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Bútora, Martin: A Miracle Called Visegrad




Visegrad could be described as a political, strategic and human miracle for a number of reasons: that the Visegrad Trojka was born at all; that it achieved vital political goals; that it proved capable of transforming into the Visegrad Four; that it served as a new model for relations in the complicated arena of Central Europe; and, finally, that it still exists today. Not one of these achievements was ever a certainty. In terms of politics, the birth of Visegrad accomplished several things at once.

First, although it might seem like an exaggeration, Visegrad defied history; if not all history, then at least one tradition in the history of the nations living in the region of Central Europe, a history marked by significant "asynchronism". In the past two centuries we have often seen how an advance, success or civilizational progress by one nation, state or region has been achieved at the expense of another. We find plenty of examples of this kind of asynchronism in relations between the Czechs and Germans, or the Hungarians and the Slovaks. What the Magyar ruling elite in Hungary after the Austrian-Hungarian settlement of 1867 regarded as a blossoming of economy, architecture and culture, of the capital of the kingdom, which grew to become beautiful, and even of civil society, part of the Slovak cultural elite experienced as a decline, a restriction, and a threat to Slovak national development, culture and language. On the other hand, the Hungarians after Trianon experienced a trauma that took them a long time to recover from, while democratic Czechoslovakia fared quite well. Even Czech and Slovak relations went through occasional periods of mutual annoyance: In the 1930s, several political groupings in Slovakia, from "the autonomists" (those in favour of Slovak autonomy) to "regionalists", and even Slovak communists, felt the need to resolve "the Slovak question" through a more equal partnership between the two nations. And when Slovaks in complicated historical circumstances - in 1939 with the foundation of the independent wartime Slovak state, and in 1968 with the federalization of the common state - achieved a greater degree of self-government (in both cases it was more appearance than reality), the Czech side was disappointed and regarded it as an expression of Slovak ingratitude. Communism united and homogenized all of us, and various divisions and tensions were stored away "in the cooler". It was always possible that following the collapse of communism, and the related thaw, mutual tensions could reappear. But it never happened; instead, Visegrad arrived on the scene.

Secondly
, the state representatives of the Visegrad countries, and the citizens who elected them, for perhaps the first time were able to act freely and democratically, and above all without pressure from a larger power. Luckily they acted not only freely but also responsibly, despite their different natures, conflicts and squabbles, pettiness and large egos. They certainly also acted in this way because the key personalities among them had proven themselves in the struggle with communism. This is far from the norm in history, but this is probably precisely why people and history remember such statesmen. It's very easy not to reach agreement and later to find excuses, and far more challenging to defend the reasons why it is necessary to find agreement.

Third
, Visegrad to a certain extent enriched traditions and modes of intellectual discourse. under undemocratic regimes was on the one hand sad and often tragic for their inhabitants, while on the other hand it was also fertile ground for intellectual criticism. This was especially true of Central European intellectuals, who were so much a part of the history and myths of this sceptical region, with its ironic reflections, feeling for the grotesque, and doubts as to whether it was possible to alter the bitter fate of small nations. Many of these intellectuals were adept at recording national failures, not only in the 20th Century but also in preceding periods. The Czech strain of this intellectual exploration identified in the national character smallness, provincialism, and a lack of moral fibre, as well as an unwillingness to fight or resist. The Poles lamented their inability to unite and their fateful habit of being defeated in desperate, hopeless conflicts. The Hungarians repeatedly focused on their feeling of loneliness and melancholy, on the swings between their spectacular moments of heroic exceptionality and their miserable moments of desperate backwardness, on the balance between their consciousness of the exceptional nature of the Hungarian calling, and the recognition of the Hungarian destiny as a "collective neurosis".

And thus could we continue with the Slovak intellectual self-examination, which combined a feeling of unimportance with the sense of having been wronged. Readers might have derived pleasure from these brilliant writings, which in various streams of thought attempted to demonstrate that "it can't be done" - that true freedom, democracy, respect for human rights, tolerance, rule of law, none of it was attainable. However, in the context of Visegrad, another way of thinking came to the fore attempting to draw a lesson from all of these failures and defeats and to set a course for the future that might overcome this fateful predestination for tragedy. Following the collapse of communism and later the decision to unite Europe into one democratic whole, this "other" future began to seem possible. The beauty of resistance, distance and critical reflection gained a challenger: the creative excitement of building and forming new entities.

