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Bútora, Martin: The Spirit of Visegrad Was Revived in Washington




The second half and the end of the 1990s was an exciting and dramatic period for the Ambassadors of the Visegrad countries to the United States. With the possibility of the North Atlantic Alliance's expanding becoming ever more likely, cooperation between Visegrad and Washington received a fresh impetus. It also gained a clear agenda, one that was both tremendously important and very attractive for the Visegrad countries. It gained a concrete goal that had a mobilizing effect. It also gained a framework for action that required significant organizational and personnel efforts, both in private and public diplomacy. All of this encouraged the top political, diplomatic and intellectual representatives of the Visegrad states to make contacts with the political and diplomatic establishment in Washington and its political foundations - an opportunity that is rarely afforded by a global superpower to the political elites of smaller countries.

Between the years 1996 and 1998, this cooperation concerned above all three of the countries of the Visegrad Group, the Czech Republic,Hungary and Poland which were the first to be invited to join NATO. Later it was expanded to include Slovakia. As of the beginning of 2001, this cooperation gradually went beyond the borders of Visegrad, and the Visegrad Four (V4) model was successfully exported to the Vilnius Ten (V10), uniting the other candidate countries for NATO entry - Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The climax of this final phase in May 2003 was the unanimous ratification of the entry of seven states from the V10 into NATO by the American Senate.

People first

Everything I have said so far is true, but it's not the whole truth, because it lacks people. One of the architects in Washington of this exciting but complicated discussion of the various aspects of NATO enlargement was the Polish Ambassador, Jerzy Koźmiński. It was he who invited me immediately after my arrival in Washington in March 1999 to his residence for an informal breakfast meeting that he and his Hungarian and Czech colleagues had been holding for sometime. "Here's the fourth chair that we've been saving for Slovakia," he said.
For me it was encouraging to see Géza Jeszenszky and Saša Vondra sitting in the other two chairs. I have known Géza Jeszenszky from the beginning of the 1990s, and I had worked with Saša Vondra for over two years, from 1990-1992, when we both served as advisors to the President of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, Saša for foreign policy and I for human rights. Our excellent Visegrad relations continued as well following the arrival of Martin Palouš, whom I had known for more than a decade as well, to take Sasˇha's place, while the Polish ambassadorship went to Przemyslaw Grudziński and the Hungarian office to Ambassador András Simonyi. This human factor was another reason why Visegrad was successful in Washington.

And it really was successful, with Slovakia enjoying most of the fruit of this cooperation as it was trying to "catch up" with the other three after its years under its authoritarian leader, former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. Slovakia had to be once again pencilled in to the most important American maps - foreign policy, security, military. We had to take a more aggressive line in making ourselves known to the American public, in winning allies, friends and supporters.

Of course, first it was necessary that Slovakia's more human face become somewhat known in the US. At the invitation of the embassy, Washington was visited not only by Slovak politicians but also by people from the non-governmental sector, students, researchers, artists, mayors, journalists, judges, entrepreneurs and figures from other areas. These people showed that Slovakia was a country undergoing deep changes, and that it had people who were willing and able to continue these changes. Our colleagues from the Visegrad Four played an irreplaceable role in this regard.

Many Americans were curious about the "Velvet Divorce" between the Czechs and Slovaks, especially in the context of the bloody events in the former Yugoslavia. They were impressed that even though our nations had separated, we were still able to cooperate. The idea of celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Washington together with the Czech Embassy was met with a positive response. President Bill Clinton during this time agreed to make a speech on the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Americans invited two leaders from the new democracies to this event - Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman and Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda. After a joint appearance at Georgetown University, the two were both received at the White House.

We also worked closely with the Czech Embassy on other occasions - we started the tradition of the annual Czech and Slovak Freedom Lecture Series at the Woodrow Wilson Center, kicked off by a Christian philosopher with Slovak roots, Michael Novak. He was followed by Madeleine Albright, who even as Secretary of State had accentuated the significance of Visegrad during the first visit of Prime Ministers Zeman and Dzurinda to Washington in November 1999, and had welcomed the support that the Czech Republic was offering Slovakia. We invited the editorin-chief of the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza, Adam Michnik, to give the third lecture, and he spoke in the American Congress building at a ceremonial meeting in December 2002 on the occasion of the invitation of the new candidates to join NATO.

Then there was also a celebration of the opening of the Maria Valeria Bridge across the Danube River, which was rebuilt in 2001 between Sˇtúrovo in Slovakia and Esztergom in Hungary. We invited the Ambassador of the European Commission, Guenter Burghardt, and together with Hungarian Ambassador Géza Jeszenszky we stressed the bridge as a symbol of our rapprochement and joint entry to Europe.

