Past and Future

In the May edition of Hungarian Review, Janusz Bugajski wrote a sympathetic and sensible analysis on “Visegrád”, the cooperation of the four core Central European states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. The Visegrád process was initiated twenty years ago on 15 February 1991 and named after the seat of its founding meeting, Visegrád, the one-time royal see of Hungary, where the Polish, Bohemian (Czech), and the Hungarian king met in 1335 and created an alliance. As one “present at its creation,” and a profound believer in its relevance, I offer a few comments on the subject.

There is a saying in many languages that if a living person is reported to be dead he or she is likely to have a long life. Well, the political cooperation of the “Visegrád” countries was reported to have come to an end several times in its history; based on that I hope its prospects are quite promising. To paraphrase the 19th century Czech leader, Frantisek Palacky, if “Visegrád” did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

It is true that the underlying aim of the founders was – as Bugajski states – to facilitate early accession both to NATO and the European Community, but the immediate purpose was the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Soviet troops were still stationed in all three countries and the Soviet leadership hoped that a looser, “democratized” association could be salvaged from that alliance of the unwilling. According to the apt comment of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the significance of the 15 February founding meeting was that: “Separately, the Central European countries are weak; united they are indomitable, and Gorbachev was the first to note that.” Indeed, the military element of the Warsaw Pact was signed away already ten days later, on 25 February, and the Soviets soon acquiesced in the inevitable after the restoration of the independence of the countries of the former communist bloc. The formal dissolution of the Warsaw Pact took place on 1 July 1991 in Prague, when the Soviet troops were already in the process of returning to their home country.

Yet the changes were not irreversible. If the 19 August coup in Moscow had succeeded – which could have been the case – 1989 would have been in vain, and Central Europe might have been returned to Soviet dependence. Immediately after the coup the “Visegrád Three” held consultations and agreed upon common reactions. (The Hungarian delegation was headed by Gyula Kodolányi, the present Editor-in-Chief of Hungarian Review). But Yeltsin’s victory averted the danger and opened the way for further changes, including the break-up of the Soviet Union. I recall how, in the wake of the failure of the coup, Prime Minister Antall urged President Bush to recognize the independence of the Baltic States, and he was supported by his Visegrád partners.

The cooperation played an important role also during the Yugoslav crisis. Its Cracow Summit in October 1991 issued a warning to the international community of the conflict in Yugoslavia, denouncing the war crimes committed. The three countries condemned all actions incompatible with the accepted legal norms of warfare, especially attacks on the civilian population. They advocated solutions that respected the right of nations for self-determination, including the formation of independent states, and also the full protection of the rights of national minorities. It took quite some time for the European Community to endorse those very principles. The three also signed the “Europe Agreement” with the European Community together on 16 December 1991 in Brussels. The Central European Free Trade Agreement, created by the three Visegrád countries, was signed a year later, on 21 December, 1992. In the same year, at the Prague Summit in May, the V-3 announced their intention to join NATO. Overcoming western reluctance and Russian opposition to NATO enlargement required considerable coordinated effort. The admission of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999 would not have taken place, or not as early, without Visegrád.

Apart from those early achievements, Visegrád contributed to the stability of Central Europe by preventing potential animosities and conflicts and replacing rivalry with cooperation. After the bliss of 1989, quite a few people in Europe and America feared the revival of old territorial conflicts in Central Europe.

By establishing this triangular relationship, we made sure such conflicts became unthinkable among us. Visegrád was the alternative to earlier, bad arrangements for the region, such as direct foreign domination (by the Habsburgs, the Romanovs and the Hohenzollerns, or worst of all, by Hitler and Stalin), the undemocratic attempt at integration (the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy), or reliance on selfish great powers for assistance against a neighbouring state, exemplified by the so-called Little Entente between the two World Wars.

In the early 1990s there was a remarkable personal affinity between the leaders of Central Europe: Antall, Havel and Walesa were staunch anti-communists, committed to democracy and human rights, and also to reconciliation between their nations and their neighbours. There was harmony in the thinking of these centre-right statesmen, shared by the members of their governments and supported by the public. Visegrád was not a formal alliance, but, especially in its early phase, it was quite close to being one. As I once put it to my Polish colleague, Krzysztof Skubiszewski, it was an alliance “in pectore,” in our hearts. The personal touch has remained essential in this cooperation, and today, again, with politically like-minded governments in all four Visegrád states, we see the revival of the friendly spirit between the present leaders.

