BUDAPEST, Hungary -- The Cold War came to a formal end here yesterday with the official dissolution of the Warsaw Pact military alliance.
The Pact's Political Consultative Committee -- made up of the foreign and defense ministers of the six member-states -- "decided that they will liquidate the military bodies and structure of the Pact by March 31, 1991," said a statement issued after a three-hour meeting yesterday in the Hungarian capital.
"Budapest is where the military separation of Europe ends," Hungarian Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky proclaimed triumphantly. "The military-bloc system as such has come to an end today."
Following Russian alphabetical order, first Bulgaria's ministers of foreign affairs and defense, then those of Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia signed the documents abolishing the 5 million-strong military mammoth.
East Germany and Albania had been members of the organization, but Albania left in 1968 and the German Democratic Republic united last year with West Germany, a NATO member.
The Warsaw Pact, formed ostensibly for defense against NATO, had been used only to quell anti-Soviet rebellion in Moscow's empire.
The Soviet army crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising, but it was Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops who stamped out Czechoslovakia's reformist "Prague Spring" in 1968 and threatened intervention against the Poland of Solidarity in 1981.
At one time, the end of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, for 36 years the instrument of Soviet repression in Eastern Europe, would have sent shock waves reverberating around the world.
But so dramatic have been the changes in the former Soviet bloc, and so preoccupied with other concerns are its leaders, especially the Soviets, that official ratification of its failure came almost as an anticlimax.
"It's not really a death," a Western diplomat said. "It's pouring earth onto the coffin."
Just the same, there was barely concealed jubilation on the faces of the former dissidents who now lead post-Communist Eastern Europe.
"I don't have much to be grumpy about," joked Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a former spokesman for the Solidarity labor movement and now Poland's deputy defense minister.
The Soviet delegation looked grim, especially Marshal Dmitri Yazov, the defense minister, whose pen broke as he signed an end to a lifetime's work in Budapest's Duna Incontinental Hotel.
The Soviet delegates failed to attend a news conference for nearly 500 reporters afterward because, according to their Hungarian hosts, they had "not had time."
Both Mr. Onyszkiewicz and Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier expressed surprise at the Soviets' absence but said there had been no altercations at the meeting.
Moscow had long seemed to be dragging its feet, repeatedly postponing the meeting that initially was set for November.
Last week, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev capitulated in the face of what threatened to become a walkout by other member-states, but he set what appeared to be unacceptable conditions for ending the alliance.
In particular, he demanded that Eastern Europe renounce all claims to compensation for damage done to the environment by occupying Soviet troops.
But Czech Foreign Minister Dienstbier said financial claims would be settled in bilateral agreements to be worked out by technical experts.
The end of the military alliance does not finish off the Warsaw Pact entirely.
Hungary's foreign minister, Mr. Jeszenszky, said member-states had proposed meeting in Prague by July 1 to decide how to dismantle the political side of the pact "by the end of this year but no later than . . . spring 1992."
Nevertheless, Poland's foreign minister, Krzysztof Skubiszewski, stressed that the Budapest signing had in effect ended an era.
"The military aspect was in fact the essence of the Warsaw Treaty," he said. "Once you deprive a structure of its essence, it becomes more or less an empty shell."
The dismantling of joint systems like the integrated radar defense system, as well as the imminent departure of some 80,000 Soviet troops still in non-German Eastern Europe, could leave holes in the region's defense capacity, according to Western diplomats.
But leaders here emphasized that they see their future security not in military force but in enhanced economic and cultural ties.
"We need to create a different kind of security," said Czechoslovakia's Mr. Dienstbier. "We need to build the same relations [with neighboring states] as Sweden has with Norway.
"That is the only security we can have."
Meanwhile, Hungary canceled a related meeting set to open tomorrow to inter the pact's sister organization, the Comecon trade bloc.
Earlier yesterday, a Soviet spokesman in Moscow said the meeting would probably be postponed to give the Soviet Union more time to prepare.
An economics expert in a major Western embassy told Reuters, "The process is very complicated, and Moscow hasn't really figured out what it wants to replace Comecon with."
But Polish Foreign Trade Minister Dariusz Ledworowski said in Warsaw that Poland had wanted the meeting held without delay.
"Our position is: Go on Wednesday, sign the dissolution act and discuss new forms of cooperation," he told a news conference. "In fact, Comecon does not exist any more, and the 46th session should be the last one."