A Little Bit Of What You Fancy

The Visegrád Group is one of the few economies aside from China and India that are weathering the economic storm well.

Little is often said about the small cluster of states that make up Central Europe; particularly the four relative powerhouses that make up the obscure, but crucial, Visegrád Group. It is worth asking how they are actually faring, domestically and abroad; economically and socially; in a quickly changing Europe and a world starkly at odds with what it was a mere half-decade ago.

The Presidents of the Visegrád Group in Budapest

Last year, when the United Kingdom experienced yearly growth of 0.7% in the face of growing economic troubles, albeit most of it abroad, all four of the Visegrád Group countries had higher growth rates. The Czech Republic and Hungary experienced the same growth rates as France, whilst Poland and Slovakia checked in with even higher growth than Germany. Poland’s, the highest of the four, was 4.3%. Growth for the United States in the fourth quarter of 2011 was 3%.

So how exactly is this little band of countries in the Visegrád Group, at the heart of Central Europe, weathering the economic storm? How do they continue to grow and, in some cases, flourish? What does the future hold for them?

Firstly, what is the Visegrád Group? The Visegrád Group is an alliance between Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic designed to aid cooperation and further European integration. It has an annually rotating Presidency, currently held by the Czech Republic and a small but potent pot of money known as the International Visegrád Fund which gives scholarships, grants and artist residencies. On agreement of the Prime Ministers of the respective nations, 7 million euros will be available to hand out from 2012. Initiatives include the Visegrád Battlegroup, with the V4 militaries holding battle exercises under the auspices of NATO, a scholarship program and an Expert Working Group on Energy. The V4 have big fish to fry, and they make no bones about their combined strength. Were the four countries one state, it would be the seventh largest economy in Europe and 15th largest in the world.

There are many things that account for the nations’ rising fortunes after the collapse of Communism, most noticeably the respective policies implemented by the new Governments with the eventual aim of having fully functioning free market economies. Poland’s shock therapy economic programme, the bracingly fast sale of previously nationalised industry, under Leszek Balcerowicz meant that it became the first post-Communist country to hit pre-1989 GDP levels, which it managed in 1995. Alongside that, the implementation of freedom of speech, freedom of press and the defence of human rights allowed the countries to quickly become part of the international community once again. All four of the Visegrád countries are now members of the EU, NATO, and the OECD.

However, like any developing countries – and, one could argue, fully developed ones as well – there are still some very entrenched problems. For the Czech Republic, scholars and psychologists alike, including one notable former President, Vaclav Havel, believes that shaking off the authoritarian mindset will be the most difficult thing for the Czechs to do, and this goes for the other countries too.

Vestiges of radicalism and authoritarianism still haunt the politics of the V4 countries. In Hungary Jobbik, a party claimed by many in the country to be fascist, anti-Semitic and homophobic, has 47 seats out of 386 in the national assembly, making it the third largest Party in terms of seats, though it comes nowhere near the current supermajority of conservative incumbent Fidesz, which has 226.

In Poland a similar situation exists with the liberal-cum-libertarian Palikot’s Movement owning enough seats to make it the third party in Polish politics. However the party, instead of being committed to fascism and homophobia, is instead committed to legalising same-sex civil unions, still illegal in Poland, and also wants to legalise abortion and the smoking of cannabis. The party’s views are considered to range from libertarianism to social democracy.

What’s more, the switch to capitalism, engendered through the speedy privatisation of all previously state owned corporations, has been greeted with less than raucous enthusiasm by some. When current Czech President Václav Klaus was Prime Minister under the liberal conservative Civic Democratic Party, which he founded, he was criticised by then-President Havel for his policy of voucher privatisation. Havel argued that the policy was responsible for subsequent economic difficulties that the country had had to face.

Meanwhile Slovakia still has problems in its human rights and transparency record; in 2010 the U.S. State Department noted police mistreatment and violence towards Roma minorities and suspected corruption in both the executive and the judiciary.

But these are still young countries doing remarkably well, given that they were totalitarian, Communist puppet-states only a short while before most of today’s current University contingent were born. Slovakia was, for the majority of the noughties, nicknamed the Tatra Tiger for its exponential economic development under Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda whose party worked in coalition with the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, and even today still has a GDP that is growing faster than the EU average.

So what next for the V4? This question can probably only be answered when the fate of Europe is finally sealed. If the EU falls apart, no doubt alliances like the Visegrád Group will only come out stronger. If this is the end of the age of nationhood, and the dawn of the age of federalism, this coalition will be ideally situated to emerge as a key player. If not, it will undoubtedly remain one to watch.

 

Stuart McMillan

Image Credit- Palladinus

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