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Visegrád 3 not much better than Slovakia

Meeting last month in Krakow, the prime ministers of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic reaffirmed their desire to increase the level of cooperation between their three countries.
Such sentiments have been expressed on numerous occasions over the past several years and skeptics may be right to question whether there is anything more persuasive about this latest declaration. But now, the official version has it, Central Europe' s keeners have a bigger, better reason for sticking together: the invitations they have received to begin membership negotiations with NATO, as well as an approval from Brussels for their applications to join the European Union.
Even Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus, notorious in the past for his dismissive attitude towards regional cooperation, had to concede in Krakow that there was now a genuine basis for it.

Meeting last month in Krakow, the prime ministers of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic reaffirmed their desire to increase the level of cooperation between their three countries.

Such sentiments have been expressed on numerous occasions over the past several years and skeptics may be right to question whether there is anything more persuasive about this latest declaration. But now, the official version has it, Central Europe' s keeners have a bigger, better reason for sticking together: the invitations they have received to begin membership negotiations with NATO, as well as an approval from Brussels for their applications to join the European Union.

Even Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus, notorious in the past for his dismissive attitude towards regional cooperation, had to concede in Krakow that there was now a genuine basis for it.

But, really, is there? Both international organizations will conduct entry talks with each applicant on a one-on-one basis, not en masse. Furthermore, as far as the EU is concerned at least, Estonia and Slovenia have also been pronounced suitable candidates for first wave expansion, yet no one seems to be talking about them. That may be because neither of this pair were present when the Central European Triangle (as it was then commonly known) was formed, on a steep hill in Visegrád overlooking the Danube Bend, in the spring of 1991.

But there was another nation represented that day in Visegrád which has since slipped out of these geometric (or geopolitical) reckonings altogether: Slovakia. From a purely geographical point of view, this is odd.

It is Slovakia that gives the other three a common border. Its capital, Bratislava, is almost a suburb of Vienna (those who pine for the ninth century Greater Moravian Empire would put this the other way around), which is the wealthiest city around for hundreds of miles.

For most of the period of its modern independence, however, Slovakia has had Vladimír Mečiar as its prime minister.

The reason for this is very simple. Mečiar's party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), won the elections held in 1992 and in 1994 by handsome majorities.

Opinion polls attest that he remains the country's most popular politician. For all this, Mečiar is not what Hungarians call szalonképes (acceptable in polite society). German Chancellor Helmut Kohl won' t even meet him, while the house magazine of smug liberalism, The Economist, is wont to compare him with Slobodan Milosevič. Has Mečiar started wars resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people? Not to my knowledge.

In the wake of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, was Mečiar even a member of the Communist Party? No, he was kicked out for giving a pro-reform speech. The problem is, as Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told reporters shortly before the Krakow summit: "Slovakia itself must show its desire to join NATO and the EU." This is rich coming from a politician who has just been accused of maintaining the same KGB contact that led to the resignation of his first prime minister.

In the Czech Republic, meanwhile, Klaus has spent much of August trying to persuade his country's Gypsies not to emigrate to Canada after a television program showed a happy Gypsy family living the good life there.

And can you imagine the fuss that would be made if, as recently happened in Hungary, a 60-year-old British citizen on his way to deliver aid to Romania was beaten to death and his assailants not even charged with murder?

In short, the "superior than thou" attitude taken by leaders of the Visegrád Three toward Slovakia is unpleasant and unjustified. All of them would benefit from involving this slightly poorer but still-promising country more closely in their own plans both for closer regional cooperation and Western integration.

Either way, Mečiar may yet have the last laugh. The next 12 months will see elections in Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, and quite possibly the Czech Republic, too - and who's willing to bet that the three prime ministers gathered in Krakow will be around a year from now to declare again their wish to intensify contacts? Old Mečiar, though, will still be there.


Johnathan Sunley is managing director of the Budapest office of CEC Government Relations.
This column originally appeared in the Budapest Business Journal.

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