Toomas Alatalu: Estonian who started the ending of the Cold War

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Opening of a park bench dedicated to Vaino Väljas in Kärdla in 2018. Source: Juhan Hepner/ERR

Vaino Väljas' decades of work amount to nothing less than greatness, whereas their most significant milestones took place on the shores of the Pacific Ocean and the Baltic Sea. Toomas Alatalu writes about the foreign policy role of Väljas who turned 90 on March 28.

The first event of the newly founded Estonian Council on Foreign Relations was held on March 23. It is symbolic in a way that a peace treaty ending the civil war was signed in the small Nicaraguan town of Sapoa on that very day 33 years prior – on March 23, 1988. The Nicaraguan ceasefire agreement has to be considered the beginning of the end for a series of conflicts (Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Salvador, Angola etc.) in the late Cold War period.

While it was preceded by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between USA and the Soviet Union, millions could better relate to the ending of civil wars that started with the Sapoa accord. The idea of the ceasefire coordinated in the capitals of the two superpowers was explained to the heads of Nicaragua and neighboring countries by an Estonian, then Soviet Ambassador to Nicaragua Vaino Väljas.

Shifts in global policy are entrusted to men worthy of the special confidence of decisionmakers. For Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze famous for Perestroika and their new way of thinking, that man was their mutual acquaintance from the days of the Young Communist League and the Soviet West – which is what the Baltics were to the Kremlin – Vaino Väljas.

Because what was agreed in Sapoa was the first in a series of peace treaties and paved the way for those that followed, the event and its date are of special significance to Väljas and in terms of Estonians' contribution to world diplomacy.

Väljas is seldom mentioned in connection with Sapoa because he had to operate without a counterpart – the previous U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua had left in the summer of 1987, while the new one didn't arrive until April 1988.

While the American government was of course very much present, the dual leadership (USA-USSR) that was evident in the process of ending the other conflicts was not apparent in Sapoa. This consigned Väljas to the second echelon of those involved. The official mediators were Secretary General of the Organization of American States Joao Baena Soares and Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. In other words and plain English, two American representatives.

And yet, the agreement followed the conditions of the ruling Sandinistas and Moscow that had fast become such to prompt the cardinal, once the agreement had been signed, to stop in front of Väljas, standing in line with the other diplomats, and say after making the sign of the cross: "God bless you. My people will never forget what you have done to put an end to this terrible fratricidal conflict." In other words, those present had no doubt as to who had been the local architect or guiding influence of the treaties.

Allow me to include an example of my own activities to illustrate just how black and white things were in developing countries at the time.

Working for the UCA in Managua, I lived close to the Nicaraguan parliament building. The Soviet embassy was some four kilometers away. (Once Väljas had left for Estonia) I was sometimes asked/ordered to go to the parliament because an American delegation had showed up. There was a simple rule according to which both whales had to be represented at all times. As someone "relatively well-known," I was to demonstrate the other major player's presence.

This is a useful piece of information considering the fact that employees of a certain embassy became Riigikogu mainstays in 1995 which practice quickly ended after the right people were reminded of the "Nicaraguan rule."

Conflicts in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola and other places were always backed by the Soviet Union and USA in the 1980s. Nicaragua and Afghanistan were definitely the more painful conflicts as who wants to see the enemy living next door or just around the corner.

Ronald Reagan, having become president of USA in 1981, was working toward eliminating the "Evil Empire," with Cuba, Grenada and Nicaragua mentioned in his very first annual speech as sources of the communist threat. A month prior, head of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev had declared events in Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Nicaragua as successes of the communist world revolution.

And then it was time for action. USA occupied Grenada in October of 1983 in order to topple its leftist government. This was a warning to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua who had seized power during the people's revolution of 1979 and whom the Kremlin oldsters saw as a possible addition to the Eastern European people's democracies. This was even reflected in a special agreement between the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (a socialist cooperation format) and Nicaragua, while the presence of Cubans and Soviets raised pulses in the military dimension, alongside training for Nicaraguan pilots to fly MIGs.

