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Koźmiński, Maciej: Diplomacy over Buckwheat and Dumplings

On 15 February, 1991, in the hall of the renaissance palace, at the foot of the castle hill, surrounded by the monumental walls of the medieval residence of Hungarian kings, two documents were issued. One, the Declaration on Cooperation between the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, the Republic of Poland and, the Republic of Hungary in Striving for European Integration, was signed by the Presidents and the Prime Minister of Hungary, while the second - and this fact is rarely remembered - the Solemn Statement, was signed by the Presidents and Prime Ministers of these countries.

The Declaration contains an extensive catalogue of possible goals that were to be achieved over months or years. The first goal included "full restitution of state independence, democracy and freedom". The list of "practical steps" that were to be jointly undertaken began with the announcement that the parties to the agreement "shall harmonize their activities to shape cooperation and close contacts with European institutions and shall hold regular consultations on security matters." This "practical step", its meaning obscured by the sophisticated language of diplomacy, actually called for the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and of the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance as soon as possible.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the international situation created favourable circumstances for the Visegrad partners to undertake mutual steps. The diplomats and the originators, initiators and organizers of the founding Visegrad meeting - at that time the roles were not precisely distinguished - skilfully interpreted "the moment in history" and marked its place.  The Solemn Statement, in profoundly solemn words, recalled the meeting in Visegrad of "prominent predecessors" in 1335, including Casimir III, the king of Poland; John of Luxembourg, the king of Bohemia; and Charles Robert, the king of Hungary. This small town situated on the Danube River must have preserved some kind of genus loci, since it gave its name to probably the best known form of regional cooperation in Central Europe at the end of the 20th century.

The Statement, signed by Presidents Lech Walesa, Václav Havel, and Arpád Göncz, and Prime Ministers Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, Marián Čalfa, and József Antall, expressed "the desire and will to courageously deal with the tasks ahead, drawing on a common historical heritage, in accordance with traditional values and the main trends in European development... to do the utmost for the attainment of peace, security and welfare for the nations of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary."

This is not the place to discuss the path that led to Visegrad. I would note only that back in 1981, at the first meeting of the Solidarność (Solidarity), the Independent and Self-Governed Trade Union delegates approved an Appeal to the People and Workers of Eastern Europe.

Even among some Solidarność circles, the Appeal was considered too bold for the times. However, during the martial law period there was a return to the ideas hinted at in the Appeal. Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity and Polish-Hungarian Solidarity were born, and although they were still quite weak in terms of organisation, they were very strong in spirit. Underground literature created the intellectual foundations of independent thought; the notion of "Central Europe" was widely discussed, and there were attempts to define its historical and cultural nature. References were frequently made to both mutual and individual experiences, even to the differing experiences of the years 1956, 1968, or 1981. Historical similarities were discovered.

The breakthrough came when the political opposition that emerged from Solidarność won the elections on 4 June, 1989 by an unexpectedly large margin. On 12 September the Sejm listened to the policy statement of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, whose government prompted the erosion of the system in Central Europe.

The phenomenon that would later be known as "Visegrad" appeared in third place on the list of Polish foreign policy priorities as early as 26 April, 1990. Minister Krzysztof Skubiszewski, in his annual parliamentary policy statement, mentioned "integration within the triangle formed by Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary" as only marginally less important than the creation of a European security system (CSCE) and cooperation with "our powerful neighbors" (the USSR and Germany). To accomplish these tasks - including Visegrad - fresh recruits were "parachuted" into missions abroad to replace Foreign Ministry employees. Six of the ambassadors appointed in 1990 and serving in three Central European capital cities shared intellectual and academic links, but had hardly any (or no) command of diplomatic techniques, nor any experience as civil servants. They also shared similar experiences and encounters in opposition, including youthful episodes in the armed struggles in Budapest, or participation in seminars and underground publications.

However, the most important thing that differentiated them from the majority of their predecessors and colleagues was the conviction that relations between the countries, societies and nations they represented had to be changed. Our common and individual histories had to be taken into account, as did the bilateral and multilateral problems that had been in forced hibernation during communism.

The parachutists dropped by these new democracies into the world of diplomacy formed the Council of Ambassadors. This body, according to a concept born in Budapest, comprised the six leaders of the missions: Markéta Fialková and Ákos Engelmayer in Warsaw; Jacek Baluch and György Varga in Prague; and Rudolf Chmel and Maciej Koêmiƒski in Budapest. Ideas flourished over those two years and during dozens of diplomatic and Council sessions, such as in Budapest over stewed beef with roast buckwheat or Russian dumplings, in Prague over beer, and in Warsaw over some other beverages. Our ideas concerned almost all areas and issues of international relations, both issues that were addressed by classic diplomacy, and those that we were drawn to by virtue of our experiences and intuition. We spoke about mutual control of Visegrad airspace and about sharing consular services in distant third countries; about infrastructure projects and highway networks; about coordinating purchases of all kinds of equipment; about mutual and separate traditions and ways to record them in literature, film, and fine arts. Thanks to our meetings and conversations, which met with understanding and even tolerance from our superiors, this semi-formal, semi-institution was allowed to carry on to what seems to have been to great advantage.

Maciej Koźmiński
Professor of history. Former Ambassador to the Republic of Hungary (1990-1996). Chief of Department of Diplomacy at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, Professor at the Warsaw University and Collegium Eötvös at the University of Budapest.

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