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Helsinki 1975-2018 - Evarist Saliba

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland. Photo: Grigory Dukor/Reuters

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland. Photo: Grigory Dukor/Reuters

As I watched the press conference given by Donald Trump, US President, and Vladi­mir Putin, Russian President, on July 16, at the end of their brief encounter in Helsinki, my mind could not help going back to Helsinki 1975, when the Helsinki Final Act, the conclusions of the long drawn-out (1972-5) negotiations among European nations, and including also Canada and the US, set up the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the CSCE.

I must be one of the few surviving diplomats who participated regularly in that conference, starting from the first day of the Multilateral Preparatory Talks in October 1972.

I represented Malta in the CSCE, in one capacity or another, under the premiership of both Dom Mintoff and Eddie Fenech Adami, until the conference morphed into the present Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), after a Helsinki Summit in 1992.

In 2013, I was invited by the OSCE to contribute through an interview covering 20 pages,  to their publication, CSCE Testimonies – Causes and Consequences of the Helsinki Final Act, 1972-1989, as one of nine diplomats, three from Nato, three from the Warsaw Pact and three from Neutral and Non-Aligned countries, who played an active role in that conference.

The CSCE sowed the seeds of cooperation that eventually led to the end of the Cold War, formally declared buried in Marsaxlokk Bay, during another significant meeting of the presidents of the US and the USSR, George Bush (Snr) and Mikhail Gorbachev, in December 1989.

Rather unexpectedly, this was followed by the dismemberment of the USSR, with Russia blaming Western triumphalism for this, rather than its own economic failure. Resentment led to new East-West confrontations, the subject of this month’s Trump/Putin meeting in Helsinki.

As a 90-year-old retired diplomat, looking at the much younger presidents of the two most powerful nations of the world – apologies to China – I wondered what they knew about the CSCE.

For Putin, a product of the KGB, which played a prominent role in the CSCE by providing the Russian chief negotiators at that conference, and who declared the demise of the Soviet Union as the major geo-political disaster of our times, the CSCE must be imprinted in his mind.

As for Trump, I do not think that the CSCE means anything to him, except that it created the opportunity for him to do business in the new Russia.

The political framework of the US will never allow Donald Trump to become an American Putin

Putin has proved to be an efficient and shrewd observer of political developments, both at the national and international levels. He worked his way carefully through the Gorbachev–Yeltsin years of Russian turmoil, and supported by the former KGB network, he emerged as a temporary leader of Russia, only to turn himself into a popular and permanent one.

He oversaw the transfer of state-owned economic powerhouses to a new oligarchy, better described as a plutocracy in my opinion that has remained grateful to him. Quite a few plutocrats quit Russia with many still faithful to him.

Those who did not, like Aleksander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, had to face death through nerve gas poisoning in the UK.

It is not surprising that Putin has sought to make Russia powerful and more respected internationally once again. No one can blame him for that.

Direct Russian influence in post-WWII Europe, which started beyond Berlin in Eastern Germany, and was protected by a buffer of satellite states, as well as a few Soviet republics, ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

The Russian frontier with central Europe was pushed back several hundreds of kilometres.  The loss of the Baltic Republics and Ukraine hurt more. Putin declared that the previous Russian influence in Eastern Europe through crude oppression, was no longer viable. He had to use more subtle methods.

However, in trying to regain lost ground, Putin did not hesitate to use strong-armed tactics in former Soviet republics. He also used the Russian ethnic presence, implanted or strengthened under seven decades of Soviet rule in parts of the old Soviet Union, to subtly or crudely impose his influence.

This was reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s tactics of moving into the Saar, the Sudetenland, and Austria. Putin must have calculated, correctly, that Western Europe was becoming tired of military intervention abroad.

He played his cards boldly in the Ukraine and Crimea. He denied any involvement, but once he achieved what he wanted, he did not hold back from claiming credit for his success.

Putin should not be, and I am sure that he is not, surprised that neighbouring countries who feel threatened by his policies, are seeking protective ties with the European Union, and more significantly, Nato. His record as a national leader, effective and popular as it may be, has shown an ambitious pursuit of power that seems to know no limits, and that does not help.

What can one say about his counterpart at this Helsinki meeting?

Trump’s record as a political leader is far too short to be compared with that of Putin. His background is not the product of the political intrigue that has formed Putin. The political framework of the US will never allow him to become an American Putin.

He has brought a very unconventional approach to American politics. He is unpredictable. The traditional European allies of the US are not sure what to make of him. Yet, they are impressed with what he achieved with North Korea, even if this may not be long-lasting.

Will Helsinki 2018 be the same as Singapore 2018?

I had to redraft this part of my article following the fallout from the answers to a journalist’s question on the alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election, in which a compatriot of ours, now in hiding, is claimed to have played a role.

I did not expect Putin to plead guilty. Nor did I expect Trump to press the charge either, but I was taken aback by his endorsement of Putin’s denial at the expense of his own investigative national bodies.

This was followed in less than 24 hours by the bizarre press conference in which the mighty US President read, very carefully, a statement – drafted by whom? – in which he pleaded guilty to mis-speaking during the Helsinki press conference.

My laptop tells me that there is no such word as “mis-speaking”.

As in the case of North Korea, one has to be patient to see how things will develop.

Evarist Saliba was a member of the Maltese diplomatic service between 1965 and 2003.

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