Central Europe sheds operetta past Alliance: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are shaping a powerful new image for Central Europe, a region once known more in the West for its Gypsies and operetta culture.

Sun Journal

October 24, 1997|By Elizabeth Pond | Elizabeth Pond,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- Quietly, without any fanfare, Central Europe is back. But this time around it makes for an altogether different landscape.

"The notion of Central Europe is gaining new importance" with the imminent admission of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic into NATO and the European Union, suggests Csaba Toro, a Hungarian doctoral candidate at Budapest's Central European University.

Central Europeans can be seen as a "company of travelers" journeying toward the same goals, says Irena Lipowicz, a newly re-elected member of the Polish Parliament. "Now there is a chance for cooperation."

Miroslava Hrncirova, chief executive of the Czech Export Bank, notes that in contrast to the romanticism of the past: `The new method is very project-oriented. It's very pragmatic. People have reservations. They are skeptical about secretariats and bureaucracies.`

The three speakers are gathered here for a conference on regional cooperation sponsored by the Washington-based Women in International Security.

A perfect backdrop for reviving the idea of "Central Europe" is supplied by the rippling mineral waters of the Gellert Hotel, restored to a semblance of its Austro-Hungarian grandeur.

The Gerbeaud cafe still serves, at outdoor tables, those pastries renowned throughout the region. On the Buda hills beyond the sparkling Danube the national monument recalls glorious past links with Polish monarchs and, less gloriously, the 19th-century Magyarization of various Slav and Latin minorities.

The Central Europe that Toro, Lipowicz and Hrncirova -- and Budapest -- evoke today is a far cry from any of its antecedents. There is no nostalgia for Austria-Hungary, let alone for Prussian-German hegemony. There is hardly any memory even of the Central European identity conjured up by Milan Kundera and other intellectuals two decades ago to differentiate their lands from the cruder Soviet East.

Nor is there today the antipathy toward one's neighbors that marked the early '90s and lingered on well into 1997.

Once upon a time, back in the '70s and '80s, "Central Europe" was essentially a metaphysical concept. Writers like Milan Kundera carved out the subtle moral terrain of suspension between East and West in books like "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Western readers applauded.

For Central Europeans that kind of identification ended abruptly in 1989, as they shook loose from their half-century in thrall to Moscow. Everyone in the region dashed westward; everyone wanted to be European, without adjectives. No one wished to be typecast as a second-class `Central` European, or to be contaminated by too much association with other Central Europeans. Moreover, all were allergic to the sham brotherhood they were forced to profess in the Soviet bloc.

Typically, Czechoslovakia's Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus declared that his land was already much more Western than all the others; he quickly aborted the `Visegrad` grouping, an informal effort among Poland and Hungary and Czchelosovakia to coordinate their diplomatic efforts. And as late as 1994 Polish President Lech Walesa had to be dragged to Prague to meet with President Clinton in the company of his Hungarian and Czech counterparts.

All this changed again, once the three countries got short listed this past summer for entry into both of the West's premier clubs, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Suddenly the leaders of the three double "ins" saw themselves as partners rather than rivals.

They met in late summer, in Krakow, Poland, and agreed to coordinate their negotiating strategies -- and, significantly, to avoid setting up walls between themselves and the "outs," or, to use their preferred term, the "pre-ins." This month their three defense ministers followed up by meeting near Prague, the Czech capital, to discuss joint procurement.

Paradoxically, the new willingness to work together regionally is by now part of Central Europe's rapid Westernization rather than the assertion of a hybrid identity between East and West that Czechs and Poles feared in the early '90s.

For years Washington and Bonn have preached neighborhood cooperation to the sometimes deaf ears of their proteges. The United States still promotes the kind of supranational cooperation it insisted on in the post-World War II Marshall Plan for Western Europe -- an unprecedented collaboration that blossomed eventually into the European Union. And Germany, which more than any other European nation has reason to prefer supranational cooperation over `renationalization` of policy, does the same.

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