Smutek Wyszehradu

The Elusive Centre (of Europe)

Visegrad on the Wane

Publication: 14 October 2021

NO. 10 2013



We are strongly suffering from a lack of “Visegrad projects”, a lack of ideas which could organise a political community of interests. It is true that the frequency of high-level meetings is incomparable with any other regional grouping, but there are no undertakings which would be available, comprehensible and important for the citizens of Visegrad countries. The V4 Group is a pastime for the elites rather than an experience of societies.

The creation of the Visegrad Group was as natural as it was unexpected. Unexpected if we look at it from a long historical perspective. Natural when we analyse the specific historical moment. For integrative tendencies were never an important theme in the narrative of Central Europe. Although there was “Great Bohemia” when Ladislaus II the Přemyslid reached for the Polish crown and Charles IV the Luxembourg for the crown of the Holy Roman Empire; there was “Great Hungary” when Lajos I Nagy was crowned in the Wawel Cathedral and placed his daughter on the Polish throne or when Matthias Corvinus brought Silesia and Lower Austria under his rule; there was the period of Jagiellonian domination, when this dynasty simultaneously reigned in Pest, Prague, Krakow and Vilnius, but these were not lasting projects. They emerged from more or less accidental dynastic arrangements or from the bravery and ingenuity of individual rulers. It was always a model of domination. The story of the Central European kingdoms which found themselves within the borders of the Habsburg Empire, Prussia or Russia, ended in full subordination to their mighty neighbours. These integration projects cannot be sensibly compared to the Polish-Lithuanian project, which begun from a political union, and through a personal union led to an actual one – the Commonwealth of Two Nations – and lasted for centuries. The last, closing act of this union was the anti-Russian rising in 1863, a drama played out on the territories of today’s Poland, Belarus and Lithuania.

The height of Czech power came in the 13th and 14th century, of Hungarian power in the 14th and 15th century. The Polish “golden” and “silver” era was the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century. But the whole energy of Poland was directed eastward and northward, focused on the devastating rivalry with Moscow and Sweden, on the de‑ fence against Turkey and the Crimean Horde. Once the domination of the Habsburgs in Bohemia and Hungary started, the southern direction of the Polish policy gradually vanished.

When we take a bird’s-eye view of the history of the Visegrad countries in the last century, we may speak of a certain community of fate. An important element of it was a long-term lack of political sovereignty. It was brought back by the First World War. Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary became states belonging to the Versailles order, in various ways painful for each of these countries. Poland entered independence with borders won in risings, plebiscites and wars, in conflict with Lithuania, devastated by military activities going on for many years on its territories. Bohemia assumed an unexpected, non-historical shape of a kind of federation with the lands of Upper Hungary and incorporated a powerful German minority. Hungary was dramatically reduced territorially to its ethnic core.

In the interwar period, relations between these countries were usually chilly or even tense. The Polish national memory still retains the invasion of Teschen Silesia when the very existence of the Polish state was threatened by the war against the Bolsheviks. The Czech memory retains the occupation of these lands by the Polish army under the provisions of the Munich Treaty, which murdered a model democratic state – the Czechoslovak Republic.

During the Second World War we found ourselves in opposing camps. In September 1939 Slovak troops marched into Poland arm in arm with the Nazis and Hungarians became Hitler’s allies. Of course judgements on these difficult times without any caveats and without pointing out to various nuances and conditions must seem unjust today, but it does not affect my basic argument. Until Yalta, we were not a community in any sense of the word. But the post-war fate proved common: the Soviet sphere of influence, the taking of power by communists in various ways, forceful industrialisation, Comecon and the Warsaw Pact, and every once in a while a political earthquake ending in military intervention or martial law, followed by a wave of emigration.

The experience of communism and the miracle of the Autumn of the Nations was certainly a strong integrative factor. But an even stronger factor was the common goal of the Westward push, towards democratic societies and market economy. Such was the essence of the message of the “founding fathers” – József Antall, Václav Havel, Lech Wałęsa – signing the memorable declaration at Visegrad Castle in the winter of 1991.

