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The international Visegrad fund and its role in fostering interconnectivity (Visegrad region).

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 10th anniversary of the Visegrad countries' accession to the European Union. Looking back, the fundamental changes that took place in the countries of Central Europe between these two historic moments--the fall of communism and entry to the European Union--posed many challenges that required combined effort and mutual trust. Indeed, these two remarkable transitions would not have been possible without the building of connections that gradually evolved into regional cooperation.

What came to be known as Visegrad cooperation started even before it was officially agreed upon by the top representatives of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. In fact, its intellectual foundations were laid by democracy activists from the three countries who maintained close communication and visited each other despite repression from their countries' communist regimes. In spite of the borders that divided the region, a common sense of belonging to the same European community and shared values and aspirations existed across all of Central Europe. Consequently, the new democratic leaders who emerged after the fall of communism translated this common sentiment into a vision and an ambition to link their countries with Euro-Atlantic structures.

Following several meetings after 1989, Presidents Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Prime Minister Jozsef Antall signed the Visegrad Declaration on 15 February 1991. The document formally founded Visegrad cooperation, with the ultimate aim of restoring democracy and freedom in Central Europe. Named after the Visegrad Castle to which Hungarian King Karoly Robert invited the Kings of Poland and Bohemia in 1335 to discuss political and economic issues, the Visegrad Group established an unprecedented form of cooperation that had never existed in the region before. Not only did it contribute to the development of a new stage of bilateral relations between the countries in the group, but also created a platform for achieving common goals, first in integrating into the European Union and NATO, and then after 2004 in coordinating positions on regional security and other issues of regional and European significance.

In addition to joining the Western-style democracies, one of the most distinct objectives of the member states of the Visegrad Group has been to strengthen mutual relations among the citizens of the Visegrad countries. The practical expression of this civic dimension of cooperation was the creation of the International Visegrad Fund. Established in 2000, the fund is the only institution of the Visegrad Group and is arguably the most visible product of V4 cooperation. While it had originally focused on supporting cultural cooperation, scientific exchanges, cross-border cooperation, and youth exchanges, over the years the activities of the fund have expanded to other areas such as public policy, environment, urban planning, fighting corruption, social inclusion, and SMEs. Thanks to the thousands of projects supported by the fund, it is clear that Visegrad cooperation is not just a matter for political elites, but involves ordinary citizens, municipal governments, schools, and non-governmental organizations, many of which suffer from limited financial resources. In supporting interactions between citizens, organizations, and the institutions of the V4 countries, the fund has contributed significantly to increasing mutual understanding among citizens of the four countries. The activities of the fund have contributed a great deal to fostering interconnectivity within the V4 region.

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June will mark fifteen years of the Visegrad Fund's existence. We have come a long way since we first opened our office in Bratislava. Initially, the fund had at its disposal the modest sum of one million euro and ran only one grant program. The current budget of the fund stands at 8 million euro and the secretariat runs several grant programs. Aside from programs that facilitate cooperation among individuals and entities in the V4 region through joint projects, the Visegrad Fund took another step forward--the establishment of the Visegrad Scholarship Program. Initially, the scholarships went only to the students from the Visegrad countries, but since the 2004/2005 academic year, the fund has added individual academic mobility to its priorities, making scholarship available also to the citizens of Belarus, Croatia, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine. Today, the program is also open to students from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, (1) Macedonia, and Moldova, with the number of distributed scholarships rising from 140 in 2005 to more than 2000 by the end of 2014. Through the expanded reach of the fund's scholarship program, the IVF is working to establish new connections among citizens in the broader Central European region as well.

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Since 2004, the Visegrad Fund has been building another important portfolio of activities outside the borders of the V4 region. The fund carries out democracy assistance programs in the neighboring regions of the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries through its V4 Eastern Partnership Program, The Visegrad countries are among the few in the European Union that have first-hand experience with democratic transition and practical expertise necessary to managing a successful transition from authoritarian/totalitarian forms of governance to democracy. Due to the many similarities in the challenges of political and economic transformation, as well as the comparable difficulties in establishing a vocal and influential civil society, V4 NGOs are in a unique position to share useful skills with their counterparts in EaP countries concerning vital aspects of the sustainability, management, visibility, social embeddedness, and international networking of the NGO sector. Similarly, V4 think tanks are able to share policy experience with their counterparts with regard to various aspects of the transformation and European integration process, just as cooperation between institutions of higher education may potentially have important input in mobilizing public opinion in favor of reforms and transition.