Fourthly
, the founding of Visegrad in a certain way politically recast Central Europe. The region had long been known as a cultural expression of Western Christianity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and a fellowship of historical fates. As a political concept the Central European identity was linked to its problematic terrain, one that had witnessed dramas that more than once led to global conflict. It was not connected only with the personalities and statesmen who had led the fight for freedom, from KoÊciuszko to Kossuth and Masaryk and the modern fighters for democracy such as Lech WaΠesa, Václav Havel, and Arpád Göncz - it was also connected with a history of horrors, with the Holocaust and Stalinism, and later with the "abduction" of civilized Central Europe to the Soviet steppes. Visegrad set the stage for a new contextual integration: the return to democratic Europe.

The Visegrad Trojka quickly found favour with the West, because it was a positive, sensible, stabilizing, and constructive concept. Positive symbols are essential in politics and public diplomacy, and Visegrad quickly became just that.

In the fifth place, the Visegrad concept and the Visegrad Group demonstrated the needed flexibility in reorienting themselves towards acceptance to NATO instead of their original priority, the fastest possible integration into the European Union. The focus on the Alliance, where at first only Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were admitted, brought two positive moments. The first was the Atlantic dimension, the experience of close cooperation between the Visegrad Group and the United States, the irreplaceable cooperation between the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians and later the Slovaks on the one hand, and the pro-Atlantic and anti-isolationist personalities on the political scene in America at the time on the other hand. This experience enriched the political culture of the Central European elites, and helped them not to yield to one-sided anti-Americanism and to respond in a more balanced way to existing conflicts and tensions between the two sides of the Atlantic. The second positive moment was that by this security integration Visegrad became an example, one that was first copied by Slovakia with the significant aid of the first three members, and later a model that was followed by the Vilnius Ten, which comprised the further candidates for entry to the Alliance.

In the sixth place, Visegrad was an impressively successful initiative despite its occasional lapses due to temporary departures by some of its members from the common spirit, whether in the search for individual strategies, the reduction of Visegrad to only its economic content, or to Slovakia's becoming problematic as a full member of the group. Visegrad worked very well in eliminating unwanted institutions (the Warsaw Pact) and in gaining membership in desirable institutions (NATO and the European Union). And, paradoxically, Slovakia's temporary stumble and elimination from the group of front-runners for NATO and EU membership, and then its "domestic rehabilitation" in 1998 general elections, became a new unifying element: Now it was necessary, and not only in the interest of Slovakia, for the other three to help the fourth succeed.

When in my lectures as the Slovak Ambassador to the US I occasionally tried to give the American public a simplified and comprehensible idea of the meaning of Visegrad, I used a comparison from the history of NATO itself. In the famous words of Lord Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO, the organization was founded "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down". Visegrad served the same goals for Central Europe as NATO had for Western Europe: "to keep the Russians out", meaning to secure the departure of Soviet troops and the abolition of the Warsaw Pact; "the Americans in", in other words to ensure a continued American presence in Europe and to enter NATO; and instead of the Germans, to keep "the demons of Central Europe" - aggressive nationalist populists - under control.

Despite all its mistakes and problems, the democratic transformation of Visegrad can serve as an example for countries in its vicinity that still have a long road in front of them. It is through more than merely being in the European Union's "neighborhood" that Visegrad helps to mould and create the future shape of united Europe. Visegrad also has wider, pan-European and global potential. It faces new questions, which its individual members can certainly answer individually, and which they will attempt to answer along with their other partners in the European Union - but which still require them to come up with a Visegrad answer".

Finally
, in seventh place, we come to that side of Visegrad that is consistently closest to us. It concerns our common historical, cultural, and mental experiences, that which united and unites us, and which could unite us still more firmly if only we knew more about each other, knew each other better, came closer together, and looked harder to find how we could mutually enrich each other, and if this enrichment could produce something. The activities of the International Visegrad Fund in this sense are priceless, because this knowledge is not born overnight.

I don't know how things sit with the other three countries, but as for Slovaks, I see that we are still a mystery to ourselves and to others. We never had an occasion - and that is the beauty of Slovakia, the smallest Visegrad country - to learn about ourselves, what we are capable of, whether we truly have free conditions for development, and if we have freedom, whether we will remember to be responsible. In this sense Slovakia is a country of "undiscovered talents," and the same is true in spades of Visegrad.


Martin Bútora
Slovak sociologist, publicist. Before 1989, beared from practice. During the Velvet Revolution, co-founder of the Public against Violence movement (VPN), advisor to President Václav Havel, Ambassador to the USA. Curently, Director of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava.

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