Formulating common purposes proved more important than joint actions. “Visegrad” as a brand turned out to be an excellent marketing effort and built a  lasting image of the  three, and then four, members as leaders of the post‑communist transition. But there was little real cooperation on the way to the European Union and NATO. Some even claim that the Central European countries only implement‑ ed an agenda designed in Brussels and Washington and that the efforts of the local political forces and leaders were of secondary importance. It determined the colouring of events but not their course.

One could point to several reasons for this lack of deeper cooperation. First, the original members of the  Group were ruthlessly competing against each other – above all for foreign investment. Each tried to show off its merits or its commitment to re‑ form, stressing that they were overtaking their more inept neighbours. Second, some politicians, headed by the influential Václav Klaus, questioned the usefulness of the Group, saying that the Czech Republic was on a different development level and its presence in the Visegrad Group was only a burden. The strong position of nationalists such as Vladimír Mečiar or Ján Slota undermined Slovak‑Hungarian relations and was not conducive to building the  Visegrad community.

The third reason was created by Poland – a country clearly “too big”, one and half times more populous than all three other countries put together. The Poles believed – although they usually did not expressly say it – that they were owed leadership for they not only represented the largest country, but they were also the leaders of transition. It was in Poland that the anti-communist opposition had been the strongest and the wall, which collapsed in Berlin, had started shaking. Poland was clearly the poorest and least developed among the countries of the Group and politically unstable to boot. Enough to say that in the 1990s there were nine prime ministers and three presidents.

A more serious interest in Visegrad as a political initiative appeared during the term of the longest‑serving Polish prime minister, Jerzy Buzek (1997–2001). The first and so far only Visegrad institution was created – the Visegrad Fund with its seat in Bratislava. More or less regular meetings of ministers and prime ministers also started.

The figure of Buzek is significant in the context of Visegrad. We must remember that in Poland only the southern part is connected with the traditions of Danube Europe, the Habsburg world etc. Until now the only high-ranking politician raised in this tradition was Buzek, who grew up in the Teschen Silesia. It is worth pointing out that the city which spawned the biggest number of Polish political leaders is Gdańsk, where such people as Lech Wałęsa, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Jarosław Kaczyński, Donald Tusk, Bogdan Borusewicz and the late Maciej Płażyński were educated or started their career. The Gdańsk experience inevitably makes their political outlook more sensitive to the Baltic area and the importance of relations with Germany or Russia. And president Bronisław Komorowski does not make a secret of the fact that he is particularly committed to Polish-Lithuanian and Polish-Belarusian relations.

Visegrad was losing out in the contest with another regional project, in which Poland for many years invested the most energy and resources. It could be defined as pushing the post‑Soviet states towards the West – first the Baltic ones and then Ukraine. For obvious reasons Belarus was not as strongly pre‑ sent in this project. Ukraine was a priority for many years. The Orange Revolution seemed a culmination, a happy breakthrough, after which, it was believed, success was within reach. Later developments did not confirm these hopes and it only got worse. After 2005 President Lech Kaczyński tried to build astonishing alliances with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine, while Tusk and Radosław Sikorski, with the help of European resources and pressure of some EU countries, created the programme of the Eastern Partnership. The first of these strategies had a predictable end, while the Eastern Partnership is dying before our eyes and no one has an idea of how to rescue it. Even Moldova, the last country with promising European prospects, becomes deep‑ ly disappointing. Especially since alongside the cri‑ sis of the Eastern Partnership we have the growing economic, political and military dominance of Russia and the loss of vitality and will to expand its influence on the part of the European Union.

Pragmatism has made Polish politicians put aside their Promethean visions for Ukraine and Belarus and focus on finding a modus vivendi with Russia; as economic cooperation with Russia has become an important factor of Polish economic growth and enhancing the Polish political position within the EU. The policy of consistent siding with Germany in all crucial European debates – a kind of Polish‑German partnership – has created an opportunity for a new status both against Russia and the countries of Central Europe.

This is the context which calls for a reappraisal of the concept of Visegrad cooperation. We should, therefore, conduct a review of factors which could make it possible for Poland to breath new life into the Visegrad Group project.

