Case Study- Helsinki Process

Vision and Motivation

When the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) began in 1972 in Helsinki, Finland, no one knew that what began as an effort to improve relations between the Soviet bloc and the West would turn into a regional movement to transform communist regimes into free, democratic political systems.[1]  For the next three years, representatives from the United States and Canada, the Soviet Union and all the major European countries carried out negotiations on security, economic and humanitarian issues. After World War II, the people of the Soviet Union and the puppet states it controlled in Eastern Europe lived under extremely repressive political systems.  The Soviet bloc was engaged in a cold war and a nuclear arms race with the free countries of Western Europe and the United States. The Soviet Union primarily saw the Helsinki conference as a way to secure its post-World War II boundaries and expand trade. The United States hoped the CSCE would promote détente and facilitate arms control efforts. Neither side realized the consequences that would arise from the inclusion of human rights guarantees in the final conference agreement. Dismissing the importance of these provisions, Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko declared, “We are masters in our own house.”[2]

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at the CSCE, Helsinki, 1975

The “Helsinki process” refers to the events that unfolded in the fifteen years after the CSCE’s concluding document, the Helsinki Final Act, was signed in 1975.[3] The first part of the Final Act contained guarantees that the signatory nations would respect citizens’ basic rights, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, and the exercise of civil and political freedoms. Although not a binding treaty, the accords were based on consensus and provided for future review meetings to oversee implementation. These meetings took place in Belgrade in 1977-78, Madrid in 1980-83, and Vienna in 1986-89. During the Belgrade meeting, the idea of a review process to track violations of the Helsinki Final Act and hold violators accountable was introduced. Further initiatives to investigate and enforce compliance with the agreement’s human rights provisions were adopted at the Vienna meetings.

The human rights provisions in the Final Act provided a framework that fostered the development of internal and external pressure on communist regimes. They handed citizens in the Soviet bloc a powerful tool they could use to mobilize against repression, and for the first time made countries’ human rights practices a legitimate issue in diplomatic relations.  By the 1980s, unprecedented social activism, the birth of a transnational Helsinki network, and pressure on human rights from the U.S. and other governments set the stage for unforeseen political changes. Former Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin later acknowledged that the consequences of the Helsinki Accords were “totally beyond the imagination of the Soviet leadership.”[4]

Goals and Objectives

The activist movements that sprung up across the Soviet bloc after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act shared the common goal of ending government repression of citizens’ basic rights. Specifically, they sought enforcement of the provisions in Section 7 of the Helsinki Final Act’s Declaration of Principles, which stated that the signatory nations would “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief” and “will act in conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Among other things, the latter document sets forth the rights to privacy, freedom of thought, information, expression and movement, and banned cruel and unusual punishment and arbitrary imprisonment. To work toward this goal, individuals within the Soviet Union and its satellite countries organized campaigns and set up monitoring groups to document and publicize government violations of their Helsinki obligations. Over time, they also sought political reforms. The transformation of communist regimes into free, democratic political systems was the endpoint to which activists ultimately aspired.

Vaclev Havel, Prague, 1989


Citizen activism surged in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries almost as soon as the Helsinki Final Act was signed. Leaders came from a variety of backgrounds. They included intellectuals, scientists, writers, artists, workers, lawyers, and religious figures. Among the best known are labor activist Lech Walesa, founder of Poland’s Solidarity movement; writer Vaclev Havel, a founder of Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 and Civic Forum; and Poland’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II and put the Catholic Church vocally on the side of those advocating government respect for human rights.  They shared a simple yet radical objective: convincing communist authorities to comply with the human rights norms contained in the Helsinki Final Act. Their strategy was to appeal “upward” to communist officials and “outward” to western governments, media, and non-governmental organizations. Communist governments responded to these activities with a combination of tactical concessions and brutal crackdowns. Despite the risks and feelings that their struggle was almost futile, new leaders and organizations kept emerging. As one activist put it, “We are sometimes asked how we can continue to work when so many of the individuals we seek to help remain in prison…when policies that we seek to change become more repressive rather than less. The answer, simply stated, is how can we stop?”[5]

