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Kováč, Michal: A True Feeling of Togetherness

At the time the Visegrad Group was formed I was a minister in the Slovak government, and Slovakia was a part of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. While I was not a direct participant in this act, I felt very keenly all of the positive things it led to, and was keenly aware that the event leading to the formation of this forum was held at Bratislava Castle.

When we realize that from one day to the next all post-communist countries of Eastern Europe ceased to be part of the Comecon and the Warsaw Pact, and as if out of thin air found themselves free and independent, we are better able to understand the importance of the foundation of Visegrad for these countries. A feeling of loneliness was replaced by a true feeling of togetherness, of a meaningful cooperation with countries that had all inherited the same problems following the break-up of the Soviet bloc.

At the same time, these countries expressed the readiness to cooperate in solving these problems, as well as the will to transform themselves into democratic states while respecting the principles of legal states, and to transform their economies into market economies. Above all, they freely and spontaneously subscribed to the values held by the Euro-Atlantic community. Their citizens at various gatherings expressed all of this with their slogans and their chants: "We want to return to Europe."
I sensed an extraordinary desire for cooperation among these countries once I became the first President of the Slovak Republic from 1993 to 1998. The development of cooperation between the countries of the Visegrad Group depended above all on the approaches of their governments and Prime Ministers. The Presidents of these countries could do nothing to change these attitudes. At our meetings as Central European Presidents we always gladly welcomed it whenever any government head expressed the will to deepen cooperation, but we also watched with great misgivings as the Czech Prime Minister from the ODS party blocked attempts to deepen or institutionalize the Visegrad relationship. But the Visegrad Group survived these growing pains, and I welcomed the founding of the International Visegrad Fund.

I regarded the deepening of cooperation not as an attempt to replace or postpone integration to the EU, but rather as a means of hastening the integration process. Unfortunately, in the 15-year history of the Visegrad Group, we were also witness to a certain amount of rivalry as to who would gain entry to the EU first. It was a period when some groups succumbed to egoism and put individual aims of being in the EU as soon as possible ahead of the wider and more intense cooperation that helped to hasten the integration of all Visegrad countries to the EU.

Here I am not referring to the fact that Slovakia was not invited to begin entry negotiations at the same time as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. The decision of the EU and NATO on this score was entirely justified by the fact that the Slovak government of Vladimír Mečiar (1994 to 1998) did not respect the suggestions and criticisms of the EU, and departed from the path of deepening and strengthening democracy. The demarches and diplomatic notes Slovakia received from the EU states and the US sounded the same message: "Slovakia is experiencing an absence of democracy."

Even though all of the Visegrad Group members have now joined the European Union, in my opinion we have still not exhausted the justification for continued cooperation. Developments have shown that unless we want to be just passive members of the EU, we have to speak with a common voice and message. Regular concrete and constructive dialogue can't hurt anybody. It is always possible to find a solution or a compromise that does not weaken the identities of individual countries and does not slow economic development, but on the contrary sparks further growth. It's time to look for new forms of cooperation, ones that can help us catch up to the other member states of the European Union.

Michal Kováč
Politician, economist. President of the Slovak Republic (1993-1998). Founder and Vice-Chairman of the Movement for Democratic Slovakia and Chairman of the Federal Assembly of Czechoslovakia (1992). Finance Minister of the Slovak Republic (1989-1991).

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