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Jeszenszky, Géza: The Origins and Enactment of the "Visegrad Idea"




Writings on history and politics tend to focus on conflicts and their causes. Stories in which rivalries and potential conflicts play second fiddle to collaboration in the common interest thus deserve special attention. Such has been the story of Visegrad, the name of a once magnificent Hungarian fortress and castle towering above the Danube River which became a symbol of regional cooperation after the signing of a pact on its historic grounds 15 years ago. In many ways this Central European initiative was a replay of what had happened in Western Europe after the Second World War.

Hardly had the joy at victory in the Cold War subsided when fears were expressed in Europe and America that Central Europe, now freed from the Soviet straightjacket, might again be engulfed in rivalry and conflict over territory and mistreated national minorities. The first half of the 20th century in the region had indeed been characterized by animosities, mutual ill feeling and war. These ills were stowed away in the deep-freezer during Moscow's rule, but were never cured.

The historical experience of the peoples of Central Europe is richly varied. The grandeur of the late Middle Ages was followed by direct foreign domination and/or partition by more powerful neighbors. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (1867-1918) was an attempt at non-democratic integration, and was replaced by one group of small states ganging up on another with support from a selfish great power (the Little Entente of 1921 to 1938 and the alliance of Austria, Hungary and Italy in the mid-1930s). Less is known of the presence of a tradition of cooperation in Central Europe, particularly against aggressive great powers like the Ottoman Empire or the Habsburg, Prussian and Nazi variations on German expansionism. Many of the national leaders of Central Europe in the past two centuries (Palacký, Kossuth, Jaszí, Pilsudski, Sikorski, Hodža, and others) proposed federations or confederations uniting the nations of Central Europe. The most recent example of solidarity between these peoples was their common opposition to the communist dictatorships in their countries, especially during and after three attempts at change in 1956, 1968 and 1980/81.

There are many versions in circulation about the origins of the Visegrad cooperation, and several individuals are credited with inventing it. As probably the closest witness I can testify that it was at the Paris summit of the CSCE in November 1990 that the Prime Minister of Hungary, József Antall, invited the leaders of Poland and Czechoslovakia to Visegrad, once the residence of the kings of Hungary and the site of a meeting back in 1335 where the Polish, Bohemian and Hungarian kings met to coordinate their policies. It was in the restored hall of the old royal palace that the Declaration of Cooperation was signed by President Havel of Czechoslovakia, President Walesa of Poland, and Prime Minister Antall of Hungary on 15 February, 1991 in the presence of the President of Hungary and the participating countries' Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers. The pact was certainly not dictated or even suggested by Moscow, Washington or Brussels, but was an independent decision by those leaders to work together in re-aligning these historic countries with "the West" in order to prevent the repetition of past national tragedies and to speed up their transition from the Soviet orbit to Euro-Atlantic structures. It was a crisp, sunny day with fresh snow covering the streets and the medieval ruins. For me even the weather augured well for the future of our venture. We were all moved and felt that we were launching something worthy of our exalted aim of building a new Central Europe on top of the wreckage left by decades of communist misgovernment.

The primary but unspoken aim of the Visegrad cooperation was to dismantle the institutions that embodied our political, military, and economic dependence on the Soviet Union: the Warsaw Pact and Comecon. The message of the first summit was captured by the apt comment of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Separately, the Central European countries are weak; united they are irresistible, and Gorbachev was the first to note that." The military organization of the Warsaw Pact was signed away just a few days later, on 25 February.

The three countries wanted to complete the switch from command to market economies as quickly and smoothly as possible by learning from an one other. The heads of states and governments, along with ministers and various experts met regularly on a rotating basis to evaluate international developments, set common aims and coordinate policies.

Visegrad was not an institution. For a long time it had no formal organization, "not even a secretary," so there was no bureaucracy to hinder prompt action. What made Visegrad work at the outset was the personal affinity among the leaders of the countries involved, and the common purposes that they championed. The founders were all staunch anti-communists who were committed to democracy and human rights. The "Visegrad idea" of Central European solidarity enjoyed popular support going back to older and more recent history. It was not a formal alliance, but especially in its early phase it came quite close to that. As once I put it to Foreign Minister Skubiszewski, it was an alliance "in pectore," in our hearts.