Today there is only one issue where full harmony is lacking among the Four: the issue of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. This minority forms 10 per cent of the population, concentrated along the border with Hungary. In 1991 there was a common, very positive V-3 attitude towards the rights of national minorities, which was reflected in the founding Declaration. The adherence to the rights of the Hungarian minority unfortunately disappeared under the nationalist Meciar government, elected in 1992 in Slovakia, but fortunately reappeared under the two Dzurinda governments (1998–2006). Slovak-Hungarian relations again soured under the Fico government, which included the vehemently anti-Hungarian Slovak National Party headed by Jan Slota. Today, with Radicova and Orbán at the helm, there is a commitment both in Hungary and in Slovakia to the radical improvement of bilateral relations. It has already led to a different atmosphere, almost to the return of the spirit of 1990–1992. This opportunity should not be allowed to pass.

Right from the outset the Visegrád idea enjoyed the strong support of the United States, going back to the role Presidents Reagan and Bush played in the fall of the communist dominoes. NATO enlargement also started with three Visegrád countries, and US endorsement was crucial in that – as personified by President Clinton at the US-V4 summit meeting in Prague in January 1994. Due to their historical experiences all Central Europeans have remained dedicated Atlanticists.

Visegrád has never had a formal organization, “not even a secretary” as then Prime Minister Klaus liked to insist. So bureaucracy neither hindered nor facilitated action. Cooperation never stopped, even when it weakened, due to the attitude of certain leaders. Cultural cooperation was always very popular, and the creation of the common “Visegrád Fund” intended primarily to provide support for such projects, helped to bring “Visegrád” closer to society, to ordinary citizens. No one can deny the many tangible results. Temporary differences over agricultural trade or over certain political statements mean less than foreign ill-wishers often perceive. The Kroměříž Summit in 2004 stated that the key objectives set in the 1991 Visegrád Declaration have been achieved and a new declaration was adopted expressing determination to continue cooperation, even as members of the European Union.

But Visegrád exists, and furthermore should be not merely a matter of high politics. It should be felt by every citizen as the source of tangible results, improving everyday life. In economically difficult times much can be done on the local level, on the level of business, especially small and medium-sized enterprises. Transportation, roads, railways, pipelines between the four countries should have improved more. Trans-border cooperation should develop much faster, restoring old economic ties. It is telling that between Slovenia and Hungary we built a new railway line, but between Slovakia and Hungary, of several old railway-lines closed after World War I or later, not one has been reopened.

No distinguished past is a guarantee for continued existence, let alone a bright future. This association may wither away if the participating countries fail to see its potential value under the new circumstances. I think there can be no doubt that once inside the European Union, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians have to stick together. This is not to say that we should form a newcomers’ bloc, or a “poor members’ club”. Separately each of the V-4 can be overlooked, outvoted, or neglected on many issues, but combined they stand for a major power, larger in population than the UK or France, with an economic strength comparable to that of Spain. As Bugajski points out, the voting strength of the Visegrád Group equals the combined votes of France and Germany. We know and understand better both the East (Russia, Ukraine, and even Central Asia) and also the Balkans than our Western friends. If we speak in unison, we’ll be better heard. Very often we do speak in unison, not only on the highest level (heads of states and governments, foreign ministers) but also through the Visegrád Embassies, which organize common events and take common stands. The future lies in establishing common embassies in smaller or more distant states.

Personally, I am in favour of what I call an “enhanced Visegrád.” That would mean a second, wider circle around the V-4, composed of countries that often express similar interests and concerns and that have old historical and newer economic ties to some of the Visegrád countries. Apart from the Baltic States, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, perhaps even Austria and, once admitted, Croatia are the most obvious associates for ad hoc alliances, e.g. in pressing for a common EU “Eastern” policy or a common energy policy. The Danube Strategy, one of the priorities of the Hungarian EU presidency, is also a link between the whole Central and South-East European region. Building a North-South corridor (in transportation and energy supply) is also a strong common interest of each of these countries.

A hundred years ago most of the territory of the present V-4 was a common economic space, with no internal borders, with a common currency, a common foreign policy, and even with a common army. Let us hope that we will soon return to that situation, but without the shortcomings of the one-time Habsburg Monarchy.

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