wrote, that "if the human rights commitments contained in the Helsinki agreements became important to the free world, then the Soviets could not easily ignore them." Soon Helsinki monitoring groups formed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Charter 77 was launched in January 1977, timed in anticipation of the Belgrade conference scheduled for the fall, at which the signing governments would review implementation of the accords.

The governments of the free world were not the first, or the staunchest, sources of support. President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had initially opposed the inclusion of human rights provisions in the Helsinki Final Act--fortunately several European countries insisted--and later they opposed the establishment of a U.S. commission to monitor implementation. In the United States, it was private groups, especially Helsinki Watch, that provided support and pressured governments. Members of Congress already active on behalf of "refuseniks" (Soviet Jews denied visas to leave the USSR) visited Helsinki activists, giving them a measure of protection. When congresswoman Millicent Fenwick remarked on the risk refuseniks were taking by meeting with official American visitors, one of the activists replied, "Don't you understand? That's our only hope. We've seen you. Now they know you've seen us."

In Poland, too, official U.S. support for dissidents lagged behind private efforts. After workers at the Gdánsk shipyard founded the independent labor union Solidarity in August 1980, Jimmy Carter's secretary of state, Edmund Muskie, tried to dissuade Lane Kirkland, the head of the AFL-CIO, from providing financial aid to the union. But Kirkland remained "unimpressed by these arguments," wrote his biographer Arch Puddington. "He told Muskie .  .  . the labor movement, as an independent institution with ties to free unions around the world, had the obligation to assist its fellow unionists."

Kirkland believed that pressure from abroad would help the dissidents and deter the Soviet Union and the Polish government from cracking down. As he explained at a press conference in Chicago shortly after the Solidarity strike began, "Every spokesman for freedom in Iron Curtain countries with whom we have had contact .  .  . has strongly asserted the proposition that their survival and inspiration depend very heavily on support and attention and publicity from the Free World."

Things got worse before they got better. Many Helsinki activists inside the Soviet bloc were arrested. Martial law was declared in Poland in 1981. Thanks to the sacrifices of the dissidents and the efforts of their supporters abroad, however, expectations changed, not only of what it was possible to achieve behind the Iron Curtain, but also of what American policy should be.