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Dienstbier, Jiří: Visegrad - The First Phase

After taking power in December 1989, we understood that entry into the democratic world would be a long and bumpy road. It wasn't clear to anyone, not even in the West, what the new Europe would look like.

It was in our interest, though, to ensure that a democratic society was firmly established not only in our own country, but in the neighbouring countries as well. After all, it had been precisely such unresolved tensions between the countries of Central Europe that had contributed to the catastrophe of a world war and, ultimately, to the establishment of a Soviet regime in the region. An iron curtain came down between the countries of the Soviet bloc as well.

The false brotherhood of the oppressors disappeared after the collapse of their regimes. The new cooperation, however, was made easier for us by the years of personal contacts between the dissident movements whose members, first in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and soon afterward in Hungary, assumed political power. Despite their differences, the three Central European countries were, of all the post-communist states, the closest to each other in terms of historical and cultural ties, level of their economies, and their way of thinking, which in those countries was expressed in widespread opposition to the Soviet system.

In January 1990, as Czechoslovak foreign minister, I took part in meetings in Warsaw about how our three countries could support each other in dismantling the Soviet empire, transforming our countries politically and economically, and integrating with the institutions of the developed world. In Budapest, I agreed with Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn that one of the aims of our common labors would be contributing to the creation of a united Europe. President Havel convened an informal meeting in Bratislava on 9 April, 1990, to which official representatives and some publicly active citizens of Poland and Hungary were invited. The foreign ministers of Austria, Italy, and Yugoslavia accepted invitations as observers.

To all those present, the President posed a question: Can we agree that we do not wish to place obstacles in each other's way, or even envy each other, but on the contrary, that we want to assist each other? This was how Havel officially initiated the dialogue between these Central European countries.

The first test of this approach was the departure of the Soviet troops and the gradual curtailing and ultimately the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. The level of cooperation in 1990 was so remarkable that it led to efforts to formalize it. At the Paris Summit of the Council for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in November 1990, a delegation of the Central European "troika" held talks mainly on harmonizing their approaches to integration with Western Europe. Prime Minister József Antall of Hungary suggested that we follow up the meeting in Bratislava with one in Visegrad, Hungary. Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki suggested a further meeting in Kraków. At the same time we made it clear that we were not creating a new bloc, if only because in the West many people were proposing cooperation in Central Europe as a substitute for structural integration into Western Europe.

Preparations for the meeting in Visegrad were accelerated by developments in the Soviet Union. After Eduard Shevardnadze's departure as Soviet foreign minister our three foreign ministers decided on 21 January, 1991 that we would try to achieve "the quickest possible dissolution of the Warsaw Pact" and that we would work together to negotiate all the association agreements with the European Community.

On 15 February, 1991, József Antall opened a summit meeting of the "troika" in the Hungarian parliament buildings in Budapest. The delegations agreed that working groups would be set up to seek solutions to particular problems; that the Prime Ministers and Presidents would meet once a year; and that the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Defence, and other areas would hold regular consultations. They also instructed the ambassadors of the three countries to carry a common message to the governments in whose countries they were accredited, and so on.

In conversations about European security there was a basic and overarching agreement that a pan-European security system should take the place of former pacts, and at the same time that NATO, as the only working security institution, should become the pillar of this system. That formulation, which at first sight may appear somewhat schizophrenic, was a reflection of the "situation on the ground." At that time the notion of expansion was unacceptable to NATO. It was, however, possible to discuss the role of NATO within the framework of the CSCE.

From Budapest we drove to the Danube River where, in a chapel among the ruins of the former Visegrad, Antall, Havel, and Walesa signed the Declaration of Cooperation among the three countries who were on the road to European integration. The Presidents, Prime Ministers, and foreign ministers were photographed together in front of a memorial plaque commemorating the fact that in this fortress, on 19 November, 1335, three kings had met - the Hungarian king, Robert of Anjou, the Polish king, Kazimierz, and the Czech monarch, Jan of Luxembourg - to negotiate peace and economic cooperation in Central Europe. Thus did the informal "Visegrad Group" become a formal entity.

In agreement with Poland and Hungary we, as the country chairing the Warsaw Pact, accelerated the dissolution of the military organization and then the dissolution of the Pact itself through an agreement among the member states that took effect on 1 July, 1991. The "troika" also adopted a common approach in negotiating new agreements with the Soviet Union. In New York on 27 September, at a meeting of the two "troikas" - the Benelux and the Visegrad Group - the foreign ministers of Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands confirmed their intention to quickly sign agreements regarding the application of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland, for membership in the European Community, including the proviso that these candidacies should aim at full membership as soon as possible. The Benelux Group offered the Visegrad Three information about how they had created the first European regional grouping in the 1950s.

