The Helsinki Final Act called for a series of follow-on conferences to review progress in the implementation of the Final Act and to consider new provisions to strengthen security in Europe. The follow-on conferences took place in Belgrade in 1977, Madrid in 1980-83, and Vienna in 1986-89.
The first CSCE follow-up conference was characterized largely by rhetorical attacks and counterattacks. The West criticized the human rights performance of the Communist Bloc countries, while the latter accused the West of interference in their internal affairs. At the same time, human rights activists in communist states in Central and Eastern Europe formed "Helsinki Committees" to press their governments to live up to the principles that they had endorsed at Helsinki.
The second follow-up meeting lasted for more than three years, particularly due to disagreements over Soviet and Eastern Bloc implementation of the Final Act.
It was further lengthened by the suspension of the meeting, pressed by the U.S. and its allies, over the imposition of martial law by the ruling communist authorities in Poland. Eventually a balance was struck between pursuit of more ambitious undertakings and implementation of existing commitments, and the Madrid conference was able to discuss ideas for strengthening human rights and humanitarian commitments (Basket III), confidence-building in the area of military security (Basket I), and establishing machinery for the peaceful resolution of disputes.
In the context of growing East-West tensions and the Soviet deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe, the agreement on a substantive Final Document was a significant improvement over the Belgrade meeting and restored momentum to the CSCE process.
Meanwhile, President Reagan and new Soviet leader Gorbachev's influence in European security matters was also reflected in the Negotiations on Confidence and Security-Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe (CSBMs), held in Stockholm, and taking place under CSCE auspices.
Gorbachev agreed for the first time to accept a limited form of mandatory inspection of Soviet territory extending as far east as the Ural Mountains to verify compliance with this arms control agreement; this was a first step towards an increasingly extensive use of on-site inspections in later agreements, including CFE and nuclear reductions treaties. The Stockholm conference concluded with a substantial expansion of the confidence-building measures that had been initiated by the Helsinki Final Act.
The most significant accomplishments of the Vienna Review Conference were on human rights. The 1975 Helsinki Act had focused primarily in its substantive provisions upon enhancing human contacts across Cold War lines rather than on individual political rights.
At Vienna, the conference concluded that individual citizens have a right, “individually or in association with others,” to advocate for and openly promote the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Perhaps even more important in terms of its historical significance was a provision noting that citizens had a right to live where they chose within their own country and to freely leave and re-enter their own country, a right that had previously been denied to citizens of all communist bloc countries (except for Yugoslavia, formally a member of the neutral and nonaligned group within the CSCE).
Eight months after the adoption of the Vienna Document in January 1989, the government of Hungary cited this principle when it opened its borders with Austria, allowing many (including East Germans) to cross freely to the West. The flood of emigration that followed was a major factor in the East German decision to open the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The Vienna Review Conference therefore had profound historical implications that were barely recognized at the time.