Interview with Petr Vágner, Executive Director of the International Visegrad Fund
WHAT Petr Vágner likes about the International Visegrad Fund (IVF) is that it is a living organism, able to adjust to the changing needs of the Visegrad Four countries, from the challenge of integrating Roma into the respective societies, to energy and environmental safety, and assisting regions in need. The IVF has had a role in transferring the integration experiences of the V4 group to countries which are pursuing the goal of joining European and Euro-Atlantic groupings.
In an interview with The Slovak Spectator, Vágner, who is the executive director of the IVF, said: "We are not trying to paint the V4 in pink colours; on the contrary we are making an effort to define the mistakes we have made so that the countries we are supporting can try to avoid them."
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You are now managing a fund which has played an active role in assisting integration in the central European region: within the Visegrad Group countries and beyond their borders. How do you assess its operation and what do you see as its main role in the future?
Petr Vágner (PV): When we were setting up the fund it really had not occurred to me that one day I might be sitting here and talking to a journalist as its executive director. At that time, the main goal was to reinforce unity and solidarity between the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. It was pretty much the main objective while initially the fund worked with a €1 million budget. Now, for 2010, we are working with a €6 million budget and the fund has grown into an institution supporting projects of regional, cross-border cooperation in areas of education, culture, youth exchange and science. In fact, the budget of the fund gets regularly extended, along with the areas that the fund's operations cover.
The IVF gradually moved its focus from only internal cooperation to also widening the ring of prosperity and stability in neighbouring regions going through transition, mostly in eastern Europe and the western Balkans.
One of the important steps was the founding of scholarships which initially financed the study of Visegrad students outside of the V4, particularly in Western countries. This format disappeared after the four countries entered the European Union. Now we have scholarships to support the movement of our students within the Visegrad region and in some eastern and Balkan countries, programmes for students from eastern Europe, especially Ukraine and Belarus, but also for south Caucasus countries and the countries of the Balkans.
TSS: Is there enough interest in these scholarships? Do they respond effectively to the changing conditions in those countries?
PV: The countries I listed are quite well-informed about the scholarships. I worked for four years in Ukraine and I recall that students there had an interest in these scholarships. The fund has really been a living organism, which evolved according to the needs of the region and how circumstances were changing in those countries. For example, scholarships for Ukrainian students were a kind of reaction to the Orange Revolution and started with supporting Ukrainian post-graduates. Today, there is a demand for master's degree programmes as well. The advantage we offer is that there is not much bureaucracy involved. If the application is well-prepared and the student has a clear idea what to study and where, getting a scholarship is possible without major obstacles. Of course, our capacity is not unlimited.
There are no priority areas in scholarships, though I personally would prefer some. Students interested in IVF scholarships should choose such specializations which they will be able to use after their return home. There is not any doubt how interesting, for instance, research on Czech history could be but the possibility to find work in this branch is not too high. I am not saying that IVF should not support this and similar scholarships but the interest to have needed specialists should prevail.
The key requirement, however, is that an applicant finds a school within the Visegrad group willing to accept the student. The students are welcomed since each school receives €1,500 per student each semester. We provide a scholarship of €2,500 per one semester, which seems to me quite generous support since within the Visegrad Group countries €500 per month is a sufficient sum.
TSS: One of the V4 countries' priorities is the transfer of experiences with integration into NATO and the EU to countries that aspire to enter the Euro-Atlantic structures. Which countries are in need of such know-how and what can V4 countries offer them?
PV: Countries which were a part of the so-called socialist camp walked through a very similar historical path in the second half of the 20th century. V4 countries managed quite quickly to overcome their difficult heritage from this period and to become a part of the Euro-Atlantic community. It is now our moral duty to help countries which have been not so successful yet to overcome difficulties that we faced during the transition process. The IVF indeed applies the strategy shared by each V4 member towards countries of the eastern countries and the western Balkans.
The projects, of course, have various characteristics including providing experiences from the transformation process to experts from these countries. We also involve students from these regions by granting them scholarships and allowing them to experience the actual results of the transformation process. The third type of project is transferring experiences to journalists and educators at seminars and workshops when they travel to the V4 region and have an opportunity to observe some of the changes here. Of course, they are the ones to decide what is useful for them and what is not. There is a very important aspect: we are not trying to paint V4 in pink colours. On the contrary we are making an effort to define the mistakes we have made so that the countries we are supporting can try to avoid them.
The IVF supports, for example, cooperation between towns which I find to be a very useful initiative. In Ukraine I had a chance to see how this initiative worked in real life. When local administration representatives get a chance to come to the V4, to meet their colleagues and see how things are done here then the mayors find some common ground since the problems are very similar: how to fill the towns' coffers or how to dispose of communal waste.
When it comes to transferring historical knowledge, our advantage is that we share similar historical experiences and we are able to transfer it to Ukraine or Belarus somehow more effectively than some western countries, which do not actually have our experiences.
TSS: Prime ministers of the V4 countries at their last meeting in Poland decided to increase the budget of the fund. How have they justified this decision in these times of economic downturn?