"The city on the hill"

One of our largest joint events was the visit of the four deputy foreign ministers of the V4 countries to the US shortly after the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Visegrad Group in April 2001. At the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, and in front of Zbigniew Brzeziński and 150 other guests, Andrzej Ananicz (Poland), Ivan Baba (Hungary), Ján Figel' (Slovakia), and Pavel Telička (Czech Republic) discussed the Visegrad model. At the time, the Bush administration was just taking office, and these four politicians were among the first to be officially received by the undersecretary of State, Richard Armitage. It was the first time the full Visegrad orchestra played together. When the former American Ambassador to NATO, Robert Hunter, had the term "Visegrad" translated, he discovered that it meant "the city on the hill", a phrase which occupies a unique and irreplaceable spot in American national mythology, the place where the "American dream" of freedom, equality and prosperity was lived out. The noble idea of Central European cooperation thus became fused with American idealism.

After a while, the Americans began to take an interest in the economic side of Visegrad as well. In February 2001 in New York, the InWest Forum, an investment conference, attracted 350 entrepreneurs and company and institutional representatives from the US and the V4 countries. A similar forum was held in 2002 in Washington.

Attractive model

The voice of Visegrad was also heard loud and clear at the founding and the launching of the "Vilnius Group" of 10 candidates for membership in NATO. This group had arisen in 1999 as an informal association of the ambassadors of these countries at a time when it was far from certain whether another round of enlargement would even take place. The group drew its inspiration from the example of Visegrad.

We proceeded according to three axioms. First, we believed that the candidate countries that had been explicitly invited to participate in preparations for membership at the 1999 Washington Summit could achieve more by taking a common approach. We agreed on two principles, that of solidarity and that of
performance. The first meant that one candidate would not try to score points at the expense of another, while the second respected the fact that NATO would be judging us individually. We gradually organized meetings between the leaders of the candidate countries in each capital, at which the representatives of the new democracies made clear their determination to gain entry to the Alliance, and their political will not to slack off on reforms.
Second, we had to have the courage to think big, for example to reject the attractive - and for Slovakia, seemingly advantageous - alternative of NATO's accepting only the duo of Slovenia and Slovakia, given that the other candidates were either not very well prepared (the countries of South-Eastern Europe) or were unacceptable because of Russian opposition (the Baltic countries). But from the beginning it was clear to me that it would be impossible to gain two-thirds' support in the US Senate, or the votes of 67 senators, for one or two small countries. We had to come up with something that would appeal to both the hearts and the practical minds of American politicians.

The preceding wave of enlargement had not only a security dimension, but also a moral and historical note: To a certain extent it was about righting a historical wrong. We talked a great deal about how and with what we could "sell" the rather disparate "Vilnius Group" as a concept. Gradually, in the key political environment, the "big bang" concept began to take root, after having been first presented at a 2000 Bratislava conference by the head of the US Committee for NATO, Bruce Jackson. With this courageous-sounding vision of the need to invite the Baltic countries as well to join NATO, our enlargement round gained its own moral aspect, and as time went by, more and more people believed that the idea of a major enlargement would carry the day. The aid of our Visegrad colleagues, especially Sasˇha Vondra and Przemek Grudziński, was exceedingly important in this regard.

Since Slovakia had been left behind in the previous round, we realized we would have to work harder than the rest. For example, during preparations for the Bratislava Summit in May 2001, President George W. Bush was preparing to embark on his first trip to Europe, and so we wanted a clear moral voice to be heard from Bratislava defining our vision of NATO enlargement. We put our hope in Czech President Václav Havel as a man of charisma whose word counted. I travelled from Washington to Prague for an informal meeting with Havel, and won a promise from him to attend, and later even his willingness to make the keynote speech. The result was a successful Bratislava Summit at which Havel made a beautiful speech about the new direction of Europe, which became the most-quoted speech in the US by a foreign statesman during that period.

The cooperation between the Visegrad and Vilnius groups climaxed in Washington in March 2002 when an historic meeting took place at the Slovak embassy of the representatives of the American ethnic organizations of the 10 candidate countries, as well as the representatives of the ethnic communities of the three new member states of the Alliance. These expatriates called on the American President and the US Senate to support the invitation of all countries that were prepared for membership, and in the crowded main hall of our building adopted a common statement that returned to the vision of a Europe whole and free as it had been described by President Bush and, before him, President Clinton.

The discussion was also joined by the Republican Senator for Ohio, George V. Voinovich, who had also served as governor of Ohio and mayor of Cleveland, which happened to be the US state and city with arguably the largest ethnic communities of the candidate countries. He expressed delight that these countries that had been so hard tested during their histories were now working together for a common goal.

"Today's meeting was for me very, very encouraging," he said, expressing the feelings of all of us who had worked to realize the bold V10 vision . "When you think about it, it's in fact a miracle."


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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