by Barbara Black
A recent symposium at Concordia explored the progress of the Visegrad
group, an organization that gets scant attention in North America
but could be a lifeline for the countries that were once under Soviet
Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been linked in a
sort of free-trade agreement signed in 1991 in the northern Hungarian
city of Visegrad to help its members gain membership in NATO and the European
Here in Montreal, Concordias Department of Political Science and
the Canadian Foundation for Polish Studies, with the cooperation of the
Czech, Hungarian, Slovak and Polish communities, held a conference last
Saturday called Returning to Europe: The Visegrad Countries and Post-Communist
Realities. It took place in the D.B. Clarke Auditorium, and attracted
about 150 participants.
It attracted a pretty good crowd, and a high level of discussion,
said George Frajkor, a Canadian-born broadcast journalist of Slovakian
immigrant parentage who worked for the CBC in Montreal and taught at Carleton
University and in Slovakia. There were students there who asked
excellent questions, and obviously knew something about the subject.
One of the speakers was James Wojtasiewicz, deputy director of European
security and political affairs for the U.S. State Department. Frajkor
reported that Wojtasiewicz was blunt but not discouraging about the Visegrad
groups prospects for European integration.
Wojtasiewicz said that labels arent important. Although the current
government in Poland includes many former Communist Party members (they
now call themselves social democrats), the essential thing is that they
have embraced free speech, the rule of law and other tenets of democracy.
However, Wojtasiewicz added that the Eastern European countries must continue
along this path.
Wojtasiewicz said that security will be an important issue for the region.
The Visegrad countries cant expect to get the benefits of NATO protection
without making their own contributions, financial or in kind, such as
the Czech republic presence with NATO allies in the Afghanistan war.
While the U.S. generally supports the EUs plans to establish an
internal security force, Wojtasiewicz warned that the Americans would
not like this military initiative to sap Europes commitment to NATO.
A different sort of challenge was presented by John Micgiel, a political
scientist from Columbia University. He reminded the audience that about
24 per cent of Polands population live in the countryside, a much
larger proportion than in Western Europe. Their brand of farming is subsistence,
or at least small-scale, quite different from that practiced in such countries
as Germany and France.
The entry of Poland into the EU, with its small but powerful and sophisticated
farm lobby, could have dire consequences for both parties. Western Europe
could find itself swimming in cheap surplus farm produce, while in Poland,
farmers could be forced off their land on a scale that would bring dramatic
Other speakers were Lenka Anna Rovna, of Charles University, in Prague;
Csaba Nikolenyi, of Concordia; and Christina Stojanova, of the University
of Alberta. Professor Rovna said that the EU does not appear to favour
the idea of admitting at the same time all nine countries now wishing
to join, including the Visegrad group.
Most of the speakers steered clear of a quarrel that stalled the latest
Eastern European summit. The Visegrad Four, plus representatives of a
cluster of other countries with partial membership, were supposed to hold
a summit on March 1 in Budapest, but a quarrel broke out over the Hungarian
governments efforts to protect ethnic Hungarians in countries along
The conference was the brainchild of Concordia Professor Marika Pruska-Carroll
and Irene Tomaszkewski, an author, activist and former president of the
Canadian Federation for Polish Studies.
The well-informed students were from Pruska-Carrolls class in Russian
politics. In fact, many of the same students took her course in the politics
of Eastern Europe last year, and her seminar in post-communism.
For her, this was a remarkably successful event that brought together
academics, members of the diplomatic community and former citizens of
these countries on a subject of common interest. One after another,
people got up and declared their intention of repeating this experience,
It also galvanized her students. They wouldnt let me out of
class today, she said several days later. They wanted to keep
talking about the conference.
The important thing for George Frajkor was to explain the Visegrad group
to a general audience in Canada that knows little about the globalization
and integration movements in Europe. He felt that the Visegrad four should
take in Slovenia and become the Visegrad five, so that even within the
EU they would have a powerful, united bloc of votes.