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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Day the Warsaw Pact Crumbled

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The Kremlin's grip on East Europe was already feeble a decade ago. Still, Mikhail Gorbachev bristled when told Czechoslovakia was no longer a vassal state of the Soviet Union, President Vaclav Havel recalls.

"He was upset," the Czech playwright-turned-president said, chuckling as he recalled that meeting at the Kremlin with the Soviet president. "Then he said, 'OK, you're a poet, you are allowed to put it that way."'

For Havel and other East European leaders who fought for an end to Soviet domination, this month brings back the July day 10 years ago when Havel chaired the Prague meeting carrying the Warsaw Pact to the grave.

Less gripping than the fall of the Berlin Wall and other events fraying the Iron Curtain across Europe, the July 1, 1991 Prague summit mothballing the pact was nonetheless a milestone along the road to East Europe's democratization.

Even before the meeting, the Warsaw Pact was a cripple. With Germany's unification, East Germany had ceased to exist, while other pact members — Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria — had embraced democracy.

The pact's military functions had been recently dissolved. Still, signing the pact out of existence in Prague was an immensely important reflection of a how the threat of the Cold War turning hot was disappearing.

No longer were thousands of Soviet-built tanks ready to punch into Western Europe. Western capitals ceased being scanned-in targets of nuclear missiles. The armored fist of the Soviet bloc, whose forces stood toe-to-toe with NATO in Europe since 1955, was no more.

Moscow remained a problem, but the Soviet Union's former European allies already had started clamoring for NATO membership.

Havel's country, now the Czech Republic after Czechoslovakia broke up in 1993, was among three former Warsaw Pact nations joining NATO in 1999.

Announcing the death of the pact at the Prague meeting, Havel recalls being suffused by "the intense feeling that I was party to a historic event."

Ferenc Somogyi, then Hungary's deputy foreign minister, spoke of a "very elevated mood" among the East European delegations after the signing.

But for some, the breakup of the pact hurt. On a Soviet-made career path, and indoctrinated to fight against imperialism, many Warsaw Pact officers felt betrayed.

"It was a dismaying development for me," said Czech Colonel Josef Sedlak. "Most in the military had believed in the system."

Then a major, Sedlak recalls agonizing whether "to go left or right" as the pact unraveled.

But Czechoslovakia's anti-Communist Velvet Revolution, which led to the rapid democratization of civilian society, gradually spread within the army as well.

Fewer people were attending communist political lectures that went on into 1990, and those who did grew critical. "In our group were some pilots, and they were very progressive," he said. "Toward the end, during one of those meetings, they slapped down their red Party books and proclaimed: 'We are leaving the Party!' Their courage influenced a lot of us."

The Prague summit was the culmination of other gatherings exploited by Havel and other East European leaders in their quest to end Soviet military dominance. Among those was the last meeting of the pact's political committee. Convened June 7, 1990, it was meant to discuss democratization — not dissolution — of the alliance, as part of reforms initiated by Gorbachev.

But Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antall had other ideas.

With Antall chairing the meeting, he was responsible for announcing the agenda in the Kremlin's ornate main conference hall.

Participants recall the original plan: Antall, after consultations with Havel and Polish President Lech Walesa, was to suggest a slow dissolution of the pact. Instead, he unexpectedly called for its immediate scrapping. Clearly off guard, Gorbachev told him to repeat his suggestion, before waving his hand and responding with an imperious "Khorosho," or "fine."

His nonchalance was likely feigned, however. Somogyi, of Hungary, remembers a Soviet leader who had little choice but to go with the flow of the rapid democratization of Eastern Europe.

"I don't think he was convinced it was the right thing to do," Somogyi said. "He was hoping to reform something that later proved unreformable."

Sipping a beer in a room in his Prague Castle offices, Havel recalled other meetings that prepped the Soviet leader for the inevitable — among them their nine-hour encounter in February 1990, when Havel boldly proclaimed that his country was no longer a Soviet satellite. It was the first meeting between Havel, who spearheaded his country's fight against communism, and Gorbachev, the communist world's most powerful leader.

"Not only was I the first non-Communist president [in Eastern Europe] but a former dissident on top of that," Havel recalled. "Gorbachev until then had never seen a living dissident, and to him, I was some kind of exotic animal."

The atmosphere was initially oppressive.

"He looked at me at first with a great deal of caution … and we were not sure they were not planning to tie us up and bundle us away," Havel said.

Eventually Gorbachev loosened up, even allowing Havel, back then a chain-smoker, the privilege of lighting up in his chambers.

The two men are now friends. Still, Havel remembers Gorbachev staying away from that final pact meeting — a reflection that for the Soviet leader, the process that would culminate with the dissolution of the Soviet Union five months later had become uncontrollable. "Gorbachev knew it was not possible to keep things boiling under a lid forever, so he wanted to lift the lid," Havel said. "But the steam was so strong that it tore the lid out of his hands."