It’s Time For Us To Reclaim Our Visegrad!

It was the summer of 1989. The last summer under the totalitarian regime. By then, following twenty years of stifling ‘normalization’, the first whiffs of fresh air were beginning to be felt even in the Czech basin, cut off as it was from the rest of the world by a range of mountains that may not be the tallest but are mountains nevertheless. There was nothing normal about the ‘normalization’ that had arrived with the barrels of occupying tanks. And the fresh air was wafting in from the neighboring countries.

During that summer I would prick up my ears every time Poland and Hungary, and later also East Germany, were mentioned on Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, the latter no longer jammed. In Poland and Hungary, communist rulers sat down at round tables with members of the Polish and Hungarian opposition to negotiate the handing over of power. All this seemed unbelievable to us in Czechoslovakia. We had to pinch ourselves to make sure that it was really happening: the partially free Polish election that gave Poland the first non-communist Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki; Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Gyula Horn cutting the barbed wire on the border with Austria; German Democratic Republic citizens fleeing to West Germany via Lake Balaton and the Austrian border, and via West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw. And then the fall of the Wall. The Berlin Wall.

Meanwhile in Czechoslovakia change seemed to be slow in coming. People took heart and drew hope and faith from following the events in Warsaw, Budapest, Leipzig and East Berlin. But after November 17, change came at a dizzying pace. People used to say that what had taken ten years in Poland and ten months in Hungary happened in Czechoslovakia in ten days. And although this may be somewhat simplified, it was not far from reality.

One reason why all this was possible was that we were aware of each other. What made it possible was Polish-Czech Solidarity, a series of encounters between Czech and Polish dissidents on tracks around Sněžka mountain on the border between the two countries. This enabled the leaders of the Czech Velvet Revolution to learn from the mistakes and slip-ups as well as the achievements of Poland’s Solidarity. Similarly, they were aware of the obstacles faced by the Hungarian opposition during round-table discussions. And we all saw the momentous events unfold in what was, by then, a slowly disintegrating German Democratic Republic.

Even though we weren’t actually holding hands with the Poles, Hungarians and East Germans, we did, in fact, overthrow communism together. And, subsequently, we strove jointly for the speediest possible withdrawal of Soviet troops and embarked jointly on the path of joining NATO and, later, the European Union.

This sense of togetherness, born in 1989, the ‘annus mirabilis’ (admittedly, it had been present among the Poles and Hungarians for far longer) laid the foundations for the Visegrad Three and later, after Czechoslovakia split up, the Visegrad Four.

The solidarity of Visegrad was almost killed off by Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus and his Slovak counterpart, the authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar. But solidarity returned to Central Europe after the fall of Mečiar and Klaus. And once Slovakia found its way back to democracy, Visegrad was able to ensure that it was included in the first wave of EU enlargement and the second of NATO.

Hundreds of Thousands of Democrats in the Visegrad Four’s Streets

We are now at the end of 2019. Thirty years after the ‘annus mirabilis’, Central Europe is experiencing its ‘annus horribilis’. Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, the authoritarian rulers of Hungary and Poland, have consolidated their power by applying the twisted rules of ‘sovereign democracy’ and ‘rule of lawlessness’. The pro-Putin Czech President Miloš Zeman has been testing the limits of constitutional order while Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, a billionaire and media mogul, has tested the resilience of Czech rule of law, the venality of journalists and the corruptibility of various parts of the electorate.

These days the only place where some golden rays of democracy still shine is Slovakia, the country that had been dubbed the ‘black hole of Europe’ under Mečiar. They are as golden as the hair of the new, openly democratic, humane and pro-western President Zuzana Čaputová. But this hope came at the price of the assassination of the young journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.

It is 2019 and in Poland and Hungary the dismantling of the rule of law and of almost every pillar of democracy continues apace. Something similar may also happen in the Czech Republic. On the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, 300,000 people rallied in Prague’s Letná park, the scene of landmark demonstrations thirty years ago. They went out into the streets to call for democracy and rule of law. But no one spoke of solidarity with Warsaw or Budapest. No one mentioned the fact that hundreds of thousands of people in the other two capitals took part in rallies with demands similar to the Czech protesters‘ or those demonstrating in Slovakia last year. It is as if those of us here in Central Europe who have not yet given up on democracy, freedom and the rule of law were not aware, or didn’t want to be, aware of one another. It is as if we had forgotten that without solidarity we will all lose, one after the other.

The solidarity of Visegrad was almost killed off by Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus and his Slovak counterpart, the authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar.

Together against the organized crime group currently on top

Those bent on destroying our free world meet, hug and share advice regularly, having formed a mutual admiration society. The current powers-that-be have transformed Visegrad into what crime investigators call ‘organized crime group’.

To mark the anniversary of 17 November 1989, the Czech President held a gathering of Visegrad leaders behind the walls of the National Museum, walls so thick that they didn’t let through the jeering of the pro-democracy crowds outside while Hungary’s Prime Minister, ‘the Godfather’ Viktor Orbán, gave a speech outlining his agenda for Central Europe. Orbán proclaimed that Central Europe, under its current leadership, has the right to treat democracy and rule of law as it sees fit. As he, Orbán, sees fit, regardless of the principles of rule of law or the principles of the European Union. He added the sinister warning that is not Central Europe that needs to fit in with the West, but the other way around.

But there still is another Visegrad, quite different from Orbán’s. It is a Visegrad of people who carry banners calling for freedom and democracy, people who are not indifferent to the fact that we have lost nearly all that our defiance in 1989 had achieved. These people do not organize summits, they have no ostentatious palaces. And yet, they ought to be able to get together and show each other solidarity, support one other, draw strength from one another, and share the odd experience of small victories that do occur every now and then.

Some individuals have started to show the way: Zdeněk Hřib, Gergely Karácsony and Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayors of three Visegrad capitals, Prague, Budapest and Warsaw, met during the celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The cities they run have remained bastions of pro-democracy forces in their respective countries, bastions that—in the case of Budapest—have recently been reconquered. This is a wonderful and promising start and it is to be hoped that they will soon be joined by Bratislava where, in many respects, the greatest strides towards successful salvaging of democracy have been taken.

However, the only way Central Europe can win this battle and give back the tarnished image of Visegrad its original meaning is by doing it jointly. By inspiring hope and strength in one another, by showing solidarity. If we don’t do that, we are condemned to lose the battle, one after the other; the battle for a free, democratic and European future of our Central Europe. It is time to join forces to achieve this and reclaim our freedom. To reclaim a genuine Visegrad—a Visegrad that is free and democratic.

Luboš Palata

is the Europe editor of the Czech daily Deník. He was reporter and commentator at the daily MF DNES the deputy editor in chief of the Slovak daily Pravda. He studied International Relationships and Political Science at the MF DNES and the deputy Charles University.

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Current issue - 01/2020

Heart of Europe on the Periphery

Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

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