1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Opinion: Echoes of Yalta's Failure Today

Christiane Hoffmann (dre)February 4, 2005

Sixty years ago on Feb. 4, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin gathered in Ukraine to map out the postwar world. DW's Christiane Hoffmann sees echoes of Stalin's power grab today.

The Big Three awash in optimismImage: AP

In the agreement at the end of the Yalta Conference, the Big Three swore to bring freedom and democracy into the new world order. They planned, according to the Atlantic Charter to guarantee "the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live."

How much this sentence was really worth was revealed very quickly after the Yalta conference, held from Feb. 4 to Feb. 10. It became true for only one half of Europe, while the other spent the next few decades under further dictatorship. It was a bad omen both for the recently-founded United Nations and for the assertiveness of international agreements.

Stalin held all the cards

Stalin signed the agreement only because he was sure that neither the US nor Britain would seriously demand democracy and freedom in the Soviet-occupied territories -- whether in the form of free elections and a democratically-elected government in Poland, nor in other central European countries.

The Red Army had by that time already advanced too far, and the British and Americans were too weak in comparison and still occupied with the war against Japan. In fact, the Allies were worried that the Soviets would try and occupy all of Europe. At Yalta, Great Britain and America were able to secure the territories they had already gained.

They would continue to cooperate with the Soviets in Germany, but it was soon clear that a long-term division of Germany, and the rest of Europe, was already in the works. In Soviet-occupied zones in Germany, as well as in other countries, they began rebuilding administrative structures along their own designs.

Jotting down spheres of influence

British Premier Churchill and Stalin showed how practical power politics could cancel out noble principles as early as October 1944, when they met in Moscow. On little pieces of paper, they jotted down their ideas of Western and Soviet influence in the new Europe.

Their plan: Romania would have 90 percent Soviet influence and Bulgaria, 75 percent. Greece would have 90 percent Western influence and Yugoslavia, 50 percent.

They never got to Poland and the other countries, which quickly fell victim to the Soviet Union's power grab after the Yalta conference. As a result, more than 100 million people went from living under a National Socialist regime to a Stalinist regime.

West never thought to question postwar order

It wasn't the West's commitment to its principles that brought the suppressed populations democracy and freedom, but the implosion of Soviet power that could no longer stand the pressure of its freedom-hungry citizens.

The dissolution of the postwar order agreed on in Yalta surprised not only those in power in central and eastern Europe, but Western leaders as well, who never really tried to question that order.

Russia's new power grab

The postwar division on the European continent appeared to be overcome with the entry of central European countries into the European Union nine months ago. But a new dividing line has already taken its place.

Wladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir PutinImage: AP

This one is further east, along the border separating the Commonwealth of Independent States countries and Russia, which is turning further away from democratic principles and towards centralized power. Old imperial tendencies are trendy once again in Putin's Russia.

And how is the West reacting today? Not much differently than in Yalta.

Looking the other way

Criticism of Russia is taboo because it is needed as a strategic partner -- democracy, freedom of the press or human rights in Chechnya can be threatened as much as they like and where they like.

And the populations of the countries that Russia includes in its sphere of interest -- such as Belarus or Ukraine -- have not been able to count on the support of the West. Otherwise, Belarus would have been hit with harder sanctions and Ukraine given a long-term perspective of joining the European Union.

But don't bother about all of that. Politics is still politics, just as it was 60 years ago in Yalta.