The Pre-Visegrad Period - Preparing the Groundwork
Visegrad cooperation began long before it was proclaimed by the authorities of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. In Poland, as far back as the 1970s, thanks to the Committee for the Defence of Workers (KOR), the Independent Publishing House (NOWA), and other independent initiatives, we became familiar with the publications of Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian opposition figures. Democracy activists from our countries met each other despite repression from the communist authorities. We knew that regardless of the borders that divided us, our views of reality were similar and our assessments of communism identical.
The circle of the quarterly publication The Camp, to which I belonged, was preoccupied with the communist plague all over the world, but the Visegrad area was particularly close to us. We wrote about it frequently. At one point, with the great help of our publisher, Czeslaw Bielecki, we decided to prepare The Zone, a major publication in Polish, Czech, and Hungarian (language) versions. To keep the KGB occupied, on the cover of each language edition we inscribed the words Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest respectively, even though all of the work was done in Poland (we remain very grateful to our railwaymen, who helped transport part of the edition to Czechoslovakia and Hungary). It was also symbolic that the co-editor of the whole publication and the editor of the Hungarian part was Ákos Engelmayer, the first ambassador of Hungary to Poland after we regained our independence.
There were many other groups similar to ours. Opposition activists visited each other as frequently as they could. Our printers and illegal radio transmitter specialists trained colleagues in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Colleagues from these countries in turn participated in strikes during the Polish "carnival."
Visegrad - Consolidation
The new democratic authorities of our three countries consisted of people who either knew each other personally from their opposition activities during communism, or who had at least heard of each other. The Visegrad Triangle thus came to life in a very natural way. And in an equally natural way it faced the fundamental challenge of finding an appropriate place on the political map of Europe. We wanted to ensure ourselves full sovereignty and security as quickly as possible, and to join the Western system of cooperation for good.
The first requirement was to dissolve the Warsaw Pact and Comecon. That was rather easy, although care had to be taken of the reaction from the Moscow side. Negotiations with Moscow on new bilateral treaties and agreements on the withdrawal of the Soviet army from our territories demanded considerable intellectual effort and persistence. We consulted each other almost every week, mutually following the proposed treaty clauses. They were not always identical, as the Soviet army, for example, was stationed in Hungary and Czechoslovakia illegally as an outcome of the armed interventions in those countries, whereas it was in Poland as a result of the unfortunate agreements signed in 1945. Nevertheless, we stuck to the same line, and these difficult questions were solved without too much tension with our former Big Brother.
At that time, Western Europe did not envisage us joining their circle; instead, they preferred some unspecified form of adaptation to the new conditions. Despite our mutual efforts, we won no prospect of membership in the association systems of the European Community, while accession to NATO seemed flat-out impossible. Thus, although we managed to break the restraints of communism, we remained outsiders for the Western world. Our path to that world led through our own reforms, through activities within the Council of Europe and the CSCE (the OSCE since 1994), as well as through creativity in regional politics (such as cooperation between Visegrad and the Benelux, or mutual solutions to the Yugoslav crisis), and most of all through the pursuit of our strategic goals.
Doubts - Stuck in Neutral
The division of Czechoslovakia, although it was a "Velvet" divorce, weakened the political integrity of the Visegrad Group. The anti-Western and, to put it mildly, populist ideas of Vladimír Mečiar in Slovakia were a difficult fit with the rest of the group. The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, did not see much sense in such cooperation, and instead promoted the ideology of individualism in pursuit of national goals.
This does not mean, however, that we always agreed on everything beforehand in Visegrad. Once, one of the Visegrad member countries distributed selected comparative data at a forum of international organisations that demonstrated its superiority over its other two partners. Each country's politicians behaved in a similar manner on various occasions. Our attitudes towards national minorities and the Diaspora differed as well. Occasionally, disputes over customs duties occurred, despite our mutual aim of establishing a free trade area before accession to the European Union.
While I was negotiating our bilateral treaty with our Czechoslovak colleagues, they demanded that I remove the word "solidarity" from the title of the document because they viewed it as communist jargon. My argument that we could not throw out our dictionaries because of the communists made no impression. Hence, on my initiative, we threw out many other words that had been "contaminated by communism". The Hungarians, on the other hand, had no such objections.
After the division of Czechoslovakia, our cooperation did not cease, but it decreased in intensity and became more focused on economic issues. At that time, customs barriers were being lifted and the Visegrad Fund was being created. It was also a time to think again about what could be done and what was worth doing together in politics.
The Return of the Group - Maturity
The period from 1995 to 1998 sparked a renewed awareness of the importance of the role of the Visegrad Group. The first big threat was the American idea of the Partnership for Peace. In its original shape it was to have replaced the membership of our countries in NATO.
Here the role played by Lech Walesa cannot be overestimated. Walesa said he would reject the whole project if it was not altered to become a path to joining NATO. Opposing most of his own administration, President Bill Clinton agreed with Walesa during his meeting with the leaders of the Visegrad Group in Prague.
We now had a new task ahead of us to unite the member states, and later on yet another - supporting the NATO candidacy of Slovakia, which had been left out of the first expansion round due to the excesses of the Meciar era. These goals required continuous and coordinated talks between our leaders and NATO partners, as well as the activation of our diplomatic and non-governmental organizations, and numerous public debates with Russian experts who warned that the expansion of NATO to the east would bring terrible consequences.
Once it became apparent that the scales in the game were tipping in our favour, we found it easier to argue for membership in the European Union. Despite the differences between our goals in various sectors of the Union, we managed to sustain a basic level of unity in the face of strategic challenges for our countries. Voices could occasionally be heard from one capital city or another that each nation's state of readiness for accession negotiations should be judged on its own merits, and that the tortoises should not delay the hares (the regatta rule). Games were occasionally played, and moments of insincerity occurred, but generally speaking, we proceeded together.
The importance of this Visegrad cooperation was confirmed by the fact that various other countries from the wider region constantly asked to be admitted. This is understandable. Notwithstanding the weaknesses of the group, we regained our sovereignty and a noteworthy place in Europe.
Andrzej Ananicz-Iranist, diplomat. The Head of the Foreign Intelligence Agency (2004-2005). Former Ambassador to the Republic of Turkey (2001-2004). Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1997-2001) and Deputy Head of the Negotiation Team for Poland's Accession to the EU (1998-2001).
When, during unofficial talks in Budapest, I asked one of its creators (nomina sunt odiosa) if the project was to be the confirmation of the Yalta arrangement in the new political situation, he said - "yes".