Central European cooperation goes into a new gear

At the Czech Foreign Ministry on Monday journalists were introduced to a brand new Central European institution - the International Visegrad Fund. Named after the town in Hungary where it was established, the Visegrad Group has already been around for ten years, as a loose grouping of four Central European countries: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. But Visegrad has never really captured the public imagination, and that's one of the reasons why the new fund has now been set up. As David Vaughan reports, it aims to support regional cooperation at a grass-roots level, and give real meaning to the rather abstract idea of a regional identity.

The ten-year history of the Visegrad Group has not always been easy. When it was set up in the wake of the fall of communism, the countries of Central Europe saw a chance for a new blossoming in relations after forty years as uneasy bedfellows in the Warsaw Pact. But practice has shown that they are often more divided than united by their common history and ambitions. In the mid-90s Visegrad all but fell apart and at best it has been little more than a high-level talking shop.

But Visegrad does seem to be acquiring a new energy. It has managed to lobby successfully to help Slovakia in its ambitions to join the OECD, the old goodwill to work together has returned, and now--in the form of the International Visegrad Fund--it has acquired its first official institution. The fund's director, Urban Rusnak, feels that it will help bring the reality of regional cooperation to the people. The fund is on a modest scale. Its total budget, with equal contributions from the four Visegrad members is no more than a million Euros, and it has just three full-time employees based in Bratislava.

Just about anyone in the region - from individuals to non-profit organizations and even private companies - can apply for a grant, as long as their project has that necessary international aspect. But how much real interest is there? Urban Rusnak. Given that the Visegrad Group has already been around for ten years, the fund can hardly be described as ambitious, and sceptics might say that it is more a reflection of Visegrad's weakness rather than its strength, but if the fund really does work out in the long term, as the four countries hope, it could at least prove a symbol of Central Europe's ability to work together.

You can find more information about the fund on www.visegrad.org.