Civic Environment

The governments of Soviet bloc countries tightly controlled social and political life.  Repression was pervasive and citizen activism involved great risks. Dissidents were imprisoned, executed, exiled, deprived of employment, and subject to surveillance by the feared secret police. By its third anniversary, most of the founding members of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights monitoring organization, had been arrested or forced to emigrate. Vaclev Havel was sentenced to hard labor. Lech Walesa was jailed and subject to constant surveillance. Nonetheless, during the period in which the Helsinki process unfolded, citizen mobilization persisted and increasing numbers of independent associations appeared. Small concessions made by communist governments, who were eager to reap the benefits of continued CSCE negotiations, opened up even more opportunities for citizen action. What began as window-dressing concessions on human rights to give the appearance of change led to real and profound transformations over time; by the end of the 1980s, communist governments were losing control over their societies.

Message and Audience   

After the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, a profusion of citizen activism took place.  Across the Soviet bloc, groups mobilized to pressure communist authorities to respect the Act’s provisions committing signatories to protect the basic human rights of their citizens. Reflecting the “upward” and “outward” strategy, the audiences these groups addressed were, first, communist officials in their own countries; second, ordinary citizens whom they hoped to arouse into action; and third, western governments whose influence they sought to enlist in their cause.

Activists documented government violations of human rights and sent petitions to communist authorities demanding they fulfill their Helsinki obligations. In December, 1975 a group of Poland’s most prominent intellectuals and other figures delivered an open letter to the speaker of the Polish parliament demanding implementation of the rights and freedoms contained in the Final Act. Throughout 1976, informal groups throughout the region sent or smuggled information documenting human rights violations to the U.S. State Department and Western European foreign ministries.

Disparate opposition voices soon organized into more formal socio-political movements.  In the Soviet Union, the nuclear physicist Yuri Orlov, Yelena Bonner and others formed the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group in early 1976 to monitor the Kremlin’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act’s human rights provisions.[6]   Members traveled throughout the Soviet Union to conduct research, and sent their reports to all the Embassies of CSCE countries and to Soviet leaders. Similar groups sprung up throughout Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Republics. As one Polish activist explained, “If they can do it (in the Soviet Union), in the heart of the empire, we can surely do it here.”[7]  In Czechoslovakia, a new human rights initiative Charter 77 emerged in January 1977, spearheaded by Vaclev Havel. Other activists created underground newspapers and disseminated “samizdat” (self-published) publications, organized marches, strikes, discussion groups, and independent associations focusing on a wide range of concerns, such as the rights of national minorities, religious freedom, and freedom of movement. Church leaders added their voices to the cause, disseminating the Helsinki Final Act to their congregations and delivering sermons explaining that respect for human rights is intrinsic to Christian teachings.

Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa

During the 1980s, citizen activism began to bear fruit, although the early years of the decade saw increased repression. In 1980, strikes in Gdansk, Poland, quickly spread across the country and led to the founding of the independent trade union and social movement Solidarity. Within one year Solidarity’s ranks swelled to more than 10 million members. This development sent shock waves throughout the region because it was the first time a significant, independent mass organization had formed in a Soviet-bloc state. More than simply a labor organization, Solidarity was a network that included the Polish Helsinki Commission, Solidarity Intervention Offices that investigated human rights abuses, student associations, and other groups. The movement’s phrase “There is no bread without freedom” reflects Solidarity’s understanding of the connection between economic well-being, human rights, and political reform. Its program bluntly called for a self-governing Republic. One of the strikers’ ten demands in 1980 was that the government print and distribute 50,000 copies of the Helsinki Final Act.[8]

In a failed attempt to crush Solidarity, the Polish government instituted martial law from 1981-83 and arrested thousands of activists. But the movement was unstoppable, propelled by the alliance of intellectuals, workers, and the Catholic Church that took shape after Helsinki. By 1989, Lech Walesa was engaged in round table talks between the opposition and the government. These led to the victory of Solidarity’s candidates in semi-free elections and the end of communist rule in Poland. Walesa later said that the emergence of rights-oriented opposition groups based on the Helsinki Final Act was “a turning point on the road to Gdansk,” referring to the strikes there that led to Solidarity’s birth.[9]

