Those whose memories go back far enough will remember the 15 years of cooperation represented by the Visegrad Group. The group was officially constituted by a document signed in February 1991 in Visegrad, Hungary, by two Presidents - Václav Havel and Lech Walesa - and one Prime Minister, József Antall.
In a certain sense, however, the close cooperation in Central Europe represented by the Visegrad Group started long before then. The grand ceremonial signing in Visegrad had to wait until Lech Walesa became the Polish President, because without his signature the act of signing would have lacked an important dimension. It also had to wait until the organization of the meeting could be undertaken by the Hungarians, because the relatively freer conditions in Hungary in the late 1980s meant that after the Velvet Revolution of late 1989, they had perhaps the best prepared and most professional government, which worked hard to make sure the moment would leave its mark on history. But the modern beginnings of Czech-Hungarian-Polish-Slovak cooperation go back before 1989 to the period of dissent. In 1981, when Jaruzelski's "state of war" drove the Polish unofficial trade union Solidarity underground, opposition groups in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw realized with increasing urgency that they had to work together. The domino-like collapse of the communist regimes in 1989 was presaged by the mutual solidarity of the repressed. As early as the late 1970s, the first secret meetings of leading representatives of the Polish Workers' Defence Committee (KOR) and the Czechoslovak Charter 77 were held on the Polish-Czech border. Contraband flowed across the same border in both directions in the form of samizdat literature and pamphlets, printing technology and financial assistance. Young Czechs and Slovaks who had not yet had their travel documents confiscated travelled to Poland to gain inspiration and experience. The Czechoslovak-Hungarian border was just as hot: Tons of literature published by the Czechoslovak exile community were smuggled from Hungary to Bratislava and Prague.
It was a time when intellectuals in Bratislava, Brno, Budapest, Gdańsk, Košice, Kraków, Prague, Warsaw, and Wroclaw became more keenly aware of their political and cultural kinship. Samizdat publications were full of translations of works by Adam Michnik, György Konrád, Czeslaw Milosz, and others. The Poles and Hungarians loved Václav Havel and Bohumil Hrabal. They all read Milan Kundera's "The Tragedy of Central Europe" when it first came out in 1984. In the West, Timothy Garton Ash popularized Central Europe in his essays; in Czechoslovakia, the idea of Central Europe was given new life by Luděk Bednář and Petruška šustrová when they put out a samizdat magazine by the same name.
In 1989, when communist regimes in Europe were collapsing like houses of cards, it was not hard to take this awareness and pour it into a new mould, that of practical international cooperation. From the very early days of January 1990, we had dozens of discussions in the Prague Castle about how to strengthen such cooperation and give it institutional expression. Two new ambassadors to Prague had a major role to play: György Varga, the translator of Havel and Hrabal into Hungarian and a great admirer of Central European literature, and Jacek Baluch, a Polish literary historian from Kraków who dreamed of reviving the spirit of the ancient cooperation.
At the end of January 1990 President Václav Havel went to Warsaw on a state visit and in a speech delivered in the Polish Sejm invited Polish and Hungarian representatives to the Bratislava Castle to talk about these things "in peace and quiet." He summarised the idea behind cooperation in Central Europe as follows: "We should not compete with each other to gain admission into the various European organizations. On the contrary, we should assist each other in the same spirit of solidarity in which, in darker days, you protested already quoted our persecution as we did against yours." The next day, Havel travelled to Budapest with the same message.
The idea of close cooperation and coordination in Central Europe had its own raison d'être.We wanted not only to reconnect with the tradition of cultural kinship and cooperation from the period of dissent, but also - and perhaps chiefly - we wanted to avoid any revival of the hostile rivalry and jealousy that had destroyed our mutual relations in the inter-war period and left us easy prey for the powerful appetites of Berlin and Moscow. Těšín/Cieszyn and Komárno/Komárom - the former straddling the border between the Czech Republic and Poland, the latter between Slovakia and Hungary - would become bridges leading to a deeper kinship, not theatres of new conflict. We felt very strongly that cooperation between countries living on the uncertain territory between a reuniting Germany and a collapsing Soviet Union was a matter of supreme and vital importance.
That meeting at the Bratislava Castle took place at the beginning of April 1990. At a conference of intellectuals on the theme of "Ethics and Politics," almost everyone who meant something in the Central European discourse was there: Ján Čarnogurský, Ladislav Hejdánek, Zbigniew Janas, János Kiss, György Konrád, Adam Michnik, László Szigeti, and many others. That was followed by a summit of the top representatives of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland, to which the foreign ministers of Italy, Yugoslavia, and Austria were invited as observers. At the time, Havel was the only President in attendance to have emerged from the democratic opposition, and from the sour smiles of our Polish and Hungarian friends, it was clear that they would have preferred to be represented at such a meeting by someone other than the communist General Jaruzelski or his Hungarian friend (whose name - I swear - has already vanished from my mind.)
But we, the Czechoslovaks who organized this meeting, did a less than stellar job as well. Our revolution was proceeding at breakneck speed and there was scarcely time to prepare properly for such an important meeting. Havel's concept of the summit as an intellectual, Socratic "symposium" had a certain charm, but it proved an inappropriate forum for practical politics. Many fine speeches were made at the conference and at the summit, but nothing concrete came out of them. Thus did Bratislava lose its chance to make history.
Despite everything, the Bratislava meeting, in my opinion, had great significance. It paved the way to Visegrad. And in the summer of 1991, when the leaders of the putsch in Moscow tried to bring down Mikhail Gorbachov, Visegrad went through its first trial by fire. During some discreet meetings in the Tatra Mountains in Poland, coordinated steps to be taken by all three countries were agreed upon, resulting in a common declaration that autumn in Kraków that put Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland on the road to NATO membership.
The brief history of cooperation within the Visegrad Group has had its ups and downs. There were times when some politicians in Prague and Budapest thought the Visegrad Group was merely an impediment to their rapid integration into the West or into Europe. Why should we wait for the slowest among us to catch up? they asked. Nor did the authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar's accession to power in an independent Slovakia help matters. Yet despite these difficulties, time has clearly shown that the Visegrad Group is viable and has a future. It was precisely this close and coordinated work among the three countries that compelled American and Western European politicians to open the doors of the Atlantic alliance to us.
Thanks to those who helped to create a new spirit of cooperation in Central Europe, no great barriers remain in the way of Czech-Hungarian-Polish-Slovak cooperation.
Alexandr "Saša" Vondra
Former Foreign Policy advisor to
Václav Havel (1990-1992).
Czech First Deputy Foreign Minister
(1992-1997), Czech Ambassador to
USA (1997-2001). Spokesman of
Charter 77 and a co-founder of the
Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia.