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Žantovský, Michael: Visegrad between the Past and the Future

When the Presidents, Prime Ministers, foreign ministers and other leaders of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland met to sign the founding declaration of the Visegrad Group on a misty winter day on 15 February, 1991, it was at the height of the heady euphoria brought about by their newfound freedom. The shadows of the past - with Soviet armies all over Central Europe, with the Warsaw Pact, the only military alliance in history to attack only its own members, and with the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance, a huge bureaucratic mechanism to redistribute poverty and inefficiency among the countries of "real socialism" - were quickly receding. The shadows of the future - with the operatic coup attempt in the expiring Soviet Union, its subsequent collapse and the ensuing period of instability, and the horrific wars in former Yugoslavia licking the shores of Central Europe - were yet to come.

The idea of the newborn grouping, conceived at a meeting of the top representatives of the three countries in Bratislava in April 1990 and delivered on the Hungarian banks of the Danube River nine months later, seemed like a nobrainer at the time. It reflected the almost identical initial positions of the three
countries that had been recently liberated from the bear hug of the totalitarian East, and that were determined to work their way back to the democratic West. It also reflected an older affinity between three countries whose destinies had been linked for a long time, in part or in whole, to that of the Habsburg Empire, through similar cultures, languages, creeds, and problems. And to some it even spoke of the ancient mythological past of the Danube-Carpathian region, in which the same term - Visegrád, Vyšehrad or Wyszogród, meaning a castle or a city on the hill - was to be found in Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Transylvania (yes, Visegrad was also the seat of Count Dracula, one of the less admirable examples of Central European sophistication) and even on the banks of the Drina River in what is today Bosnia and Hercegovina.

But for most of us who gathered in Visegrad that day, the emphasis was on the future rather than the past. In the preparations for the meeting it had been relatively easy to agree on the five goals in the official declaration, whose English was more than a little marked by the novelty of the situation:

  • full restitution of state independence, democracy and freedom;
  • elimination of all existing social, economic, and spiritual aspects of the totalitarian system;
  • construction of a parliamentary democracy, a modern legal state, respect for human rights and freedoms;
  • creation of a modern free market economy;
  • full involvement in the European political and economic system, as well as the system of security and legislation.
It is a measure of the success of the regional transformation process that all of these goals have been achieved in all of the countries involved. On the other hand, it is harder to demonstrate what, if anything, the Visegrad process had to do with it. For, almost immediately following the meeting, things started to change. One after another, the ruling elites, which had originated in the opposition movements and in the revolutions of 1989, were replaced by governments whose leaders had been less opposed to, and sometimes even descended from, the ancien régime. The zeitgeist of reemerging nationalism, fortunately of a relatively mild and non-lethal variety, was also passing through Central Europe, leading to the division of one of the member countries into two successor states, and thus increasing the number of Visegrad members to four. Both these developments, with the resulting divergence in economic strategies, foreign policies and even views on human rights, democracy and minority issues, inevitably weakened the Visegrad format. The common interests of the region took a back seat to the formulation and pursuit of national interests. This may have diminished the importance of Visegrad, but it did not make it irrelevant. In the crucial pursuit of NATO membership for Central Europe, three of the four member countries found it essential to join forces, and used the concept of Visegrad as a powerful negotiating tool, irrespective of the weight given to the format in public by some of the member governments.

As the Czech Ambassador in Washington, D.C., I felt it was in the best interests of my country to plan, exchange information, and lobby the US government together with my Polish and Hungarian colleagues. The visit of President Clinton to Prague in January 1994 to announce the plan to enlarge NATO at a summit meeting of the Presidents of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, was the best demonstration of the success of this strategy. Immediately after our accession in 1999 and after the election in Slovakia of a pro-Atlantic, pro-democracy government, we joined forces again to bring the remaining member of the group on board. This, in my view, was Visegrad's finest hour.

The second opportunity presented itself in the accession of the Central European countries to the European Union. There the Visegrad countries proved unable to agree on a joint negotiating position and to assume the leadership of a bloc of candidates that would be a natural center of gravity in the latest enlargement. From a diplomatic point of view, they would almost certainly have secured better terms for their accession had they taken that road. The  intelligent negotiating strategy of the European Union, which first dispersed the 8 post-communist candidates into a regatta, only later to herd them back together at the goal line, was not conducive to a joint strategy, either. Finally, on many occasions it turned out that the foreign policies, affinities and loyalties of the Visegrad countries, both regionally and globally, worked better along the East-West dimension than along the North-South axis.

The failure to make use of this historical opportunity has largely determined the future political significance of the Visegrad project. It is simply not realistic to expect that the group will find it easier to identify and pursue common interests in the EU, with its multitude of disparate interests, changing alliances and multiple loyalties, than it did when its interests were clear-cut and shared.

Visegrad can, however, continue to play a useful role in facilitating a myriad of other links, connections and synergies that bind the people living in the region. It can, and does, support cultural exchanges, the sharing of information and ideas, people-to-people contacts, crossborder cooperation and other activities that, taken together, constitute and express the positive value of the elusive concept of Central Europe. Who will say this is not enough?

Michael Žantovský
Diplomat, politician, translator and author. Founding member of the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia. Since 1990 a press secretary and spokesman for President Václav Havel. Former Ambassador to the United States of America (1992-1997) and current Ambassador to Israel (since 2003). Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Security (1996-2002).

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