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Engelmayer, Ákos: Fanfares and Frictions




In the 1980s, independent centres dealing with international issues understood the significance of cooperation among the members of the opposition in the countries of Central Europe. In Poland there were many such centres and initiatives. Besides underground publishing, the independent Central European press agency was established. Polish-Czech Solidarity worked effectively, and based on its example the Polish-Hungarian Solidarity group was formed in Podkowa Lesna in 1987. Markéta Fialková, who later became the ambassador of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic to Poland, participated in the founding meeting. Some Polish-Hungarian and Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity activists after 1989 joined the civil service and from there shaped the policy of the region.

The idea of the Visegrad Triangle was born within the former opposition, but putting it into action through state structures ran into difficulties. After free elections, the idealism of the former opposition activists often clashed with the national egos of the various countries. I myself, as the ambassador of Hungary in Warsaw, was attacked by some ministers of my own government for attempting to act on the idea of "a brotherhood between our countries."

As an opposition activist and the first ambassador of free Hungary, I took part from the very beginning the difficult work of establishing the Visegrad Triangle. During the first summit of the Visegrad Group in 1991 in Budapest, President Lech Walesa wanted to meet only with President Arpád Göncz of Hungary. This demand was apparently the result of misinformation - he did not know that in Hungary, real power - similar to Germany - was in the hands of the Prime Minister. After long hours of negotiations, a meeting between Walesa and Prime Minister József Antall finally took place. The Hungarian PM normally took a very friendly attitude towards Poland, but after this incident he began to nurse a grudge. It is worth adding that he was the son of a politician by the same name - József Antall senior - who during the Second World War had rescued tens of thousands of Poles looking for shelter in Hungary (Antall junior showed Walesa documents proving this fact).

To attend the second Visegrad meeting in Kraków, an ill Prime Minister Antall arrived directly from the United States. When he got there he discovered that his meeting with President Walesa was to last only 20 minutes. The Prime Minister scolded me and the ambassador of Poland in Budapest, Maciej Kosmiński, for not sufficiently respecting his prestige, as he had spoken with the president of the United States for two hours. Additionally, the list of guests invited to the official dinner held by Foreign Minister Krzysztof Skubiszewski did not include the second most important person after the Prime Minister in the Hungarian delegation. It looked as if the Hungarian delegation was going to withdraw -not perhaps from the three-sided talks, but certainly from the visit to Warsaw announced earlier. At night I brought documents from the embassy in Warsaw that proved that the time limit on the meeting between President Walesa and Prime Minister Antall had been set by the undersecretary of state of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Imre Szókai. The Hungarians were also responsible for the faulty guest list to the Polish foreign minister's dinner. I mention this to show that in the name of Visegrad we had to fight not only the egos of our neighbours, but sometimes even the representatives of our own governments.

After these incidents, the Hungarian ambassador in Prague, György Varga, and I told Prime Minister Antall that either the minister would have to go, or we would resign. As a result, undersecretary of state Imre Szókai was dismissed. I myself have withdrawn from active politics, but Central European issues are still close to my heart. I have lectured on the history of Central Europe at the University in Pultusk, and I keep a constant eye on current developments. I observed with anxiety the close relationship between the Prime Minister of Hungary, Gyula Horn, and the Prime Minister of Slovakia, Vladimír Mečiar, which undermined and eventually weakened the Visegrad cooperation. I also worried when the Polish press accused Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of paralysing the Visegrad Group's work. It was either a clear misunderstanding or deliberate misinformation.

In this memoir I have focused on the difficulties and have not written too much about the successes, of which the greatest was the establishment of the Visegrad Group itself. Now, within the framework of the European Union, new assignments for the Group and new planes of cooperation are emerging.


Ákos Engelmayer
Took part in the Hungarian uprising in October 1956. Ethnographer, politician, ex-ambassador of the Hungarian Republic in Poland (1990-1995). Currently he lectures at the Wyzsza Szkola Humanistyczna in Pultusk and at the University of Warsaw.

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