First, Poland is no longer the poorest country in the Group. It has caught up with Hungary and the distance to the Czech Republic and Slovakia is significantly shorter. In many international rankings Poland is placed higher or only slightly lower than its neighbours. It is important that Slovakia is now almost up there with the Czech Republic, undermining its exclusive position. The Group is now more homogeneous economically, major privatisations have been completed so that interregional competition has lost its importance. Second, good relations with Poland are no longer an obstacle to relations with Germany and Russia. Third, Poland is more stable and responsible politically. You could say it enjoys a better opinion than some of the other countries of the Group (for example the good marks for the Polish European presidency and the growing difficulties of Hungary on the international scene). Fourth, the lack of prospects for focusing on Ukraine or Belarus makes strengthening Central European relations an obvious priority. Data showing a dynamic increase in trade relations with the countries of the Group leave no room for doubt here. The Czech Republic is the fourth largest economic partner of Poland and Hungary has joined the first ten.

Despite all this I do not think these assets are sufficient. For the problem is that today, it is difficult to define a community of interests of Central European countries and still less to name specific pro‑ jects. The defence policy is not such a project, for the Visegrad countries spend so little on arms that they could be said to be disarming themselves. Only Poland spends two per cent of its budget on defence, while in the remaining countries these expenditures are much below one per cent. A Combat Visegrad Group is more of an idea than a reality. Its success would require a change of thinking on military questions on the part of our partners.

In the energy policy you see no will for common action. Slovakia counts on good relations with Russia, the Czech Republic wants to drive out Orlen from its territory, Hungary has stabbed the Nabucco pipeline project in the back, and to the astonishment of all observers it suddenly became a supporter of Putin’s South Stream. You hear much about interconnectors, but the largest investments are into connecting Czech pipelines with the Nord Stream system, which means that developing the North-South gas axis (Świnoujście–Krk) no longer seems to make sense. Until now, Slovakia has been buying Russian natural gas about 20 per cent cheaper than Poland and for Hungary this figure is 25 per cent, which might explain the differences in energy policy.

The attitudes towards the eurozone, which is a new stage of European integration, could hardly be more divergent. Slovakia is already part of it, the Czechs are deliberating on how to join it. The economic situation of Hungary does not allow it to consider the adoption of the common currency in the foreseeable future. Poland is at the stage on debating the  possible date and faces the  al‑ most impossible but necessary task of amending the constitution.

Fortunately, at least one potential conflict is al‑ ready behind us. All countries of the Group belonged to the circle of “friends of cohesion policy”, but in fact found themselves in a position called the “prisoner’s dilemma” by psychologists – it is still not clear what will be more profitable – loyalty or betrayal. The Czechs sent unambiguous signals that they were not willing to die for the Regional Development Fund, which is understandable, for they may soon become net payers, and that means a different perspective than the Polish or Hungarian one. Such conflicts of interests are more numerous, more or less adroitly concealed during the ritualised meetings of ministers or parliamentary delegations. Negotiations on the long‑term financial framework did not break the Group’s solidarity and confirmed the initiating role of Poland. The last meeting in Warsaw, with Visegrad Group leaders joined by French and German heads of government, was an evident indication of this status.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that we are strongly suffering from a lack of “Visegrad projects”, a lack of ideas which could organise a political community of interests. It is true that the frequency of high‑level meetings is incomparable with any other region‑ al grouping, but there are no undertakings which would be available, comprehensible and important for the citizens of Visegrad countries. The V4 Group is a pastime for the elites rather than an experience of societies.

And yet in the last 20 years a Visegrad generation, so to speak, has grown up or matured. What has emerged is a whole generation of people who have travelled the same path: acquiring civil rights and opening borders, the establishment of democratic institutions, the development of free economy, privatisation and finally, European integration. This provides an unprecedented common experience of similarity of fate. It provides a political capital in a real sense of the term.

