28/03/2021

Geopolitics

Thirty years of Visegrad - Summits, meetings and themes of a Central European cooperation

The constellation known as the Visegrad Group has been widely regarded as the political success story of Central Europe, and even though it has experienced temporary setbacks as every long-term political project does, the V4 has been able to grow in scope and relevance even after its initial goals had been met. In the following chapters we will take a look at the major topics and themes which preoccupied – and gave purpose to – the V4 in different periods of its existence, the most important meetings and summits it held over the past thirty years.

The decade of foundation (1990-1998)

A vision of Central Europe (1990-1991)

A soon as the walls of Soviet empire started to crumble and new democratic governments began to take shape in Central Europe, the representatives of the former underground opposition forces joined in a series of meetings to help each other navigate through the power vacuum left by Moscow. The Central European ‘troika’ – as they were called that time –, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary entered negotiations as soon as January 1990, and they based their initial cooperation on the foremost goal of dismantling of the remnants of Russia’s institutionalized grip on them once and for all. Finally, after meetings in all three countries, at the invitation of the Hungarian prime minister, József Antall, the leaders of the troika gathered in Visegrád Castle – the highly symbolic site where the 1335 Congress between the kings of Hungary, Poland and Bohemia took place – where a formal declaration of mutual trust and cooperation was signed. On February 15, 1991, PM Antall, Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel and Polish President Lech Wałęsa signed the Visegrad Declaration, officially establishing the Visegrad Group.

In addition to the most important common goal of dissolving the remaining Russian-led institutions (Warsaw Pact and Comecon), the declaration contained three other pillars of cooperation as well: one, to overcome historical animosities between the signing countries; to join efforts not only during the transformation period into democracy and free-market capitalism, but also in the European integration process; and to hold up a proximity of ideas of the ruling political elites.

Initial period (1991-1992)

The first two years of the existence of the Visegrad Group was regarded as quite an active period in terms of initiatives and common actions taken by the member countries. The first and foremost goal of dismantling old Soviet institutions started just days after signing the Visegrad Declaration: on 25 February the meeting of foreign ministers in Budapest – at the initiative of the V3 – declared the Warsaw Pact disbanded, and later on 1 July, 1991, President Havel (then chairing the Pact) formally disestablished the Soviet military organization, 36 years after it came into being.

Initial period (1991-1992)

The first two years of the existence of the Visegrad Group was regarded as quite an active period in terms of initiatives and common actions taken by the member countries. The first and foremost goal of dismantling old Soviet institutions started just days after signing the Visegrad Declaration: on 25 February the meeting of foreign ministers in Budapest – at the initiative of the V3 – declared the Warsaw Pact disbanded, and later on 1 July, 1991, President Havel (then chairing the Pact) formally disestablished the Soviet military organization, 36 years after it came into being.

In the following months, the representatives of the V3 were able to present the seriousness of their cooperation to the international community, even in matters not falling directly under their domestic interests or initial goals. The Krakow Summit in October – apart from agreeing on joining efforts in the Euro-Atlantic integration processes – ended with a joint resolution on the Yugoslav conflict, which was essentially a warning to the West about possible violations of human rights and the right to self-determination, and the strong condemnation of these acts symbolically established the V3 as a prestigious regional entity. Similarly, the way the representatives of these countries met with the US Secretary of State in New York or the Benelux foreign ministers in Brussels in September 1991 – together, representing a coordinated policy plans – sent a strong message of unity and viable future prospects. Amid the general uncertainness of the time, the Visegrad Group was widely regarded as a successful regional model for all post-communist countries to follow, and its endorsement by the EU is also shown by the fact that the V3 countries became the first to sign the Europe Agreements on 16 December, taking the first step on the road of European integration. A year later, on 21 December 1992, the V3 countries established the CEFTA (Central European Free Trade Agreement), which served as a ‘lobby’ not only for them but for every other post-communist country to enter the EU later.

In the following months, the representatives of the V3 were able to present the seriousness of their cooperation to the international community, even in matters not falling directly under their domestic interests or initial goals. The Krakow Summit in October – apart from agreeing on joining efforts in the Euro-Atlantic integration processes – ended with a joint resolution on the Yugoslav conflict, which was essentially a warning to the West about possible violations of human rights and the right to self-determination, and the strong condemnation of these acts symbolically established the V3 as a prestigious regional entity. Similarly, the way the representatives of these countries met with the US Secretary of State in New York or the Benelux foreign ministers in Brussels in September 1991 – together, representing a coordinated policy plans – sent a strong message of unity and viable future prospects. Amid the general uncertainness of the time, the Visegrad Group was widely regarded as a successful regional model for all post-communist countries to follow, and its endorsement by the EU is also shown by the fact that the V3 countries became the first to sign the Europe Agreements on 16 December, taking the first step on the road of European integration. A year later, on 21 December 1992, the V3 countries established the CEFTA (Central European Free Trade Agreement), which served as a ‘lobby’ not only for them but for every other post-communist country to enter the EU later.

The road to NATO (1994-1998)

Already having negotiated possible NATO accession in the initial period of V3 with promising results, the members of the group were set back after President Clinton announced in 1993 that the military organization will create an international forum for non-NATO members called the Partnership for Peace (PfP) which will deepen their relationship with the Atlantic alliance. The Visegrad countries, especially Poland, regarded the plan as a ‘threat’ for Central European security, fearing that it would replace the possibility of NATO membership entirely and would create a new, West-imposed ‘Yalta’ instead of actual integration.

Finally, it was the Visegrad Group – especially President Wałęsa – pressuring the Clinton-administration into altering the initial plans of PfP (to include written guarantees for members of possibility of NATO accession), agreed upon at the Prague Summit of 12 January 1994. Shortly after, all the Visegrad countries joined the PfP along most of Central and Eastern Europe, but now reassured, that they would be the first to become full-fledged NATO members.

For the V4, the second half of the 1990s meant strengthening its position in the PfP and negotiating NATO membership above all else (with the exception of Slovakia, which was not considered democratic enough under Mečiar by several members). During this period, the most important meetings of the V4 were the annual summits on defence cooperation, which basically meant finding a common approach to PfP and NATO. Many believe, that Poland, Czechia and Hungary were first to be invited as observers to the Atlantic alliance’s Madrid Summit in 1997 - officially beginning their accession talks – because they presented and maintained a common, unified front in their desire.

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