Visegrad Four dispute over Benes Decrees

In this week's Central Europe Today, Dita Asiedu examines the reactions to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's remarks about the Benes Decrees and looks at the impact Mr Orban's stand on the issue has had on relations and co-operation within the Visegrad Group - that's the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Hello and welcome to another edition of Central Europe Today. The question over whether or not to abolish the Benes Decrees has been gaining much attention in Central Europe over the last few weeks. Until February 18th, however, this highly controversial and delicate issue was not part of discussion within the Visegrad Group. This changed drastically when, speaking before the European Parliament the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban indirectly supported calls for the abolition of the Benes Decrees when he said that they did not conform to EU laws and should therefore be repealed before the Czech Republic and Slovakia were allowed to join the European Union. In protest, the Czech and Slovak Prime Ministers, Milos Zeman and Mikulas Dzurinda decided to boycott a Visegrad Four summit in Hungary, scheduled for March 1st. Gabor Horvath is Hungary's Government Spokesman:

" This is a regrettable fact because both Prague and Bratislava were referring to an issue which has nothing to do with our bilateral relations and nothing to do with Visegrad co-operation. As is well known, the question concerning the Benes decrees was actually raised by a member of the European Parliament. So the Hungarian Prime Minister responded to that, he gave a very clear and very balanced response. The fact in itself clearly shows that in European politics, as well as in the European Parliament, the issue of the Benes decrees from time to time emerges. Also there are resolutions by the European Parliament from last year and the year before as well, where it is clearly stated that the European Parliament would welcome if, for example, the Czech government would bring the Benes decrees into harmony with the laws of the European Union as well as the Copenhagen criteria."

Istvan Szent-Ivanyi - the head of the Hungarian Parliament's Foreign Affairs committee, however, had his reservations about the affair:

"He did not choose the right place and right time to discuss that issue. The Hungarian position is very clear on that. We wouldn't like to put it on the agenda of the bilateral issue and of the international issues and he violated that basic rule and that was the problem with his saying in my opinion, in the sense that it was not good and not tactful to speak about that. That's not an issue which we have to touch up on now."

Political analysts in Central Europe hold their own theory. They believe that the European Parliament's question came in handy for Mr Orban to attack the post-war decrees, which had resulted in the expulsion and confiscation of property from not only 2.5 million ethnic Germans but also thousands of ethnic Hungarians, in order to gain domestic support and become Hungary's first post-Communist leader to be re-elected. Despite the fact that Mr Orban confirmed his stand on the decrees on Saturday, Czech and Slovak representatives believe that steps to resolve the dispute and continue with Visegrad Group meetings will be made after the elections. Czech government spokesman, Libor Roucek:

"Because the meetings are taking place regularly, we can expect that it will be held this year but the question is whether the meeting will be held before the Hungarian elections. Of course we have to ask this question to Mr Orban, to explain why he mentioned it now, just six weeks before the elections at home."

Mr Roucek's Hungarian counterpart, Gabor Horvath stressed that Mr Orban's statement had nothing to do with the upcoming general elections in April:

" This is total nonsense. Let me repeat: this issue is obviously present in European thinking and European politics. Actually the Hungarian Prime Minister very clearly stated in Brussels that we did not intend and will not intend to raise this issue in our bilateral relations, although those elements of the Benes decrees which attach collective guilt to minority populations are totally not yet in harmony with the current principles and philosophy of European law, and Hungary actually regards them as a kind of sad remnant of the last century and we believe that even in the framework of our joint marching towards a reunified Europe, these issues upon accession of the Central European countries will really have to evaporate."

One thing that all countries agree on is that the Benes Decrees are a sad part of Second World War history. For the Czech Republic and Slovakia, however, that is precisely why the decrees cannot be abolished. Libor Roucek once more:

"We have to see the situation in the context of the whole of the Second World War and of course the agreements after the war. There is an agreement called the Potsdam agreement, which was not by the Czechs or the Hungarians but rather by the big powers - the United States, Russia, Great Britain and France - and based on this agreement, certain order was established in Europe after the war and that order contains also the provision for the transfer of the German population from Central and Eastern Europe, not just from the former Czechoslovakia but also from Poland, from other parts of Eastern Europe and also from Yugoslavia and from Hungary. So the Benes Decrees are just one part of the post-war order in Europe."

