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Central Europe: Leaders Re-launch Visegrad Initiative

Bratislava, 17 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- After years of stagnation, the Visegrad group has re-launched efforts to speed European Union membership for Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

At a summit in Bratislava Friday, the prime ministers of the four Visegrad states - the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia - said they had agreed to a concrete program for cooperation on economic and security issues. They said they plan to meet twice a year, both formally and informally, to keep their renewed initiative on track.

Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman said the development shows that the four countries are ready for quick accession to the EU. He said regional cooperation also will continue after each country joins the EU.

All four leaders said Slovakia should be invited to EU accession talks as soon as possible. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland already have been invited to those talks. But they say including Slovakia in a unified effort to meet EU criteria will strengthen all of their membership bids.

Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek said that as far as EU integration is concerned, the most important agreements reached in Bratislava were related to cross-border infrastructure projects.

Though Buzek did not give details about any specific project, RFE/RL's correspondent in Bratislava has learned that the summit agenda included talks on possible joint telecom and transportation developments. The European Commission is insisting on such infrastructure improvements before it invites any Central European state into the EU.

Czech Prime Minister Zeman said energy sector cooperation also was discussed. He said he briefed his Hungarian, Polish and Slovak counterparts on Prague's decision last week to complete construction of the controversial Temelin nuclear power plant. Zeman said objections were not raised to the Czech plan.

The prime ministers also addressed EU demands for a crackdown on organized crime and illegal migration. Their joint statement pledges deeper cooperation to meet EU criteria on criminal justice and domestic affairs. The group plans to strengthen cross-border cooperation on the local, regional and intergovernmental levels. But they are calling for an increase in EU funding to reach those goals.

Although Bratislava hosted the summit, it was the Polish, Hungarian and Czech leaders who were welcoming Slovakia back into the Visegrad group.

The Visegrad initiative was launched eight years ago to help its members coordinate efforts to join NATO and the EU. But the momentum of the initiative deteriorated after US President Bill Clinton hosted the last high-level meeting of Central European leaders in Prague more than five years ago.

Former Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus had raised some objections to the Visegrad initiative. But Slovakia's treatment of its ethnic Hungarian minority under former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar isolated Slovakia from the initiative and severely damaged relations between Bratislava and Budapest.

Slovakia's current prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, said the Bratislava summit has demonstrated a renewal of good political and economic relations between Slovakia and its neighbors.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban supported Dzurinda's assessment. He praised Bratislava's recent efforts to improve the rights of ethnic Hungarians, saying he is satisfied "not only as the Hungarian prime minister, but also as a Hungarian."

On security issues, Polish Prime Minister Buzek said one of the most important goals of the Visegrad initiative is to help Slovakia become a full member of NATO. Slovakia is the only Visegrad state that did not join NATO in March. In their joint statement, the prime ministers said Slovakia's NATO membership would greatly enhance security in Central Europe.

The Visegrad prime ministers also presented unified condemnation of what they called "the deliberate policy of oppression, ethnic cleansing and violence" by Yugoslav forces against civilians in Kosovo. They called for Belgrade to comply with all of NATO's conditions in order to bring an end to military actions against Yugoslavia.

Hungarian Prime Minister Orban strongly condemned Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Orban said Belgrade's policies in Kosovo amount to "barbarism." He said it is not possible, in his words, "to look the other way and do nothing" while Belgrade conducts systematic murder, rape and evictions against Kosovo residents simply because of their ethnic background.

All of the prime ministers at the Bratislava summit agreed that their Central European states have a responsibility to help bring democracy, stability and economic prosperity to the Balkans.

The summit did not bring about an endorsement of a Kosovo peace plan proposed last week by Greece and the Czech Republic. Polish Prime Minister Buzek said Warsaw is still waiting to hear more details about that peace initiative. Czech Prime Minister Zeman said he expects more details will become available next week.

Prague is due to host the formal Visegrad summit next year. An informal meeting in Slovakia's Tatra mountains is planned for this October. Future Visegrad summits are to include prime ministers and their cabinet members as well as the state secretaries from the foreign affairs ministries. Each country also plans to appoint a Visegrad commissioner to help coordinate future cooperation.