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Chmel, Rudolf: A Visegrad without Culture?




One of the fathers of the idea of a unified Europe, Jean Monnet, said on his deathbed: "If I had to do it all over again, I would start with culture." It's probably not a bad idea to repeat these ideas where the Visegrad Four are concerned. Even united Europe began fifty five years ago with coal and steel, and culture is still awaiting its turn. It's no coincidence that the culture community is the source of complaints about the technocratic manner of building the European Union.

It occurred to me that this analogy was not inappropriate for the 15th anniversary of Visegrad, for while its founders didn't begin with coal and steel, nor did they spare a thought for culture. Even today culture is considered more out of obligation than authentically or meaningfully.

Nevertheless, something has changed. Following the fulfilment of some initial political, security and economic aims (cancellation of the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) and the entry of the V4 countries into NATO and the EU, culture is imperceptibly coming to the fore. But it still lacks
any sort of concept, as well as any real, rather than merely formal interest. Culture ministers meet, even twice a year, but their plans become action only very slowly and sporadically. This shows that ministerial bureaucrats do not always recognize good ideas, and perhaps also that the feeling of belonging to Central Europe is weaker than it was at the end of the communist era, at least among the dissidents.

Thus it is only in a very limited sense that we can speak of any significant common cultural projects. The mutual presentation of Visegrad musicians in Brussels (2003), the joint Czech-Slovak-Polish booth at the Cannes festival (2004-2005) and various other festivals (Wroclaw, Plzeň, Prešov, Košice, Pécs), the slow but promising development of the Visegrad library, plans for a Visegrad musical depository, a Visegrad internet library, a Visegrad gold film fund, even a Visegrad television station - all this shows that something is afoot, but the problem is that so far it is not systematic. The fact that many of these events listed above tend to be conditional or virtual rather than real also demonstrates the lack of importance assigned to cultural cooperation in Visegrad, and shows the preponderance of good will and good intentions over real results. However, it is encouraging that smaller towns and municipalities, and not only those that lie on the borders, are taking a greater role in Visegrad cooperation.

For a long time, non-governmental organizations have been one of the motors of cultural cooperation. In the 1990s one of the most important of these was the Open Society Foundation (OSF), whose founder, George Soros, understood the importance of Central European cooperation far before the communist bloc fell apart. The results of one such activity was the many years of support for Visegrad supplements in serious daily newspapers. Unfortunately, no new contributor has been found to continue the publication of these supplements, which further questions the viability of the idea of spiritual cooperation in Central Europe. One of the few permanent program centres of such Visegrad cooperation in culture is the Bratislava-based Kalligram printing house, whose director, László Szigeti, in March 2005 became the first recipient of the Visegrad prize for culture, on the proposal of the ministers of culture of the Visegrad Four. But this is almost a unique example of someone who sees that the sense and future of Visegrad lies in cultural cooperation.

Today, many cultural, educational and scientific cooperative activities exist mostly thanks to the International Visegrad Fund (founded in June 2000), whose support is well planned, but whose finances are limited.

At the time Visegrad was founded, it is likely that culture occupied the minds only of the ambassadors of the member countries, who coincidentally tended to have backgrounds in the humanities and culture. It was not until much later, and in a very weak voice, that any mention was made of culture and art and their role in cultivating this region that had seen so much war, nationalism, totalitarian regimes and so on. The fact that these last elements are on the decline is another reason the role of culture in Visegrad cooperation should increase. If we were unable to start with culture, we should at least make it the permanent continuation of the cooperation between our states and nations within the European Union. Without culture, neither the Visegrad Four nor the European Union will be able to exist.


Rudolf Chmel
Literature historian. Former Minister of Culture of the Slovak Republic (2002-2005), president of the Open Society Foundation (1993-2000), and ambassador of Czechoslovakia to Hungary (1990-1993). Former editor-in-chief of the Central European Gazette. Member of the Slovak parliament.

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