BUDAPEST, Hungary -- Foreign and defense ministers of the Warsaw Pact signed a document Monday that dissolves the military arm of the once formidable alliance on March 31, 1991.
'The system of military blocs has ceased to exist with this act,' Hungarian Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky said after the protocol was signed by the defense and foreign ministers of the six Warsaw Pact nations at the Duna Intercontinental Hotel.
The dissolution of the pact's political arm could come as early as the end of the year, or by next year's summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe of 34 nations in Helsinki at the latest.
'The military activity was its essence, and when you deprive it of its essence it becomes an empty shell,' said Polish Foreign Minister Krzysztof Skubiszewski.
Significantly, the Soviet delegation did not attend the news conference. However, Jeszenszky said there was no discord at the meeting, which was 'friendly and businesslike' and at which all six members unanimously agreed there was no reason to retain the military structure.
The Warsaw Pact was created May 14, 1955, in response to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
It originally included Albania and East Germany, but the former unilaterally withdrew after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia crushed the reform-minded 'Prague Spring,' and the latter was unified with West Germany last year.
The remaining members are Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union, although Romania withdrew from many military activities several years ago.
The Romanian defense minister, Gen. Viktor Stanculescu, said the military vacuum that will exist after March 31 can be filled through bilateral or regional military agreements until a pan-European security system is arranged.
A final meeting of the Political Consultative Committee, the pact's highest policy-making body, may be held in Prague before July 1 to decide on final dissolution of the pact itself.
Along with the pact's military structure, secret military agreements that had been signed among the defense ministers and between the high command and individual defense ministries will be annulled.
The Moscow-led joint command, joint armed forces and other institutions will be dismantled, and Warsaw Pact advisers will be withdrawn from member states.
The document had been well-prepared and the meeting Monday was a mere formality, Hungarian Foreign Ministry sources said.
But the dissolution of the military framework does not automatically mean the Warsaw Pact will cease to exist.
Participants have suggested retaining the political structure while the Vienna talks on East-West troop and conventional weapon reductions continue, to provide a framework within which to conduct negotiations with NATO.
Some of the members also are concerned that total dissolution of the Warsaw Pact at this time might prove detrimental to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and further aggravate domestic problems within the Soviet Union.
Monday's meeting was long in coming. The extraordinary meeting had been first suggested by Hungary through a resolution last May following Parliament's decision to suspend Hungary's membership in the military arm of the pact.
Hungary, the host and organizer, said the dismantling should be completed by 1991 or it would unilaterally leave the pact by the end of 1991.
The meeting was originally scheduled for last November, but the Soviet Union postponed it several times.