Post-Visegrad Cooperation in East Central Europe

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Although the always rather loose Visegrad group virtually ceased to exist after the January 1994 Partnership for Peace summit, a new set of cooperative regional endeavors has emerged in East Central Europe. Some of these reflect residual commitment to former dissidents' ideal of a Central European identity, while others are direct or indirect descendants of Visegrad itself. Increased Czech interest contributed to a renaissance of sorts in regional relations in late 1995 and early 1996. However, political turbulence in Slovakia limited possibilities, and since mid-1996 the Czechs have been confronted with new political and economic difficulties of their own.

Following a brief summary of Visegrad cooperation, this paper examines recent regional initiatives, the mix of domestic and international factors behind their development, and the prospects for their continuation.

II. THE VISEGRAD EXPERIENCE

Following the revolutions of 1989, the Visegrad Triangle of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary emerged as the leading example of regional cooperation in the former Soviet bloc. At the initiative of Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel, the heads of state and government of those countries held four summits, in Bratislava (April 1990), Visegrad (February 1991), Cracow (October 1991), and Prague (May 1992). The countries also worked together to dismantle the Warsaw Pact and COMECON, coordinated their positions toward the Soviet Union on troop withdrawals and new bilateral treaties, and held emergency consultations during the August 1991 coup attempt. In relations with the West, they exchanged information while negotiating Association Agreements with the European Community, sent a number of joint appeals for closer relations to that body and to NATO, and advanced the "Dienstbier plan" for Western financing of exports from their countries to the Soviet Union. The Visegrad states also concluded synchronized bilateral defense and security agreements with one another, and in December 1992 they signed the Central European Free Trade Agreement to phase out mutual tariffs by 2001.

Although changes in the broader international environment, shifts in the political forces in each of the countries, and the geopolitical implications of the breakup of Czechoslovakia in January 1993 all played a role, it was the open skepticism of the new Czech government towards Visegrad that most directly led to its decline on the diplomatic stage. Czech officials argued that they placed great importance on good bilateral relations with their neighbors and were interested in practical, especially economic, cooperation whenever it was in the countries' mutual interest. However, Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus dismissed Visegrad itself as a "poor man's club" and an "artificial creation of the West."(1)

The Czechs particularly opposed using the Visegrad framework as a means for closely coordinating efforts to gain membership in Western institutions. In relations with the European Union and NATO, the four countries would have to focus on their internal preparedness and be judged individually.

Czech policy reflected the judgment that overly close links with the other Visegrad states would only slow their own progress with the West. The Czech Republic's unemployment rate, inflation rate, and foreign debt were all substantially lower than those of the other countries. It consistently balanced the government budget, while Poland and Hungary had to scramble to meet IMF targets for their deficits. Finally, especially in comparison to Poland, its relatively small agricultural sector would present a lesser burden for the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.

Czech leaders also viewed their political and strategic situations to be less problematic than their counterparts'. As an ethnically homogenous state without numerous co-nationals beyond its borders, their country lacked the kind of tensions that existed between Hungary and Slovakia. …