Let it also be said right away that the stocks of the Nicaraguan revolution were so high among hardened communists that Daniel Ortega (and not Fidel Castro) was the only one of 64 foreign speakers at the 70th anniversary of communism celebrations in Moscow in 1987 to earn an applause in the middle of his speech.

However, in March of 1985, then 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union and it so happened that the first so-called foreign delegation he received on April 30 was from Nicaragua. Full delegations on both sides, including all of the Moscow brass. In July of 1985, Gorbachev launched his staff policy or Perestroika, bringing in Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

The first meeting of Reagan and Gorbachev was held in Geneva in November and the talking points – nuclear armament, Afghanistan, Nicaragua – set the course for what was to follow. In March of 1986, former U.S. ambassadors (1962-1986) Anatoli Dobrynin, Aleksandr Yakovlev et al. were accepted to the Politburo and the Secretariat.

Dobrynin's unexpected promotion to the top of the Soviet echelons was a clear sign that Gorbachev was looking to improve relations with America on which everything depended. The approach required the right man for the job that saw Väljas – then serving as ambassador to Venezuela – transferred to Nicaragua overnight (i.e. without visiting Moscow first). When Väljas traveled to Costa Rica to deliver a dispatch from Gorbachev to President Oscar Arias who was acting as a mediator between Central American leaders, it was clear who represented the Kremlin's new policy in the region.

Moreover, Venezuela, where Väljas served as ambassador in 1980-1986, was a member of the so-called Contadora Group that had been trying to solve regional conflicts in Central America since 1983.

Väljas was basically tasked with convincing the Sandinistas to reach an agreement with the militant contras whose "security with weapons was ensured in zones with women and children." The reason this sounds familiar is because that is precisely what has been done in Syria over the last five years.

The other side of Väljas' activities was ensuring political pluralism in a country in which thousands of volunteers and dozens of governments had taken an interest. Various different experiments were carried out (in addition to the one mentioned).

In the end, various efforts to accommodate the other side played a part in the Sandinistas losing the 1990 presidential elections, even though they returned 17 years later. It turned out that while they had learned from the past, the opposing side had not. Daniel Ortega is still the country's president (with his wife Rosario Murillo serving as vice president as a far cry from the practices of other long-term autocrats. Efforts to topple the family regime are in their third year).

The other end of grand diplomacy a la Vaino Väljas concerned Afghanistan the futility of war in which had long since dawned on Gorbachev's team. Because U.S. involvement was limited to weapons deliveries, Moscow had to take the first step and the Soviet leadership announced a looming troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in both places on February 8, 1988.

The Sapoa ceasefire was signed on March 23, while the Afghanistan-Pakistan treaty that opened the door for the Soviet army's departure was made official in the presence of Soviet and U.S. ambassadors in Geneva on April 14.

Troops pulled out on May 15 and two weeks later, the first U.S. president in history walked the Red Square in Moscow. He had gotten what he wanted. Toward the end of his Kremlin speech on May 31, Reagan turned to Gorbachev and said, "Thank you and God bless you."

Another communist and transformer of international relations had heard the same words over two months prior. At that moment, Väljas did not know his significant career in grand diplomacy would soon end. In the sense of the Cold War ending.

His involvement in putting together the Estonian declaration of independence and Väljas famously raising his hand on November 16, 1988 to ensure its near unanimous passing also counts as foreign policy. And indeed a move influencing global politics in terms of plotting a course for leaving the empire.

Very few representatives of small nations have had the chance to do something great in global politics and common interests, followed by doing something great for their own people. Vaino Väljas' decades of work amount to nothing less than greatness, whereas their most significant milestones took place on the shores of the Pacific Ocean and the Baltic Sea and stand tall enough not to be washed away.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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