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Chmel, Rudolf: My Visegrad Question

I am not a fan of self-quotation, and even though one can occasionally not avoid plagiarizing oneself, I dislike re-reading things I have written. But now there's no help for it, partly for practical reasons, but mostly for personal ones. The text I have been asked to write here cannot help but be personal.
When in June 1990 I came to Budapest as the Czecho-Slovak ambassador (not knowing I would be the last one), Czecho-Slovakia was regarded very positively, and it was almost a pleasure to represent such a country. Given that I had a lot of old friends in Hungarian politics and public life, the pleasure was all the greater. It was no coincidence that among the ambassadorial community, my best friend was Maciej Koźmiński, a superb Polish historian and "Hungarologist". In ambassadorial posts and in surrounding states we met above all with intellectual names such as Jacek Baluch and György Varga in Prague, and Ákos Engelmayer and the young dissident Markéta Fialková in Poland. In such company (we somehow found plenty of reasons to get together) and parallel to "high" politicians we generated a more internal meaning and content for Visegrad cooperation. But I'm getting ahead of myself, and as a good memorialist, who has already put out a book of his recollections from this period called My Hungarian Question (1996), I should humbly return to the beginning. On 15 February, 1991 I wrote the following text, which I believe can be regarded not only as a subjective one, but also as historically authentic:
"Today, finally, was an historic day - the inauguration of the Visegrad Three. The idea of coordination and cooperation between the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, Poland, and Hungary was proposed first by President Václav Havel in the Polish Sejm on 25 January, 1990. On that occasion he invited the representatives of Hungary and Poland to meet on 9 April in Bratislava. These were not the main steps towards Visegrad, but they were undoubtedly important preparatory events that were made more concrete in November at a meeting between Havel, and Prime Ministers József Antall and Tadeusz Mazowiecki at a CSCE summit in Paris.

Back in Bratislava these three states had agreed on a certain minimum, that they would later issue a common declaration. Now the moment has arrived, and we will see if the three countries can fall in step over the longer term. Yesterday, following the arrival of our delegation after dinner with its own entourage (an elegant protocol term that means you are not accompanied by a host) the Czecho-Slovak representation went to the nearby residence of President Arpád Göncz. Göncz had a warm welcome for Václav Havel, Marián Čalfa, Karel Schwarzenberg, and Alexander Vondra. György Konrád was also present. Together we set out on an evening stroll, ending up at the Vienna Café of the Forum Hotel (Karel Schwarzenberg subtly remarked that he would have preferred the original café, meaning the non-Vienna one!). In terms of the overall atmosphere, the Czecho-Slovak delegation dined in a restaurant at the government residence, while at the same time the Polish, led by Lech WaΠ´sa, dined in an adjoining restaurant, separated from ours by a wall; there was no contact.

We departed as if in secrecy after dinner to see Arpád Göncz, while József Antall (again, as if in secrecy) at the same time arrived to take tea with Lech Walesa, who didn't want to go to town with him for dinner. In other words, at a certain point in the evening, all of the basic parties to the Visegrad talks were under one roof, but they didn't meet. Our meeting with Arpád Göncz was interesting in that József Antall, his government and the Hungarian foreign ministry had done all they could in the preceding weeks to manoeuvre Göncz out of the action. The almost three-hour meeting and stroll of the small Czecho-Slovak group with Arpád Göncz, including a pleasant chat at the Forum Hotel, helped, I believe, to alleviate the rather cold atmosphere of the founding summit (even relations between Havel and Walesa were not marked by unusual sincerity). Today's talks focused on cooperation between the three countries, the situation in the Soviet Union and within the Warsaw Pact, and the conflict in the Persian Gulf. Václav Havel noted that today we were following up on the meeting in Bratislava from April of last year. He said that Western Europe was expecting to see successful cooperation between the countries of the Visegrad Three, and that our ability to coordinate our efforts was, in their eyes, a test of the maturity of our new democracies. He said we should not be aiming to start a new pact or to set up a cordon sanitaire, but suggested that we needed some kind of security guarantee, and that this could be provided by the treaty that we were to sign with each other. Lech Walesa informed Václav Havel and József Antall that he - unlike them - was a practical politician, and that he was saddened by the fact that an unhealthy rivalry had grown up between our countries. Minister Krzysztof Skubiszewski stressed the need to conclude new bilateral treaties between our countries that would contain conditions for military cooperation as well. József Antall also stressed that the West disliked it when small countries squabbled. He reported that Romania was interested in joining the Visegrad Three, as Prime Minister Roman had written him in a letter claiming that "the division of the former socialist countries into Central and Eastern Europe is an artificial one". Géza Jeszenszky, the only one to mention national minorities, pointed out the existence of a large Russian minority. Of Bulgaria and Romania Václav Havel said that Visegrad was not an attempt to isolate anyone, but to promote cooperation between neighbours who shared similar fates.
At this meeting a proposal was officially adopted to create an ambassadorial forum of the Visegrad Three. The ceremonial signing of the Joint Declaration amid the ruins of Visegrad officially confirmed the will of the three countries to cooperate on the road to European integration. We'll see if it remains valid in a year, or two, or three..."

Since then I have participated in various Visegrad summits, ambassadors' meetings (these remain in my memory by virtue of the pleasant intellectual company they provided), and smaller gatherings such as summits of culture ministers, seminars, and conferences of experts and intellectuals. In short, I have travelled Central Europe in support of Visegrad in times that were both trying (until 1998) and more positive (after 1998) for the alliance. The bibliography of my writings on Visegrad is also not a meagre one, although the tone of most of these texts is not optimistic but sceptical, because the view of things from the inside gave few reasons for optimism. They still don't. The basic idea of Visegrad cooperation was that it should lead us together to the European political, economic and security structures we craved, and this has been fulfilled. This is a significant accomplishment, even though not all of the participants in the Visegrad Three, or from 1993 the Visegrad Four, saw the same meaning and future in this common work. But the result stands. What remains is for us to remember, even within unified Europe, that Central Europe truly unites these four states and nations, and that they should continue to coexist as a meaningful political, economic and cultural unit in the future. I am neither a sceptic regarding Visegrad (I may be the only one who is not), nor am I dogmatic about it, but I believe that after so much variable weather, the skies above Central Europe - above the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia - will eventually clear.

Rudolf Chmel
Literature historian. Former Minister of Culture of the Slovak Republic (2002-2005), president of the Open Society Foundation (1993-2000), and ambassador of Czechoslovakia to Hungary (1990-1993). Former editor-in-chief of the Central European Gazette. Member of the Slovak parliament.

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