Milos Zeman has set his agenda for Czech politics.
Minutes after he was elected, Zeman, a Social Democrat, said he would be a president of all the Czechs “not of Godfather structures here.” He was referring to the widespread corruption and scandals that have so often paralyzed Czech politics.
The outgoing conservative president, Vaclav Klaus, was indifferent to corruption and its long-term effect on Czech democracy.
Compared to his predecessor, the playwright-dissident Vaclav Havel, Klaus was also a die-hard eurosceptic uninterested in Europe in general and Central Europe in particular. Neither Klaus nor recent Czech governments have had much impact on the Visegrád Four (V-4).
That is a great pity, not just for Prague, but also for Central Europe. At a time when the EU is increasingly inward-looking and member states are less interested in furthering integration and a Common Foreign and Security Policy, the V-4 should matter more than ever.
The V-4 was founded in 1991 by Poland, Hungary, and what was then Czechoslovakia. After the overthrow of the Communist regimes in 1989, these countries wanted to join the EU and NATO as quickly as possible. Visegrád was supposed to help them coordinate their lobbying efforts in Brussels.
But despite much rhetoric about working together, they rarely did. V-3 (which changed to V-4 in 1993, with the split-up of the Czechs and the Slovaks) members were involved in a fierce race to be the first to join the EU. In the end, they became members at the same time in 2004.
Even after that, V-4 has been far less effective as a lobbying platform for Central European interests than one might have expected. Only slowly did the governments of Warsaw and Prague, Budapest, and Bratislava begin to see the benefits of a common stance on energy, infrastructure, and on defense and security issues.
This delay in pulling together may seem strange.
After all, all four countries have common experiences. After the destruction and political turmoil during the Second World War, they endured more than forty years of Communist rule.
After 1989, they had to rebuild a civil society and middle class. They had to introduce difficult social, economic, and political reforms that led to immense upheaval and uncertainty. “Old Europe,” or their Western European counterparts, did not fully understand or appreciate such huge changes.
Yet for all their shared experiences, historians say that the past actually divides the V-4.
The four countries see themselves as victims of games played by the big powers during the nineteenth century and by the super powers during the twentieth century, argues Roman Holec, a historian from Comenius University in Bratislava. Their independence, as a result, is very precious.
Historical grievances also play a role, especially for Hungary and Slovakia. Both countries still spar occasionally, often with ugly nationalist language, over the status of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. Hungary’s conservative leader, Viktor Orban, who loves to dwell on all the wrongs history has ever dealt his people, has not made matters better for the V-4.
Add to that the fact that V-4 citizens know nothing about each other. A fascinating paper by Olga Gyarfasova from the Institute for Public Affairs in Slovakia shows how the publics of the V-4, with few exceptions, cannot name a single important historical or contemporary personality from the other countries.
For example, over 89 percent of Hungarians and 72 percent of Poles could not think of a single important Czech figure. As for an important Polish figure, only 10 percent of Hungarians and 34 percent of Czechs mentioned John Paul II, the former Polish-born pontiff.
Of course, nothing says that Western Europeans would do any better in that kind of a test. But the V-4, consisting mostly of countries too small to make much of a difference individually, simply cannot afford to become complacent about regional cooperation.
The V-4’s interests are clear. They include obtaining a decent slice of the next EU budget, connecting their energy networks, and modernizing the region’s transport infrastructure, particularly trains and roads.
They also include devising a long-term strategic policy toward Russia, pooling their scarce defense and security resources, and of course agreeing on a political strategy for their eastern neighbors.
Poland, which currently holds the chair of Visegrád, is pushing these issues. But Warsaw, even though it the biggest of the V-4 and one of the few EU countries to think strategically, cannot go at it alone. It would defeat the Visegrád’s raison d’être.
Can Zeman, the new Czech president, make a difference? He is a populist, but at least he isn’t a eurosceptic like his predecessor Vaclav Klaus. During the election campaign, he even described himself as a “Euro-Federalist”. If that is a pledge he is serious about, strengthening the Visegrád coalition would be an important first step.