The “Visegrad Three” association changed to “Visegrad Four" from 1993 after the disintegration of the Czechoslovak federation. This present study aims to examine the way in which this cooperation evolved over the years, and how the parties concerned managed to balance competition and cooperation.
Keywords: V4, Visegrad Group, Visegrad cooperation, EU accession, NATO enlargement, Central Europe, Migration.
The Visegrad Group was initially an interest-based endeavour, but after three decades of cooperation it has managed to become a value-centred one. Prior to the NATO enlargement and EU accession, many tensions were present in the bilateral relations of the V4 countries; however, after 2010 the only important misunderstanding can be seen in the adjudication of the Russian Federation. In the migration crisis of 2015, the Visegrad Group managed to open a debate on European level despite the opposite will of important national and international actors.
After the Collapse of the Bipolar World
Amid the confusion caused by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the member states of the former Eastern Bloc regained their freedom and sovereignty unexpectedly. The long-awaited possibility of establishing functional democracies on the debris of the socialist ruins were tempting, however the process was not a smooth one for any of the countries concerned. Economic difficulties, skyrocketing unemployment rates, rapidly growing crime and the sudden cessation of the former predictable way of life made it impossible for the population to enjoy and experience the possibilities that the freshly regained freedom provided. Moreover, the rapid political transformation brought to the surface many, decades long repressed but deep-rooted problems as well. Most of the countries were able to handle the new situation sensibly; however, this transitional process culminated in a bloody civil war in the Balkan Peninsula. The unpeaceful disintegration of Yugoslavia demanded tens of thousands of lives and ruined every result of the hard work what many generations had achieved. In this war not simply former allies, but fellow countrymen turned against each other sparing neither God nor men. The possibility of the outbreak of similar conflicts in Central Europe was also present, however, the countries of the region chose the path of cooperation and decided to start building their prosperous future instead. One of the most spectacular forms of cooperation was the establishing of the Visegrad Group.
Political Transformations in CE
In the revolutionary mood of the dawn of the 1990s, the Visegrad countries were all aware of the similarity of their situation from an economic, geopolitical and military point of view.[i] Although none of them were part of the Soviet Union, their membership in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) and the Warsaw Pact Organisation (WPO) was compulsory. The Comecon was strongly based on the communist ideology, which rejected the concept of the free market’s own decision-making capabilities. Thus, this membership defined but also limited their economic opportunities and relationships. These countries’ vulnerability and forced loyalty to Moscow in all areas of international politics and economics were unquestionable. The post-transition priorities of the CE countries were very similar as they wanted to carry out a noticeable economic recovery, a smooth democratic transition with rapid Euro-Atlantic integration. Hungary’s situation was special since, due to historical reasons, at that time approximately five million ethnic Hungarians (but non-citizens of Hungary) lived in the neighbouring countries. Thus, these post-transition aims were supplemented by the active caretaking of the ethnic Hungarians living outside the country.[ii] In itself, these intentions contained some self-contradictions, mainly in the eyes of the newly formed Slovak Republic, whose more than one tenth of the total population declared Hungarian ethnicity.[iii]
The Disintegration of Czechoslovakia
The Visegrad Treaty was originally signed by the leaders of the three founding countries, however, because of the disintegration of Czechoslovakia, from 1993 the number of its members rose to four. In the nineties, the Czech and Slovak political relations were at a low point which resulted in the termination of the federal state. Despite their differences the successors managed to separate in a sophisticated manner. This is mainly because the majority of the population did not want the split, it was the outcome of the deal what the nationalist political elite on both sides made.[iv] After 1993 the lives of the former partners were radically different: the Czech Republic developed and prospered while Slovakia fell behind and impoverished. It is important to note that in the relationship of the two newly born countries it was not the nationalistic hostility what prevailed after their farewell, but rather the compulsion to prove the success of self-existence on both sides.
Slovak-Hungarian Disputes in the Nineties
On Visegrad level, the transition from V3 to V4 did not prove to be a smooth one. In the first years of her existence, Slovakia hardly found her place neither in the international community, nor in the Visegrad Group. It was not even clear whether the new state would start her journey on the western or eastern road.[v] Her behaviour induced relentless conflicts, especially in the relationship with Hungary. In the eye of the freshly born independent country, the concept of the nation state as an achievable aim emerged. To make this a reality, Slovakia implemented a series of anti-minority measures: school principals were discharged because of their nationality, a discriminatory language law was adopted, and the introduction of alternative education was also put on the table in order to abolish the overall well-functioning minority school system. In addition to disagreements over ethnic minorities, a fundamental conflict between the parties arose on Hungary’s decision not to build the Nagymaros dam in the Danube Bend, in the immediate vicinity of the Visegrad Castle. This unilateral step was not left unanswered since Slovakia diverted the Danube and built the so-called C-variant of the hydro power plant. The price of this facility, in terms of both money and environmental damage was enormous. Neuralgic relations were not alleviated by the signing of the Hungarian-Slovak bilateral treaty in Paris in 1995 by the Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Horn and his Slovak counterpart Vladimír Mečiar. To illustrate how grave the Slovak-Hungarian relations were, Mečiar once raised even the idea of a population change to be implemented between the two countries.[vi] A new chapter in bilateral relations was opened in 1998 when the political elite changed in both countries. In Slovakia, a broad right-wing governing coalition was formed, of which the Party of the Hungarian Coalition also became an irreplaceable pillar. Changes took place in Hungary too; a civil coalition government was elected under the leadership of Viktor Orbán. The transition in Slovakia took place late so she did not get an invitation to join NATO in the first enlargement round. However, all Visegrad countries managed to enter to the EU in 2004, and that year Slovakia became a full member of the NATO as well.
The Road of Poland before the Accession
[i] ARATÓ, Krisztina – KOLLER, Boglárka: Hungary in the Visegrad group. Introducing a three-level game approach. In. Central and Eastern Europe in the EU: Challenges and Perspectives Under Crisis Conditions. Routledge, NY, 2018.
[ii] GAZDAG, Ferenc – REMEK, Éva: A biztonsági tanulmányok alapjai. Dialóg Campus Kiadó, Budapest, 2018, p.212
[iii] GYURGYÍK, László: A szlovákiai magyarság demográfiai folyamatai. <2015> Access: http://www.kerekasztal.org/2015/02/gyurgyik-laszlo-a-szlovakiai-magyarsag-demografiai-folyamatai-a-kilencvenes-evektol-napjainkig-kulonos-tekintettel-az-ezredfordulo-utani-evekre/ (04/10/2021)
[iv] FOJTŮ, Martina: Rozpad ČSFR: Většina lidí si ho nepřála. MUNI – Masarykova univerzita, 2005-2021. <12/02/2012> Access: https://www.em.muni.cz/tema/3272-rozpad-csfr-vetsina-lidi-si-ho-neprala (04/11/2021)
[v] MARUŠIAK, Juraj: Slovakia’s Eastern policy – from the Trojan horse of Russia to “Eastern multivectoralism”. In. International Issues & Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs. Vol. XXII, No. 1–2, 2013. pp. 42–70. Access: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26590379?seq=1 (04/11/2021)