Central Europe has historically been a place where wars begin and end. European and global powers have clashed here, and Central Europe on its own was unable to erect a barrier to them. Conflicts in Central Europe have tended to spread towards the East and towards the West from the centre of the continent. A peaceful and settled Central Europe that does not generate conflicts is therefore in the interest of even the most remote parts of Europe.
Following the abrupt fall of communism in 1989, Central Europe suddenly found itself in an uncertain geopolitical situation. The Warsaw Pact and the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) fell apart. The political system which had existed until then also disintegrated, leaving only the desire of the countries of Central Europe to join the European Union as quickly as possible. The vision of future membership in the European Community gave Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary a common goal to shoot for, but it was a goal whose fulfillment depended on events and powers beyond Central Europe. Historical experience, as well as knowledge of ourselves, urged us to find a system that would provide an anchor of stability within Central Europe itself.
Among the lessons that history had taught us were the tensions between Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary during the inter-war period, which led to defeat for all, both before and after the Second World War. The first attempt at learning a lesson from this was a plan to create a post-war Polish-Czechoslovak confederation. The governments in exile of Poland and Czechoslovakia signed an agreement in London in November 1940 on the creation of such a polity. The Polish exile government under General Sikorski, in talks with Edvard Beneš in London, also pushed for the membership of Hungary in the future confederation. But the absence of a Hungarian representative in wartime London and the clear reluctance of Hungary to give up land it had gained from the Munich Agreement presented problems. Following the outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Germany in June 1941, the Soviets gained an important voice in debates on post-war arrangements in Central Europe, and came out against the creation of the confederation. Then followed our mutual post-war membership in the East Bloc, together with attempts at freeing Poland and Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and so on. In 1986, on the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising, dissidents from Poland, the Czech lands, Slovakia, Hungary, and East Germany signed a joint petition demanding the return of freedom to their countries.
Then freedom returned
The first ideas on building a new system of stability in Central Europe arose within the group around Václav Havel. Shortly after his election as President of Czechoslovakia, Havel proposed a meeting between the Presidents and Prime Ministers of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary in Bratislava in March 1990. The meeting took place in the Bratislava Castle. Czechoslovakia was represented by President Havel and the federal Prime Minister Marián Čalfa, Poland by Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki and President Wojciech Jaruzelski, and Hungary by Prime Minister István Neméth and President Matyás Szuros. Bratislava was chosen as the site of the meeting, as its geographic location and historical traditions made it a natural choice for the beginning of a new era in relations among the participating countries and nations. Poland and Hungary were equally aware of the need to fill the political vacuum that had arisen following the sudden collapse of communism. They not only accepted the invitation of President Václav Havel, but they also actively participated in discussions on the continuation of cooperation between the three countries. The contents of talks at the meeting betrayed the fact that it was taking place shortly after the political earthquake in Central Europe. What is more, Hungary was just about to head into elections, the first free ones it had enjoyed in a century. The Czechoslovak diplomatic corps was unable to prepare a goal-driven vision of cooperation between the participating countries in time for the conference. The fact that the meeting was held at all, however, was a success, as were the decisions taken to continue with further cooperation.
The host of the meeting scheduled for the following year was to be Hungary, where the government of József Antall and Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky had recently taken power. Jeszenszky was a living example of the tangled fates of the nations of Central Europe. His ancient forbear, Ján Jesenský, was a noble who came from Slovakia's northern Liptov region, and at the outbreak of the Thirty Years War had been the chancellor of Charles University in Prague. In 1621 he was beheaded on Old Town Square in Prague following the defeat of the Czech army at Bílá Hora (White Mountain). Hungary set the site of the 1991 meeting in Budapest and Visegrad, a town on the Danube River below Estregom. The Hungarian hosts prepared a concept of further cooperation between our three countries for the meeting. All three wanted to avoid the creation of new bureaucratic offices, organs, and officials that would be remote from the cares and concerns of the citizens of the participating countries, and would produce an enormous quantity of paper about nothing. What the participants did agree on was to hold further meetings and to coordinate their foreign policies, as well as other vital matters. The term Visegrad, which the participating countries bestowed on their cooperation, was adopted in place of an institutional structure that no one wanted. The name was not chosen randomly, but because, like the town, it symbolized the unity of the member countries. The name Visegrad is a Slavic one, while the town lies in Hungary and in the 14th Century was the site of a meeting between the kings of Hungary, the Czech lands, and Poland to discuss
The cooperation which emerged from the 1991 meeting had its ups and downs in accordance with the situation in each member country and in Europe as a whole. In 1993 Czechoslovakia divided into two states, and the Visegrad Troika suddenly became the Visegrad Four. This development had no impact on the basic content of the Group's cooperation. The Visegrad Group became a communication link between Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, a place where they could debate and try to solve their problems more privately than within Europe-wide organizations. In some of the capital cities of the member countries in the years that followed, the governments that took power trusted Visegrad, while in others the level of interest was lower. Slovak Prime Minister Vladimír Mecˇiar, for example, was not a Visegrad enthusiast, while Václav Klaus, albeit for different reasons, also did not have a high opinion of the way the Group worked. Nevertheless, internal communication within Visegrad continued to function, demonstrating its basic viability. The members of the Visegrad Group entered the European Union at the same time, inviting debate as to whether Visegrad was still needed. Visegrad admittedly lacks the internal unity of the Benelux Group, but on repeated occasions it has been able to present a more or less united position within the European Union, which is far better than if its members were competing with each other. The Nice Treaty, which remains in force after the failure to pass the European Constitution, gives Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary collectively 46 votes in the European Council, which is more than Germany has, for example.
The future of the Visegrad Group will depend on whether or not the member countries are able to transform the differences between their interests into a mutual strength rather than a mutual liability. Hungary continues to face a challenge in its domestic policy to refrain from rhetoric regarding its compatriots living in foreign countries, in line with the rules of the European Union. If it does not manage to do so, it may weaken or even destroy the Visegrad Group, while Hungary may easily find itself in international isolation.
In terms of foreign policy, the principal challenge again is for all Visegrad member countries to turn their traditionally different foreign policy ties into a common strength rather than a weakness. In simplified terms, during foreign policy crises Hungary has traditionally looked towards Germany, the Czechs and Slovaks towards Russia, and Poland to remote powers, such as France and England in the past, or the United States at the moment. The Visegrad Group should not try to suppress these historic inclinations, but rather to use them to promote its common aims.
At the end of the Trojan War, Odysseus asked Tiresias the way home to Greece. The soothsayer gave him the following advice: "Despite great suffering, you will reach your goal if you manage to master your passions, as well as those of your companions."
We, too, are capable of mastering our passions.
Ján Čarnogurský -
Slovak lawyer. Before 1989 prevented from practicing his profession for defending dissidents. After 1989 Deputy Prime Minister of the federal government, then Prime Minister of the Government of Slovakia. Former leader of the Christian Democratic Party. Currently back in law practice.