Independent commentator Jefim Fistejn has been concentrating on Central European relations for years:

"Neither the present nor the future Czech government can abolish the Benes decrees for a simple reason, it's the base for many legal acts and to abolish such a basic legal fundament would mean to bring the whole society into the highest uncertainty. There would be property questions, many Czechs were married or divorced on the grounds of these laws, inherited some property, estates and money and any compensation claims from the part of the former owners would mean the highest degree of uncertainty in Czech society."

As Mr Fistejn points out, the expulsion of ethnic minorities in the post-war years was not just a phenomenon found in Czechoslovakia:

"In any case, it will be resolved on the grounds of the compensation claims or territorial claims exactly like the Munich agreements, criminal agreements still are the foundation for many German laws because the abolition of these agreements would lead to the same consequences as I described before. Poland faces similar problems. It was literally moved from the East to the West, loosing millions of its inhabitants of German origin. So, many similar problems are all around Europe, deep problems between Denmark and Germany and other countries. So, it should be taken as an international problem, not as a bilateral problem because the Czech Republic would be the looser because of course the neighbours are much mightier than the Czech Republic now. But if taken as an international problem and solved in the frame of the EU, it can be solved positively in my opinion."

And if Mr Fistejn's analysis is right then delicate issues of the past will continue to surface in the future:

"The Benes Decrees cannot be resolved somehow. The only way to resolve the issue is to forget about it. That means to produce a common declaration like the recent Czech-German declaration stipulating that the problems of the past should not burden the presence and the future. As we see, the declaration itself is no remedy against the old problems. Anytime on the ??? task of the election or in the case of worsening mutual relations, the old problems strike back. And that is what we see now."

So what does that mean with regards to relations and cooperation within the Visegrad Group. So far, Poland has not revealed a clear stand on the Benes decrees, although its Prime and Cultural ministers also cancelled their planned trips to Hungary. Despite the vast political and media attention, Visegrad Group representatives continue to stress that not all hope is lost and relations are - and have to be - just as rosy as before:

"As far as Czech-Hungarian relations are concerned, or the relations in Central Europe among the Visegrad Four group, we can say that the relations are excellent. Not just political relations but also if you look at the volume of foreign trade or the cultural exchange, relations among the people, the relations are perhaps we can say the best we have ever had. So, we think that one remark or one comment or one expression of views of Mr Orban in a longer term won't change anything in the excellent quality of relations."

According to Istvan Scent-Ivanyi, relations between Slovakia and Hungary, despite Mr Orban's recent attacks, which also include his suggestion not to support Slovakia's bid to join NATO unless it accepted a new Hungarian law offering seasonal work permits and educational, medical and travel benefits to 500 000 ethnic Hungarian residents in Slovakia, also continue to be favourable. This, he said, was confirmed during a visit of a delegation from the Slovak Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee:

" We agreed that we are commonly interested in maintaining the continuous dialogue - that is very important. We also agreed to urge our governments to reach an agreement on the implementation of the ??? and we would like to find a good compromise which can be acceptable to both parties, and we agreed that Slovakian NATO membership is in Hungarian interest and we have to take into consideration only the general criteria of NATO membership and none of the conflicting points of bilateral relations. Therefore, Hungary should support Slovakia if it fulfills the political and technical criteria of NATO membership. As far as the Benes Decrees are concerned, we agreed that we would not like to put them on the agenda of bilateral talks, it is harmful and does not serve the common interests."

Afterall, the fact remains that the Visegrad Group countries need to combine forces in order to meet their joint goal which is to successfully join the European Union:

"We need very much cooperation and a common platform of the Visegrad Four countries. We are fighting, combating, for better criteria for accession to the European Union. We need a common platform in order to achieve a common agreement with the European Union. Under that circumstance, it is very dangerous to undermine the cooperation and cohesion of the Visegrad Four countries."