The CSCE paved the way for East-West detente. After two years of negotiations, the first conference concluded with the Helsinki Final Act in August 1975. On the photo: US President Gerald Ford (left), Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev and Soviet prime minister Andrei Gromyko (right). © Vesa Klemetti / Lehtikuva /

There is a malicious joke about the CSCE, the “Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.” Held from 1973, first in Helsinki and later in other European cities, the conference involved countless evening events where the negotiators met informally. At some point, Austrians began to joke that – loosely translated into English – CSCE actually stood for “Come sip cocktails and eat”.

While this is funny, it is not a true reflection of what the CSCE achieved. Although it certainly did not end the Cold War, its evolution was an important instrument in the 1970s and 1980s that redefined international cooperation – also astride political blocs. With the participation of, among others, the University of Hildesheim, the Graduate Institute in Geneva and the Institute of Contemporary History Munich/Berlin, an international research project is currently re-assessing the CSCE as a dynamic element in the final phase of the Cold War. In Austria, the researchers involved are Andrea Brait, Nina Hechenblaikner and Roland Laimer from the Institute of Contemporary History at the University of Innsbruck. They are focusing particularly on one of the follow-up conferences that took place in Vienna as of 1986 and on the negotiations on the humanitarian dimension. The project “The CSCE Follow-Up Meeting in Vienna (1986-1989)” is co-financed by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and is set to run until 2024.

Cooperation across system boundaries

“The CSCE was a unique communication forum during the Cold War,” says Hechenblaikner. Based on an idea originally floated by the Soviet Union, it brought together all European states except Albania, plus the US and Canada, to establish joint rules for coexistence. Negotiations began in 1973, and the Helsinki Final Act was adopted in 1975. It encompassed three “baskets,” as its chapters are called, that dealt with comprehensive questions of European cooperation across system boundaries. They ranged from “questions relating to security in Europe” (basket 1, disarmament issues) to the “principles of cooperation in humanitarian and cultural fields” (basket 3, human rights).

“What was important about the CSCE was that it took place outside of the usual alliances,” says Hechenblaikner. Decisions required a consensus, each state had equal rights, and coordination within NATO or the Warsaw Pact only happened informally. “Especially smaller states such as Austria and Switzerland used that opportunity to redefine their neutrality and pave the way for compromise.” The so-called N+N states (neutral states, which included Austria, and non-aligned states such as Yugoslavia) increasingly took on the role of mediator between East and West as the process was playing out.

Soviet Union's espousal of détente

At the end of the initial Helsinki Conference, there was agreement on holding follow-up conferences, the first in Belgrade, the next in Madrid. This was not, however, a linear process leading to an ever more relaxed situation. The CSCE was not a closed cosmos: developments such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 or the proclamation of martial law in Poland in 1981 repeatedly brought the negotiations to a halt. The central achievement of the conferences in Belgrade and Madrid was simply keeping the channels of communication open.

The situation leading to the follow-up conference held in Vienna was not clear: starting in 1985, one year before the conference, Mikhail Gorbachev had initiated a reform process in the Soviet Union. There was hope for major results, partly because many compromises had been blocked by only one or two states prior to the conference. Toward the end of the follow-up meeting, the main detractors from making progress were the GDR and Romania. “Despite the Soviet Union's espousal of détente, the atmosphere during negotiations was not really improving at first,” notes Andrea Brait. It took until about halfway through the conference, i.e. until late in 1987, for tensions to start relaxing. That much at least was the assessment of the diplomats involved in the conference who were interviewed for the project.

The final document of Vienna followed the same logic as the Helsinki Final Act and the documents of the follow-up conferences (three baskets plus an agreement to hold a further conference). According to Hechenblaikner, the document mainly clarifies and extends the decisions already taken in Helsinki. “But the CSCE process is not characterized by leaps and bounds of progress anyway.” The documents need to be studied and compared meticulously, because every single word had been fought over.

The opening came as a surprise

In Vienna, the world was no longer strictly divided into blocs. For the first time, draft text and suggestions for compromise were submitted in all constellations. There were even joint proposals by NATO and Warsaw Pact member states. “At the end of the conference, the internal conflict among the Warsaw Pact countries became apparent,” says Brait. The Soviet Union, for instance, exerted strong pressure on Romania so that it would not prevent the adoption of the final document. But Brait feels it is too simplistic to attribute later developments to the Vienna Follow-up Conference in hindsight: “The idea that the Cold War could come to an end was still a very remote notion when the conference ended on January 19, 1989.”

As things turned out, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Iron Curtain happened far sooner than expected. At a special summit conference in November 1990, the “Charter of Paris” was adopted, which was designed to create a new, peaceful order in Europe and which ended the rift in Europe also in nominal terms. In 1994, it was decided to transform the conference into a permanent organization, today's Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) with 57 participating States. The organization, whose main mission is still peacekeeping, bases its secretariat in a city that it is already familiar with from a follow-up conference of its predecessor: the OSCE has its premises in downtown Vienna. As a confidential and unique forum for dialogue between East and West, it could take on new significance today given the war in Ukraine.

Personal details

Andrea Brait studied history, political science and German studies in Vienna. Since 2016 she has been working at the Institute for Contemporary History and the Institute for Subject Didactics at the University of Innsbruck, where she was appointed associate professor in 2021.

Nina Hechenblaikner studied history in Innsbruck. In 2020, she became a research associate in the international project “The CSCE Follow-up Meeting in Vienna (1986-1989)”, which is co-financed by the Austrian Science Fund FWF with nearly EUR 200,000 euros and is set to run until 2024.


Gehler M., Brait A.: The Breakthrough: Freedom and Security at the Vienna CSCE. Follow-up Conference 1986-1989, in: Gehler, Michael/Loth, Wilfried (eds.): Reshaping Europe. Towards a Political, Economic and Monetary Union, 1984-1989 (Publications of the Historians' Liaison Group at the European Community Commission) Nomos 2020, pp. 477-495