The first results of this cooperation were impressive. The formal dissolution of the Warsaw Pact took place on 1 July, 1991. Immediately after the attempted coup in Moscow in August 1991, the "Visegrad Three" held consultations and agreed on common responses. The Kraków Summit of October 1991 resulted in the conclusion of bilateral treaties and agreement on an important warning to the international community on the conflict in Yugoslavia. The three countries condemned all actions that were incompatible with the accepted legal norms of warfare, especially attacks on civilians, and advocated solutions that respected the right of nations to self-determination including the formation of independent states, and that guaranteed full protection for the rights of national minorities. It took the European Community some time to endorse those very principles.

The United States and the three Benelux countries were the first to warmly welcome the initiative. The term "Visegrad countries" was probably first used in international diplomacy by US Secretary of State James Baker in September 1991 in New York when he met the foreign ministers of the three countries. That congress was soon followed by a meeting between these ministers and their Benelux counterparts on 27 September, 1991. Many foreign leaders saw a welcome model in our cooperation, something worth following for other regional groupings. The European Community's signing of the "Europe Agreements" on association with these three countries at a joint ceremony in Brussels on 16 December, 1991, was a very visible endorsement of the Visegrad model.

It would be a mistake to think that anti-Russian feelings were the major common platform of Visegrad. On the contrary, we were keen to maintain our economic relations with, and our traditional exports to, the former Soviet Union, and sought common arrangements with the EC and the US to send aid to the new Commonwealth of Independent States, such as at the conference in Washington, D.C. in January 1992. On the other hand, feeling and fearing a security vacuum in Central Europe, the Visegrad Group sought membership in NATO. The first public expression of this wish was at the summit on 6 May in Prague. At the time we sent a message to the 12 members of the European Council indicating our wish to join as full members.

Enthusiasm for "Visegrad" was not universal in the three member countries. Prime Minister Antall had some words for the dissenters at the Prague Summit: "We value the cooperation we have embarked upon most highly. On the other hand I am greatly surprised that there are people who are not aware of its significance, who believe that a combination involving three is an obstacle in the fast-track approach to NATO. We are of the opinion that our combination facilitates our acceptance, and that those who seek separate roads will be undeceived within a few months."

The 1992 elections in the Czech and Slovak lands and the subsequent split of Czechoslovakia led to a short-lived ebb in high-level political cooperation, but at the same time an important step was made in the economic field with the signing of the Central European Free Trade Agreement in December 1992. In March 1993 CEFTA came into effect, eliminating approximately 40 percent of the duties on industrial goods. In the following years, with further tariff reductions and with the accession of Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria, the common CEFTA market covered nearly 90 million people, and trade between the members increased significantly, preparing the ground for barrier-free commercial relations once these countries joined the EU. Although the accession of the Visegrad countries to the EU in 2004 meant that CEFTA lost its founders, the Agreement nevertheless continued.

Overcoming Russian opposition to NATO enlargement involved coordination with the entire Euro-Atlantic community. President Clinton's visit to Prague in January 1994, and his determination to meet there specifically with the Visegrad Four, gave a boost to the Group's cooperation by showing that Antall had been right, that more could be achieved by keeping together. By presenting and maintaining a common front rather than appeasing Russia, three of the Visegrad members gained entrance into NATO in 1999, with Slovakia following several years later.

Changes in the governments of the member countries by 1998 contributed to a renewed awareness of the value of the Visegrad association, which by then had accomplished almost the entire agenda of 1991. I personally hope that as members of the EU these four Central European countries will continue as a regional group, leading to an enhanced Visegrad both in content and as a geographical extension.


Géza Jeszenszky
Professor of history, politician. Founding member of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (1988) and Hungarian Foreign Minister (1990-1994). President of the Hungarian Atlantic Council (1995-1998) and then Ambassador to the United States of America (1998-2002). Currently teaches international relations and history of Central Europe in Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

© 2006–2017, International Visegrad Fund.
   
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