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Central Europe: Is Summit Cancellation Another Nail In Visegrad Four Coffin?

The Visegrad Four -- grouping Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia -- is near collapse just days before its annual summit. The change came after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called on the Czech and Slovak parliaments to repeal post-World War II decrees confiscating German and Hungarian property and amnestying certain crimes committed by vigilantes against German and Hungarian civilians. The prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia responded on 22 February by canceling their participation in the summit. Orban, however, continues to stand by his words. Warsaw's withdrawal may signify a shift in Polish foreign policy.

Prague, 25 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The decision by the prime ministers of three of the four member states of the Visegrad Four to forgo the group's annual summit does not appear to signify the immediate end of the decade-old grouping. But it may be yet another nail in its coffin -- as well as a diplomatic setback for Hungary.

The 22 February announcements in Prague, Bratislava, and Warsaw came in the wake of remarks on 20 February by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels. Orban lashed out at the Benes Decrees, passed by the provisional Czechoslovak parliament in the first year after World War II. The decrees contain a number of controversial provisions, including the legal confiscation of German and Hungarian property.

"The Benes Decrees are not in accord with European Union laws," Orban said. "Therefore, it is very difficult for me to imagine that a country could be admitted to the EU which retains such peculiar laws which are at such variance with EU legislation."

Orban continues to stand by his words. He said over the weekend, "There are issues that have a sense and depth over and above politics. Collective guilt is an invention that has no place in the 21st century." Orban also said Hungary must stand on the side of human dignity, adding that his country would take the same stand on the Benes Decrees even if it were not directly affected by it.

However, his foreign minister, Janos Martonyi, said the Hungarian government has no intention of pursuing the issue of the Benes Decrees bilaterally, or to link it to EU accession.

Hungary's opposition Socialist Party branded Orban's style "clumsy" and called on him to refrain from making statements on foreign policy issues before the elections.

The Hungarian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to convene for an extraordinary session on 27 February to examine Orban's remarks and the impact of the summit's cancellation.

The Visegrad process -- meant to solidify its members' interaction as well as their approach to Western institutions -- has suffered a number of blows over the years and was barely functional during the five years that Vaclav Klaus was Czech prime minister. Klaus, who preferred to look West in determining his country's policy, felt greater interaction with the Czech Republic's eastern neighbors could slow Czech efforts at European integration.

In recent years, cooperation among the Visegrad Four had grown.

Czech government spokesman Libor Roucek said he believes the Visegrad Four will continue to develop: "The Czech Republic -- like Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland -- have common interests in Central Europe. One of these interests is the speediest possible entry into the European Union. Another strategic interest is Slovak entry into NATO. So the cooperation will continue."

Roucek described the cooperation among the four Visegrad countries as "very intensive" in terms of mutual trade, culture, and contacts between the inhabitants of the four states. He said this trend is not likely to be affected by Orban's recent remarks.

"This derailing by Viktor Orban and his remarks will have no long-term impact on the close cooperation of the Central European countries," Roucek said.

Roucek said parliamentary elections later this year in three of the four Visegrad countries will play a very important role in the current dispute.

"There will be elections in Hungary in April," Roucek said. "There will also be elections in Slovakia [in September], in the Czech Republic [in June], and if we include Germany in this issue, Germany will also hold elections. So this year is an election year in Central Europe and due to the elections, certain politicians are still trying to play on the national sentiments of the past. And that's what happened in Hungary."

The Polish decision to call off its participation in the Visegrad summit -- rather than take a more passive role and wait until its historic ally Hungary canceled the meeting -- took some observers by surprise. However, officials in the Polish prime minister's office said Leszek Miller decided not to attend the summit simply because the meeting would have been pointless without Czech and Slovak participation.

Marek Pedziwol is a Polish commentator on Central European affairs based in Wroclaw. He said, "It would seem very strange to me if the Polish premier were to get involved in the dispute between Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. I don't think it is a decision of whether or not to be on Hungary's side. Simply, when a meeting of four premiers is supposed to take place and two pull out, it would turn into a bilateral meeting of Poland and Hungary. Above all, it would not result in what was intended -- a joint declaration by the prime ministers concerning EU agricultural subsidies."

Pedziwol sided with Orban on the issue of the Benes Decrees. "Orban was right. I also don't believe that EU membership is possible for a country where a law -- though 'extinguished,' is still valid -- [that] punishes 'Germans, Hungarians, traitors, and collaborators,' according to which a German or Hungarian had to prove his active participation in resisting the Nazis."

In contrast, Slovak authorities and commentators are dismissive of Orban's stand and point to comments by EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen that since the Benes Decrees were issued before the EU was established, they have nothing to do with the process of becoming a member.

Slovak Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Gandel said the ministry invited Hungarian Ambassador Miklos Boross for discussions and an explanation of Orban's remarks.

"The Slovak side informed [Boross] that it considers it counterproductive to raise doubts about Hungary's support for our ambition to join the EU as well as to open up dead history topics such as the Benes Decrees in connection with membership negotiations between Slovakia and the EU," Gandel said.

Slovak political commentator Peter Morvay said the Benes Decrees are a convenient issue in an election year: "The atmosphere has changed in a way. The Benes Decrees are starting to become a hot topic. This is due to the rise of right-wing governments in Austria and possibly Germany as well. It's also a result of their close cooperation. In Hungary too, they speak of creating some sort of Vienna-Budapest-Munich axis on the Benes Decrees. We know that Orban is promoting relations with Stoiber. And [German candidate for chancellor Edmund] Stoiber was the main guest at the congress of [Orban's party,] FIDESZ, on Saturday."

But Morvay said this is not the end of Visegrad: "I don't think this will mean the end of the Visegrad Four or the end of cooperation. Certainly it will mean a cooling of the cooperation, a certain loosening up of Visegrad. The question is what will happen when the next governments take office since there will be elections in Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic this year. A bigger problem of Visegrad is that the Visegrad cooperation, independent of the Benes Decrees, is becoming exhausted. The politicians haven't been able to come up with any specific projects which would give sense to this cooperation in the eyes of the inhabitants of these states."