Gorbachev and Shevardnadze

The formation and impact of Solidarity led others within the communist bloc to question whether it was possible to maintain the status quo in their own countries. One such skeptic was Mikhail Gorbachev. Dissident views had been widely read and discussed within Soviet research institutes, leaving a mark on many within the Soviet bureaucracy. As one party insider described it, dissident literature seized him “by the throat.”[10] Gorbachev, along with many of those whom he put in positions of power, such as Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Alexander Yakovlev, had long been exposed to dissident ideas and came to recognize their validity.  After his selection as the Soviet Union’s leader in 1985, Gorbachev instituted policies of perestroika, referring to the restructuring of social and political policy, and glasnost, meaning openness. These put the Soviet Union, intentionally or not, on the path toward democratization.  At some point in 1987, explained Alexander Yakovlev, “I personally realized that a society based on violence and fear could not be reformed and that we faced a momentous historical task of dismantling the entire social and political system.”[11] The fact that a significant portion of Soviet leaders had come to view political repression as both ineffective and morally unacceptable can be directly linked to the surge in citizen activism unleashed by the Helsinki process.

Outreach Activities

Creating a transnational network was a critical part of human rights activists’ outward strategy. The prominent Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitzn implored westerners to “Interfere as much as you can. We beg you to come and interfere.”[12] Initially, however, the U.S. viewed the CSCE as a means of continuing the process of détente, not for pressing Soviet bloc governments to improve their human rights practices.  Only after dissidents in the Eastern bloc began to demand compliance with Helsinki human rights provisions did U.S. officials begin to seriously focus on the issue.[13] A meeting between Soviet dissidents and members of the U.S. Congress led to the establishment of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, whose purpose was to hold the Kremlin accountable to its commitments under the Final Act. Similar groups were established in Norway, Britain, France, and other countries. These groups were in contact with the non-governmental Helsinki Watch Groups that formed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In 1982, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights was created to coordinate, support, and defend the work of monitoring groups in the East and the West.  The activities of this transnational Helsinki network made a significant contribution to the success of efforts to pressure communist governments on their human rights practices. As human rights groups became more active and their work became widely known, the U.S. Congress became more assertive and U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union became more confrontational. As U.S. Congressman Dante Fascell explained, this came about because of the activities of intrepid citizens. “Their demands made us respond.”[14]

The Helsinki Review’s conferences in Belgrade, Madrid, and Vienna provided another vehicle for outreach activities. These multi-year follow up meetings were important venues for communication and information exchange and provided opportunities to keep pressing the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries on their human rights obligations. At the 1986-89 Vienna conference, Western delegations made it clear that normalization of relations with the Soviet bloc required concrete improvements regarding human rights.

Independent civic groups ultimately wrested power from what had once been considered impregnable totalitarian police states. By 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen, elections in Poland had brought to power a Solidarity-led government, and Czechoslovakia’s communist regime had been peacefully overthrown. Over the next two years, other communist regimes in Eastern Europe were toppled, the Soviet Union was dismantled, and democratic elections were held throughout the region. The human rights principles contained in the Helsinki Final Act spurred unprecedented citizen activism in Soviet bloc countries that played a critical role in shaping these historic events.

Learn More

News and Analysis

“About PA.” Parallel Archive, Open Society Archives of the Central European University. Accessed Nov. 2, 2016, at http://www.parallelarchive.org/content/about.

“About Us.” Vera & Donald Blinken Open Society Archives. Accessed Nov. 2, 2016, at http://www.osaarchivum.org/about-us.

Cambanis, Thanassis. “How a Handshake in Helsinki Helped End the Cold War.” Boston Globe. June 7, 2015. Accessed Nov. 2, 2016, at https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2015/06/06/how-handshake-helsinki-helped-end-cold-war/YggtezKJGdM7d7jv8uEy5I/story.html.

