July 7th, 2022 AAAA
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International Visegrad Fund

Think Visegrad


Pithart, Petr: The Firm Rock of Visegrad

It was clear to us long before Visegrad - and by "us" I mean those Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Hungarians who were not regarded with favour by the regimes in our countries - that after "it" was all over, we would be working closely together.

In the Czech lands, many people from the ranks of the dissidents set out at the time to learn Polish, and some even learned Hungarian. We listened to the Polish broadcasts on Radio Free Europe when the programmes aimed at Czechoslovakia were blocked by jamming. We read their samizdat publications. We travelled to Budapest (not everyone could) using only our internal identity cards as travel documents, so that we could meet with our Hungarian friends who were Czech specialists, sociologists, and economists. I travelled there to edit a literary and philosophical magazine that was aimed at both a domestic audience and the exile community. It was possible to meet our Polish counterparts - though it was not nearly as easy - on the "Czechoslovak-Polish Friendship Trail" along the summits of the northern mountain ranges that marked our common border. And such meetings occurred, even when the path was guarded by Polish soldiers with machine guns who would shout at anyone who strayed off it: Stan wojenny! - "Martial law!" - just as watchmen on the ramparts of ancient fortresses had shouted out: "Away from the walls!"

It was absolutely clear to us then that there was far more uniting us in the present than had separated us in the past. But I think we were the first to pay systematic attention to all that - and precisely to all that. We knew that the old, unhealed wounds would one day be reopened, and we wanted to be prepared for it.

I remember well that the very first foreign visit - if we can call it that - was undertaken by a delegation from the Civic Forum post-revolution political movement that went to Poland in early December 1989, only days after the Czechoslovak regime had begun to fall apart. We went to Těšín, a town divided by the state border. And there on the border we were met - if I'm not mistaken - by Andrzej Jagodziński and then, in the Hotel Piast, by Adam Michnik.

What united us then, and to this day, was the unrepeatable experience of living under undemocratic, totalitarian regimes, as well as the experience of unsuccessful revolts against the system. We knew that Europeans to the west of the Iron Curtain had only very vague notions of all that, if they had any idea at all, and that they would not then, or later, ask many penetrating questions.

It was only logical that the Presidents - the dissidents Havel, Walesa, and Göncz - agreed on cooperation among the Visegrad countries. And it was also to be expected that some of their successors would call the importance of Visegrad into question and make it known in various ways that they had no interest in such a community. In the end, however, the common interests of the countries in the centre of Central Europe, a region otherwise torn by divergent aims, always prevailed.

At one point, when scepticism regarding Visegrad had once more come to a head (this time from the Czech side), we Czechs met with the local Hungarians in the Slovak town of Dunajská Streda, near the Danube River, to set up a special Visegrad imprint with the Kalligram publishing house, so that Poles, Hungarians, and Slovaks would have access to unfamiliar Czech literature which could help break down the stereotypical notions they may have had of Czechs. And vice versa... We told ourselves that if our politicians were letting us down at the moment, then we intellectuals had to step into the breach.

In a Europe that is uniting, our voice should be heard, both now and in the future, as a common voice. Not necessarily in everything, but in what is essential, always.

It is by no means certain that this will happen. The voices of a new European nationalism, particularly in Central Europe, are growing louder and louder. The danger is that interest in the articulation of common experiences on European soil will be drowned out by the voices of narrow national interests. It would be short-sighted to let this happen, and we would pay a heavy price for it. As we already have, more than once.

May Visegrad have the steadfastness and the strength and the endurance of the Danube River that flows far beneath it. Those three kings back in 1335 knew very well why they chose that place to meet, on a solid outcrop high above the Danube. They did so because they wanted the majesty of the silent and powerful river to remind them that there are values that stand above the daily conflicts and squabbles of neighbors.

Petr Pithart
Political scientist, essayist, Charter 77 activist. Czech Prime Minister in 1990-1992, Speaker of the Senate 1996-1998 and 2000-2004, since 2004 Deputy Speaker of the Senate.

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