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Eastern Europe: Visegrad Group Seeks Revival

Prague, 27 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have recently moved to revive the seemingly moribund Visegrad cooperative group.

Meeting last week (Oct. 22) in Budapest, the prime ministers of the three East Central European countries agreed to resume joint projects and expand political as well as economic consultations.

The group was formed in the Hungarian town of Visegrad in 1991, when the presidents of Poland, Hungary and then-Czechoslovakia met and pledged to cooperate in a joint effort to enter the European Union and NATO.

But in the ensuing years the initial cooperative fervor dissipated somewhat, largely owing to the different political aspirations and economic interests of individual member-states.

This was further magnified by concerns that the establishment of a separate group of post-communist countries in East Central Europe could hinder rather than facilitate their acceptance by the West into existing multilateral economic and political institutions.

Those concerns became particularly acute when Czechoslovakia split in 1993 into two separate entities, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

As a result, the group numerically expanded. But the cooperative ties among its members became increasingly tenuous as the nationalistic policies of the new Slovak government and its insistence on control over the economy, the media and judicial institutions made cooperation difficult and strained relations within the group.

Subsequently, the focus of cooperative endeavors shifted toward a newly formed Central European Free Trade Association (CEFTA), an organization with a basically economic profile that has been open also to other countries of the region.

In the process, the existence of the Visegrad group itself came into question as its members largely pursued their own paths toward European integration.

Last year Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were invited to open direct membership negotiations with both the EU and NATO. The three countries are due to enter NATO by next April at the latest, and they are also almost certain to join the EU within several years.

Slovakia, however, was left out, primarily because of its domestic political situation, seen as inadequately democratic by both NATO and the EU.

But last month's elections in Slovakia, which led to a change of the government, opened up possibilities for a revival of the cooperation within the original Visegrad group. This has been recognized by Slovakia's neighbors, which have said that Slovakia may be invited to rejoin the Visegrad group.

During their Budapest meeting, prime ministers Jerzy Buzek of Poland, Victor Orban of Hungary and Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic agreed that the group should resume its activities.

Moreover, they said in a statement that Slovakia was and should again become a vital part of the group. They also expressed hope that what they called "democratic changes" in Bratislava could facilitate Slovakia's integration into European institutions. They pledged to do their utmost to help. The three further agreed that they, and eventually the head of Slovakia's government as well, would meet at least twice yearly within the framework of the Visegrad group.

The revived group could become a stable element in Central European politics in the years to come. Past rivalries, disagreements and suspicions among the Czech, Hungarian and Polish governments have largely disappeared, owing to their successful efforts to join NATO and gain valid promises of membership in the EU.

These developments alone are certain to provide a potent incentive to Slovakia to follow the same path.