When US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Helsinki tomorrow, will they betray the most famous summit associated with the Finnish capital — the 1975 meeting among the Western and Soviet-bloc leaders that gave us the Helsinki Accords? That question is not likely to preoccupy either leader, but their approach to the summit could be as significant as the Helsinki Accords were in shaping Europe’s future.
The Helsinki Final Act — the formal name of the accords — was an agreement signed by 35 nations, including the nations of Europe, the Soviet Union, Canada and the US. Their most notable provisions effectively affirmed the 1945 Yalta conference among then-US president Franklin Roosevelt, then Soviet leader Josef Stalin and then British prime minister Winston Churchill that accepted the post-World War II division of Europe, with the Soviet Union dominant in Eastern Europe. Because of that affirmation, the Kremlin was widely seen to have gotten the better of the Helsinki deal, and published the entire text in **Pravda**, the official Communist Party newspaper.
However, the Helsinki Accords also committed the signatories to respect “human rights and fundamental freedoms” — a major step for the Soviet bloc.
A section of the accords confirming “the right of the individual to know and act upon his rights” spawned a series of Helsinki monitoring groups in Moscow, Warsaw and Prague. Their members were all promptly imprisoned; Helsinki Watch, the precursor to Human Rights Watch, was formed in an effort to defend these embattled activists.
However, this recognition that sovereign nations had a duty to respect the rights of their people gradually gave rise to a movement that contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc, the very empire that the Helsinki Accords ostensibly recognized.
During negotiations of the Helsinki Accords, the importance of including human rights was advanced by many Western governments, including the US. The political records of the current occupants of the White House and the Kremlin suggest they are unlikely to place similar emphasis on those rights at the Helsinki summit.
Putin, not unlike his Soviet predecessors, is once again interested in dividing Europe, though in a different way. He favors a Europe paralyzed by the rise of xenophobic populist leaders, a Europe with less moral authority to comment on his own autocratic methods of retaining power. He seeks a distracted Europe that will not challenge — let alone sanction — him for sponsoring rights abuses in Eastern Ukraine, underwriting mass atrocities in Syria, or obstructing investigation of the use of chemical weapons.
Sadly, Trump seems to share Putin’s interest in a divided Europe, as the US president openly cheers challengers to leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who stands up to Russia’s transgressions, while threatening to undermine transatlantic institutions such as NATO and the G7. Indeed, Trump seems to admire — if not envy — autocrats like Putin for their ability to override democratic checks and balances on their authority such as an independent judiciary, a critical press and a vigorous civil society.
The risk is thus considerable that the Helsinki summit could effectively bury the lofty principles behind the Helsinki Accords. To Trump, the accord that former US president Gerald Ford and former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed in Helsinki might seem one of those “bad deals” not worth respecting. As during his summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un, Trump might calculate that he can use his meeting with Putin to reduce tensions, declare victory, and head on to the next Tweet-induced media frenzy before most people realize that the feel-good declaration was a giveaway, doing nothing to address Russia’s conduct.
The only real hope for this Helsinki summit is that Trump also probably fears the perception that Putin can play him, that far from being a master dealmaker, the US president who governs from the gut and does not sweat the details will be seen as having been snookered. Because whatever spin Trump places on his meeting with Putin, he will be perceived as having been taken to the cleaners if Putin emerges from the summit with an effective green light to continue suppressing dissent at home and backing atrocities in Ukraine and Syria.
The history of the Helsinki Accords is the best antidote to a sellout in Helsinki tomorrow. Trump might have little patience for the values and principles of human rights and democracy that that agreement affirmed, but we have a responsibility to remind him what is at stake before he and Putin embrace their shredding.
Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.
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