A day before the summit in Kraków's Hotel Forum in October 1991, the three foreign ministers discussed a common approach to Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, as well as association agreements with the European Community, security in Europe, and ways to broaden trilateral cooperation. The ministers of economy talked about a more integrated economic area, about customs tariffs for the three countries, and about liberalizing trade in harmony with the liberalization of trade with the 12 countries of the European Union. They decided to appeal to the European Community to quickly clarify the terms on which Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland would participate in Western aid to the Soviet Union. They also decided to ask the European Community for help in restructuring the economies of their three countries, particularly in light of the collapse of the Soviet market. The meeting climaxed with the acceptance of the Kraków Declaration on the group's further activities. The foreign ministers issued a joint statement about cooperation with NATO. Our "troika" also worked to prepare a triangular operation in which aid would be provided to the Soviet Union by sending them goods from Central Europe financed by Western institutions. Given their experience with the Soviet marketplace, the "troika" offered to provide services to Western countries such as warehousing, transportation, and the marketing of goods though our networks, as well as the distribution of Western shipments. The Benelux countries supported this triangular operation. In January a conference in Washington, D.C. on aid to the Soviet Union - which by now was the former Soviet Union - gave high marks to this common approach. On 22 January, 1992, speaking on behalf of the three countries of Central Europe, I said that humanitarian assistance was only the first step: "The strategy for success in Europe consists of extending democracy eastward." The funds provided by the West could thus fulfil several functions at once: "They can stabilize the post-Soviet countries and, at the same time, stabilize democracy in Central Europe. In other words, they can guarantee the progress of democracy, stability, and renewal throughout the entire post-communist world."

The United States and the European Community saw in our activities an assurance that there would be stability in Central Europe, and a gradual widening of the zone of democracy and freedom to the East. For German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, for instance, the stability of the three countries in the "troika" pointed to the possibility of success and positive change in the former USSR. Beyond that, we had demonstrated that we would know how to cooperate as well in European integration. It was also thanks to this mutual coordination that all three countries signed association agreements in Brussels as early as December 1991, only a year after they had begun talking about doing so.

The final summit of the Visegrad Three was held in Prague on 6 May, 1992. The day before, the foreign ministers had met in Prague with representatives of the European Community and the European commissions to agree on further steps toward integration. The ministers from the Visegrad Group discussed whether to continue talks with the Benelux Group, and prepared the first document concerning their intent to contribute to three-way cross-border cooperation, which would facilitate direct contacts between communities, companies, and independent organizations.

The broad declaration placed a high value on the activity that had become "a new model for relationships" and "a stabilizing factor in Central and Eastern Europe." In a special message to the members of the European Union, the Visegrad Three confirmed that "the ultimate aim of our countries is to enter the European Union," and restated their desire "to take an active part in the creation of a European security system." Before the Lisbon Summit of the European Council, they expressed the hope that "the strategy of the Community will be shaped in such a way that our countries will become an integral part of the European Union." And they confirmed their "determination to continue to develop areas of cooperation between us, which we hope will be a useful contribution to attaining our common goal of a unified Europe."

Finally, in a message to the G7 before their meeting in Munich, the Visegrad Three appealed to the group of the seven most economically successful countries in the world to support their "efforts to strengthen cooperation among our three countries, which we judge to be in the common interest of European integration and international cooperation."

Before the summer of 1992, the Visegrad Group managed to achieve a high level of common activity that was well regarded both in the European Communities and the United States. Many promising plans were halted or reversed by the setback that occurred in Europe in 1992. The bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia and the inability of other countries and international organizations to intervene effectively drew more and more attention to itself, as did the unexpected difficulties arising from the integration of the former German Democratic Republic into a unified Germany, the growth of unemployment, and also the break-up of Czechoslovakia.

Nevertheless, the fact that three - and, after the division of Czechoslovakia, four - Central European countries were able, at the outset, to demonstrate an aptitude for multi-tiered cooperation was one of the factors that led to their being among the first post-communist states to join the process of European integration. Today the issues are different than they were 15 years ago. But the cooperation of the Visegrad countries continues to be a guarantee of regional stability. It can still be an effective instrument for dealing more rapidly with the demands of integration into the European Union. Support for democracy on its eastern and south-eastern borders can remain a unique and active contribution to the common politics of Europe.

Jiří Dienstbier
Czech journalist and writer. After 1968 prevented from practicing his profession, active member of the Charter 77. After 1989, Deputy Prime Minister of the federal government and Minister of Foreign Affairs. In the second half of the 1990s, UN Special Envoy in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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