PV: Nearly every year at their summit the prime ministers have increased the amount of support for the fund, which really shows that the political elites are aware of its importance. What comes as a pleasant surprise is that the economic crisis has not yet influenced our projects and the prime ministers have approved a €1 million increase to our budget. The support has its logic though, since the fund has been helping to push through political objectives that V4 countries share: supporting mutuality and solidarity among the members and strengthening communication between neighbours.
TSS: The fund has contributed to more intense movement of young people within V4 countries and the surrounding regions. How has the fund achieved this?
PV: We have already spoken about IVF scholarships which are possible to take as the most important means helping movement by our young people, but not only them. IVF actively supports programmes oriented on creating links among different groups of people with the same interests, sport tournaments, art exhibitions, theatre festivals, etc. There is also an opportunity to develop relations among villages, towns or regions.
TSS: Countries of the V4 are culturally close but in a sense also very diverse. Is there something like a common culture of the Visegrad region?
PV: The Fund aspires to bring national cultures closer but I do not think this should ultimately lead to the creation of some kind of 'Visegrad culture'.
On the contrary, the more diverse our cultures are, the richer the region is. Then of course we have to seek the connecting points which have developed through more than the 1000-year history of this region where we have met sometimes as friends and sometimes as enemies. It would be worthy of a separate study, which the International Visegrad Fund could support, to look at how we perceive each other and how the historical experience has formed each nation's perception of the others. Perhaps a textbook on the history of central Europe would be useful and the fund could support it.
TSS: There has been a perception that programmes of the International Visegrad Fund focus mainly on the areas of education and culture.
PV: Yes, in early stages there was a trend that the fund supported mostly education and culture projects and there originated perhaps an impression that we supported everything that our culture ministries were not able to support but our spectrum was, and is, wider. Applicants from the field of education and culture still prevail but the number of scientific projects is growing. We would like to support more scientific projects. Of course, we would have a problem due to our financial capacity to directly support scientific research, especially in natural sciences or medicine but we can finance conferences and forums that might inspire new ideas or build teams in the scientific area.
TSS: One of the most urgent issues that almost all V4 countries share is the poverty and poor conditions in Roma communities. How can the International Visegrad Fund contribute to finding solutions?
PV: A Roma agenda was involved among strategic projects for coming years and we hope to reach some concrete results. We do not want to end up producing additional conferences which will only describe the problem. The problem has already been described very well and we need to progress to some real action. We are pondering the possibility of bringing together leaders of towns and villages and creating a platform for intensive mutual exchange of ideas and experiences. The participants should be able to report 'we are treating the issue this way and it works' or 'we have tried this way and it failed'. We are open to other projects as well while supporting education projects for the Roma.
We also might try out the option of bringing some ideas and possible projects to the table and offering them to people. Yet, Roma projects have their urgency and we want to make sure that they truly follow the objective of integrating Roma into society.
TSS: Is there enough awareness about the activities of the Fund?
PV: The awareness about the IVF is growing and not only inside V4 countries but outside them too. IVF is helping in this process by various actions like presentations at various forums. However, I think that the best promotion for IVF is each successful project or interesting scholarship.
TSS: Do you have some personal priorities in managing the Fund?
PV: I came to a very well-functioning organisation. When I submitted my concept proposal to the competition at our ministry I clearly stressed that I would not make artificial changes just to prove that I am changing something. Perhaps we will now put more stress on strategic projects and somehow tune them more to the needs of the V4 countries. The fund should also help politicians of the region to look at several options for solving problems in different areas, such as environmental issues and energy security.
The support for environmental activities is, as well, among one of our priorities and our strategic project is now called Green Visegrad. It comes as a logical outcome of current developments. Environmental projects have always had their support since the countries are in the same space and indeed are trying to solve very similar problems.
The same goes for energy security. Of course, we do not have the money to build a pipeline or a power plant from our resources, but what we can do is to offer experts within our projects, which the IVF supports as a discussion forum, to think about what could be done with the problem. It is an urgent issue and V4 countries certainly have experts who have generated knowledge in these areas.
It will be important for the fund to be also able to flexibly react to the emerging needs of the V4 countries. We can create new programmes or support new grants and in this way give an opportunity to solve emerging problems. In short, the IVF must be a living organism.
We also are considering more clearly separating small grants from Standard Grants. Today, Small Grants are given up to €5,000 and Standard Grants are over €5,000 and these grants might need a greater degree of separation.
We put a lot of stress on transparency and accuracy. Sometimes the IVF is criticised for being too pedantic with the funds. I can say only one thing: we have strict rules and these must be kept. Four governments trust us with not insignificant financial resources and we do not have the right to fail. In addition, I do not think that the conditions that must be fulfilled to get a grant are too complicated. Nevertheless, we will continue in our effort to make the conditions clearer and the application process simpler if it is possible to do so. Visegrad's programs should be open for all who have interesting ideas and who want to cooperate with people from other countries.