And therefore it is so painful that after 20 years we still do not see the readiness to create a permanent secretariat of the Visegrad Group, which would be a kind of “institutional memory”, although there is much talk about the importance attached to this co‑ operation by particular governments. How to explain the fact the official website of the Group is unable to present its entire content in four national languages but only in English, and only a few fragments are translated into the languages of the member countries? How to explain the fact that after 20 years of co‑ operation and huge investment in road infrastructure between the countries of the Group, there are virtually no motorway or expressway links between them? And the subject of railway links is better passed over in silence.

And yet, not so much is needed to be done in this domain. This is a  cursory review of motor‑ way and expressway links between the countries of the Group: Žilina (SK) – Bielsko‑Biała (PL), Miskolc (H) – Kosice (SK), Žilina (SK) – Ostrava (CZ), Pop‑ rad (SK) – Rzeszów (PL), and a somewhat larger project Hradec Králové (CZ) – Legnica (PL), as well as two stretches along the Budapest–Krakow axis: Budapest (H) – Zvolen (SK) and Banská Bystrica (SK) – Lubień (PL). Building these roughly 500 kilometres of roads would connect the hitherto independent motorway networks and form a continuous system. But it requires a more comprehensive linkage to external networks. It is mind‑boggling that the Czech Republic still does not have a motorway connection with Austria, while Hungary and Slovakia have only one, through the Bratislava–Vienna hub. Between Vienna and Brno just a short stretch Mistelbach – Pohořelice is missing; not many longer stretches are also needed: Linz – České Budějovice, and Graz – Székesfehérvár. The next group concerns connections with Romania: Szeged – Timişoara, and Hajdúszoboszló – Oradea – Cluj‑Napoca; with Ukraine: Przemyśl – Lviv, and Nyíregyháza – Mukachevo; and with Belarus: Mińsk Mazowiecki – Kobrin, the missing link in the Berlin – Warsaw – Moscow corridor. This package is another 500 kilometres of new roads where four neigh‑ bour countries need to be involved. Could two such investment packages not form a common project of the Group under the programme Connecting Europe and the Eastern Partnership? The cost would cer‑ tainly be no higher than ten per cent of the resources from the cohesion policy addressed to the countries of the Group.

The noble Visegrad Fund boasts of a ridiculous sum of 9 million euros, from equal contributions of the member states. This is of course an unfair arrangement. Membership fees should be proportional to the GDP of the V4 countries. If we measure it by purchasing power (see Eurostat data) and assume that Slovakia pays 3 million euros, that is slightly more than now, then Hungary should pay 4.5 million, the Czech Republic 6 million and Poland 18 million. With a budget to the tune of more than 30 million euros, the Fund could finance large and serious grant programmes, both in the V4 and V4+ formula. It could also become an important sponsor of radio and TV production, and perhaps also of the protection of cultural heritage and promoting the image of the countries of the region in non-EU markets, especially in Asia and America.

The financial needs of the Visegrad Fund as an institution supporting educational and integrative trips for young people are important as the history and culture of our countries transcends the traditional curricula in teaching European history, literature and culture. The result is that being close to each other we remain mutually unknown and very often enslaved by stereotypes. This is just a handful of examples showing that there is a potential for deeper cooperation within the Group, that a new life can be breathed into it. Unfortunately, the overabundance of goals declared by, for example, the Polish presidency of the V4 Group as well as by the Czech presidency, shows that this institution is not treated seriously. Visegrad has become a ritual. Important politics are elsewhere. Although at opposition rallies and marches in Poland people shout “We want Budapest”, the authors of such slogans certainly do not mean the Visegrad community.

 Translated from the Polish by Tomasz Bieroń

About authors

Janusz Sepioł

Architect, art historian, politician, former province marchal of Lesser Poland, senator. Author of several urban planning studies, General Planner of Spatial Development in Lesser Poland. Author of a volume of essays entitled Architekci i historia (Architects and History); initiator and editor of an album of new architecture for cultural purposes Form Follows Freedom, published in 2015, and a monograph Jagiełły 8 - historia jednego domu (Jagiełły 8 – One House’s History), as well as many articles in specialist press. Founder of the GAGA architecture gallery. Recipient of The Association of Polish Architects medal Bene Merentibus and a lifetime J. Regulski’s Award.


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