“Helsinki Final Act.” Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. August 1, 1975. Accessed Nov. 2, 2016, at http://www.osce.org/helsinki-final-act.

Books, articles, and videos

“ABC – 1990 News reports on the collapse of communism.” International School History. April 20, 2015. Accessed Nov. 2, 2016, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBZ2i2m3ai0.

Ash, Timothy Garton. The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

“The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade Overview.” United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. February 1, 2016. Accessed Nov. 2, 2016, at https://www.csce.gov/international-impact/publications/helsinki-process-four-decade-overview FuseAction=ContentRecords.ViewDetail&ContentRecord_id=499&Region_id=0&Issue_id=0&ContentType=G&ContentRecordType=G.

Hough, Jerry F.  Democratization and Revolution in the USSR, 1985-1991. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1997.

Kuran, Timur. “Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989.” World Politics 44: no. 1 (1991): 7-48.

McFaul, Michael. “A Helsinki Process for the Middle East.” Democracy: A Journal of Ideas no. 8 (2008). Accessed Nov. 2, 2016, at http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/8/a-helsinki-process-for-the-middle-east/.

Snyder, Sarah B. Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Thomas, Daniel C. The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights and the Demise of Communism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.


1972                The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) begins in Helsinki, Finland. Representatives of 35 countries carry out negotiations on security, economic and humanitarian issues.

1975                The CSCE concludes in August with the signing of the Helsinki Final Act. The Act contains provisions committing the signatories to respect their citizens’ basic human rights.

1976                Social mobilization surges in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries as citizens groups document and publicize their governments’ violations of the Helsinki Final Act’s human rights provisions.  Human rights organizations are created based on the Helsinki accords, such as the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group and Poland’s Workers Defense Committee (KOR).  Religious leaders in East Germany, Poland and elsewhere support and help publicize the Final Act’s human rights provisions.

1976                The U.S. Helsinki Commission is established by Congress with the purpose of monitoring compliance with the Helsinki Final Act.

1977                Charter 77 is established in Czechoslovakia.

1980s              During the course of the decade, economic stagnation in the Soviet Union and East bloc countries inflicts hardship on citizens and underscores the need for reforms. At the same time, western countries increasingly link improved diplomatic relations, trade and investment to communist countries’ human rights records. The synergies between Helsinki-inspired citizen activism, economic hardship and western governments’ willingness to use their leverage to promote respect for human rights undermine the stability of communist regimes.

1980                Strikes in Poland begin in Gdansk and quickly spread across the country, leading to the establishment of Solidarity. Led by Lech Walesa, it is the first significant, independent mass movement to form in a Soviet bloc country.

1982                The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights is established, linking human rights organizations into a burgeoning international human rights network pressuring communist governments to improve their human rights practices based on their Helsinki commitments.

1989-1990       Social revolutions lead to the end of communism in Europe. Solidarity backed candidates win semi-free elections in Poland, leading to end of the country’s communist regime. Czechoslovakia’s communist government falls. East Germany’s government announces citizens are free to travel to West Germany. This leads to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the process of German reunification. Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary’s communist governments are overthrown.

1991                Dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russia becomes an independent state, as do many of the country’s former republics.


[1] The term Soviet bloc refers to the Soviet Union and the countries that were under its de-facto domination after World War II: Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.  All these countries were members of an alliance called the Warsaw Pact.

[2] Daniel C. Thomas, The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights and the Demise of Communism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 92.

[3] “Helsinki Final Act,” Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, August 1, 1975, accessed Nov. 2, 2016, at http://www.osce.org/helsinki-final-act.

[4] Thomas, 120.

[5] Sarah B. Snyder, Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 133.

[6] The group’s formal name was the Group to Assist the Implementation of the Helsinki Accords in the USSR.

[7] Thomas, 107.

[8]  Ibid. 205.

[9]  Ibid. 204.

[10] Ibid. 226.

[11] Ibid. 240.

[12] Ibid. 124.

[13] Ibid. 123.

[14] Ibid. 121.

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