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Grabiński, Tomasz: The Summit in the Frosty Ruins: The Background of the 1991 Visegrad Meeting

The winter of 1991 in Central Europe was quite frosty. The mayor of Visegrad at the time, Sándor Hadházy, remembers how before the February summit meeting the government envoys came to him to find an appropriate place. "They were very surprised because we couldn't find a venue which met the safety and security requirements and additionally could be heated. Eventually, we ended up in one of the cellars of the royal palace, which at the time housed a collection of stones," Hadházy recalls.

On the morning of the signing of the Visegrad Declaration, the thermometers showed -10°C, and it had snowed heavily during the previous days. "There was no door on the room, just some bars, and no heating. We had an idea to install the rather heavy brocade curtains, which were to prevent the heat from escaping. We put a few gas heaters in the cellar, and managed to warm it up a little," the mayor of Visegrad says.

In theory, the entire event could have been moved to another town, but its significance would have been lost. For symbolic reasons it had to be Visegrad. The first person to realise this was the Prime Minister of Hungary, József Antall. "He was a historian and he knew that it was the very place where the meeting of three kings had taken place on 19 November, 1335," says Hadházy.

Thus did a location where centuries ago the kings of Bohemia, Poland and Hungary had met to discuss peace in this region of Europe, become in February 1991 the site of a meeting between the representatives of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary: Presidents Václav Havel and Lech Walesa, and Prime Minister József Antall.

"Today the historical day has finally arrived - the Visegrad Three has been established," reads the diary of the Ambassador of Czechoslovakia in Hungary at the time, Rudolf Chmel. "In Bratislava [in April 1990] these three countries had already agreed on a certain minimum: To issue a mutual declaration. Now the time has come."

Why the meeting in Visegrad was an historical event whereas the earlier one in Bratislava was not is explained by Alexandr Vondra, then the foreign affairs advisor to the Czechoslovak President: "At that first meeting we still had the revolutionary fever. There were also some objective reasons: Both Poland and Hungary were still ruled by Presidents from the previous regime, so Václav Havel would have felt a little lonely. The meeting in Visegrad was prepared much better and was more professional. The new elites had gained experience throughout the previous year, and hence the cooperation was successfully formalised."


At the beginning of 1991, all three countries were ruled by freshly elected democratic politicians. Václav Havel had the most political experience of the three men who signed the Visegrad Declaration, having been in office for nearly a year. The Soviet army was still stationed in the region, and the Soviet Union still existed - although it was decomposing - as did other structures of the socialist bloc such as the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon).

"These three countries were joined by something more than simply the neighborhood. Although their specific situations were different, of all the post- communist countries they were the closest to each other due to their historical connections with the West, and the level of their political thinking and economic development," wrote Jiří Dienstbier, then the minister of foreign affairs of Czechoslovakia, in his memoirs. "The preparation of the Visegrad Declaration and the meeting, planned initially for January, was delayed," he noted. "Besides other questions, there was still a dispute over the level of institutionalisation. Poland wanted to form a committee/council of Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs, whereas Hungary was against it. We regarded this dispute as meaningless."

The summit began in Budapest in the impressive building of the Hungarian Parliament, situated on the banks of the Danube River. The talks were devoted to cooperation between the three countries, the situation in the USSR, the Warsaw Pact and the Gulf War. Havel reminded the participants that the meeting was the continuation of a similar one in Bratislava a year earlier. He stressed that Western Europe was expecting to see cooperation between these three countries; it was a kind of test of their maturity. The President of Czechoslovakia underlined, however, that there was no need for a new pact or new lines of division. Nevertheless, some biting remarks were made: Lech Walesa let both his partners know that he was a practical politician, unlike themselves. He also mentioned that the signs of unhealthy rivalry and quarrels between the countries of the region saddened him.

The memo recorded by Chmel, who accompanied President Havel, records the events behind the scenes on the evening preceding the talks: "We went almost secretly after supper to see [Hungarian President Arpád] Göncz, while Antall (somewhat in confidence as well) came at the same time to have tea with Walesa (he did not want to go to town with him to supper). In that way, although all three leaders at one point were under one roof, no meeting between them took place." Chmel described the atmosphere of the summit as "quite stiff," and noted that the relationship between Havel and Walesa seemed insincere.

The politicians moved from Budapest to Visegrad, where they solemnly signed the Declaration on Cooperation between the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, the Republic of Poland, and the Republic of Hungary in Striving for European Integration. Its initial content had been accepted on 28 December of the previous year during a meeting of foreign ministers. As the head of the Czechoslovak diplomatic corps recalled: "It was not our aim to create some kind of a new bloc, a variety of the pre-war Little Entente, or a formal organisation that could be treated as a substitute for the Warsaw Pact or Comecon. This could have proven dangerous to our integration to European and Euro-Atlantic organisations. We were willing to help each other in our struggle and in such economic transformations that would draw us nearer to conditions in Western Europe," wrote Dienstbier.

"The cellar in which the signing ceremony took place could only accommodate a small table. Everybody was sitting around it, rather cramped, and it didn't look very elegant," Mayor Hadházy recalls. The Presidents, Prime Ministers and foreign ministers were photographed under a plaque commemorating the meeting of the three kings in the 14th century. Dienstbier noted the following of Visegrad: "Walesa joked that he was hoping the ruins would be rebuilt, like in Warsaw and Gdańsk. Antall remarked dryly that he had no money. "When you get rich," commented Walesa. During dinner, however, he praised the good foundations in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. "At least that's my impression, as the foundations are not visible." Antall smiled, and Ambassador [of Hungary to Czechoslovakia György] Varga told me it was the first time that many people had seen him smile. Havel remembered that Jan Luxembourg's retinue had had to be supplied every day with bagfuls of bread and barrels of wine. "We don't have such an enormous retinue, and we're not going to drink and eat as much, but instead we're going to meet again sooner than in 656 years time," he said.

"The solemn signing of the mutual declaration in the Visegrad ruins officially confirmed the prospect of cooperation between the three countries on their way to European integration. We'll see if it still holds true in one, two, or three years time," wrote Chmel, who later devoted many essays to the Visegrad collaboration and was also editor-in-chief of the Central European Gazette, a mutual supplement to the three main daily papers in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary.

As can be clearly seen - at least from this publication - the Visegrad Group not only lasted a few years, it endured and remains in good shape after 15 years of existence and in an entirely new geopolitical situation. Now all of the member states have achieved the goals they set themselves at the beginning: They are members of NATO and the European Union, while the Warsaw Pact and Comecon are history.

Other targets that were set during the meeting in Visegrad have also been accomplished. "I said (...) that the West was trying to focus on our three countries and was expecting that over time, they could change from being recipients of help into a source of help for others," Dienstbier wrote. The Visegrad Group countries now play precisely that role towards their eastern neighbors, especially Ukraine and Belarus.

"The communists spoke of friendship, but they were friends only with each other. Between our nations there were barriers and entanglements. Our task is to remove them, to introduce pluralism, and to make the relationships among us more civilized. Politicians must create frameworks, and the nations will fill them with content in economy, culture, science, and mutual exchanges," said Lech Walesa in Visegrad.

Who knows, perhaps over time the greatest achievement of Visegrad will be the fact that ordinary Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and Slovaks have gotten to know each other better.

Tomasz Grabiński (in collaboration with Peter Morvay)
Polish translator and journalist. Journalist with Gazeta Wyborcza (2001-2005) and SME (since 2003). Member of the spokesmen-board for Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity.

© 2006–2017, International Visegrad Fund.
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