The strong legitimacy of the IVF to provide expertise in transition management and total harmony between the IVF's V4EaP Program and the objectives of the Eastern Partnership launched by the European Union have attracted the interest of foreign donors, as well. Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada are among the countries that have established cooperation with the Visegrad Fund in the past three years, and whose contributions have virtually doubled the budget available for the V4EaP program. Important contributions have also been made on an individual project basis to IVF's Western Balkans activities. Currently the funding provided by the fund for the purposes of out of Visegrad programs is not much behind the resources for the core mission of strengthening internal V4 cohesion. However, it must be noted that all area projects (especially in the WB and EaP) do have a very strong element of cooperation between V4 organizations. They therefore serve the dual purpose of strengthening internal V4 cooperation as well as cooperation with its immediate neighborhood.

In addition to our democracy assistance programs in the two neighboring regions, the IVF has initiated joint programs in support of the V4+ formats of joint Visegrad foreign policy measures, supported the establishment of Visegrad Information Centers far beyond the geographical perimeters of Central Europe, co-funded an exchange program with the U.S. State Department, and held preliminary discussions of entering into cooperative arrangements with other international organizations of regional character (CBSS, Union for the Mediterranean).

One of the most significant projects the fund has been involved in outside the V4 region is preparation of the Western Balkans Fund. Incepted in 2011 by a feasibility study financed by the fund, (2) the potential for a Western Balkans Fund has been widely discussed by all stakeholders in the Western Balkan region since its publication. Consultations with MFAs in the region were initiated by the Czech Foreign Ministry in 2011, while it held the presidency of the Visegrad Group. As the Visegrad Fund and its statute and structure were considered a primary model for the future Western Balkans Fund, the IVF has been actively involved in the process from the start. In the second half of 2014, it was clear a consensus could be reached among the six Western Balkan participants. (3) As formal confirmation of joint political will, a declaration announcing the foundation of the Western Balkans Fund was adopted in the joint V4 + Western Balkan foreign ministerial statement on October 31, 2014 in Tirana. (4)

All these initiatives outside the Visegrad region and the growing geographical reach and scope of activities of the IVF have significantly contributed to boosting the interconnectivity of the region with other parts of East and South-Eastern Europe, but also with countries in Asia, Western Europe, and the U.S.

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Since its establishment, the International Visegrad Fund has undoubtedly come of age and demonstrated a strong ability to fulfil its mission. We have held numerous consultations with our grantees as well as other donors active in the region in our constant attempt to increase transparency and improve individual programs. Improvements over time have significantly simplified the application process and shaped the programs to better fit both the requirements of the V4 foreign ministries (content priorities, geographical targeting) and to attract a bigger number of applications throughout the priority regions. The fund has, correspondingly, been approached for consultations by other institutions in the region.

It seems appropriate to ask a question about the future direction of the fund's activities. Should the Visegrad Fund's main objective be growing support for intra-Visegrad cooperation, or should it continue in increasing the dynamism of mutual contact with neighboring countries and internationally?

I personally believe that both these objectives are as relevant today as they have always been. On one hand, many achievements accomplished by the Visegrad Group in the past twenty-five years offer us a tremendous opportunity to share our experience with our neighbors in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The Visegrad countries--both individually and as a group--are in a unique position to provide assistance to other countries aspiring to EU membership or other international alliances. The International Visegrad Fund should therefore continue to support joint projects aimed at building civil society by establishing contact between non-governmental organizations, local governments, and people in its wider neighborhood. We should not miss this opportunity to make a significant contribution.

On the other hand, the importance of getting to know one other better and fostering a sense of trust within the Visegrad region has not diminished, either. Good neighborly relations are necessary to tackling cross-border issues ranging from the economy to social cohesion. The International Visegrad Fund has played a key role in establishing contacts across the four nations and should continue to do so in the future.

It is equally vital that Intra-Visegrad cooperation remain a valuable tool in emphasizing the regional dimension of the European Union's policies. By supporting cultural and educational projects, cross-border cooperation, and exchanges between young people, the International Visegrad Fund promotes a sense of a common identity among the citizens of the region, which subsequently facilitates the achievement of common goals at the EU level.

I wholeheartedly believe that the International Visegrad Fund will remain an important partner in promoting interconnectivity within the V4 region and between the V4 region and the outside world in the years to come, and, in so doing, will continue to deliver added value to the benefits of all citizens of the Central European region.

(1) This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

(2) The study was written by Budapest-based International Centre for Democratic Transition.

(3) The consortium of participants in the project include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.

(4) http://www.visegradgroup.eu/calendar/2014/visegrad-group-joint

Ms. Karla Wursterova, Executive Director, International Visegrad Fund.
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Author:Wursterova, Karla
Publication:Crossroads Foreign Policy Journal
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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