Poland’s recent announcement that it would move thousands of troops from the country’s western border to its eastern one—a historic realignment—highlights the consternation that the Ukrainian crisis has sparked among countries in the region. Against the backdrop of the Georgian crisis of 2008, the annexation of Crimea, overt support for anti-Kiev rebels, and talk of unrest in the pro-Russian breakaway province of Transnistria, Poland’s move is the latest indication that political actors worldwide have taken stock of Russia’s menacing international aspirations.
The conflict raging in Ukraine reawakens dark memories of a not-so-distant past when Russia used to call the shots in its sphere of influence. The new geo-political landscape of Eastern Europe has prompted a number of local foreign policy shifts, such as Germany’s more assertive “New Foreign Policy” spearheaded by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Nowhere however has the reaction been so feverish as in former Soviet satellite countries. The Višegrad Group (V4)—a broad platform of cooperation between Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—has been among those severely affected by the Kremlin’s increasingly bold and assertive agenda. Although the conflict raging in Eastern Ukraine remains unresolved, these countries have already started drawing lessons that will have lasting repercussions in Central and Eastern Europe’s political architecture.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing power vacuum, Eastern and Central European countries set about buttressing their new independence through various initiatives to safeguard their territorial and political sovereignty. Bound by a collective past under Soviet control, these states desired a common political architecture and economic incubator. Formed in February 1991 by Czechoslovakia’s President, Václav Havel; Poland’s President, Lech Wałęsa; and Hungary’s Prime Minister, József Antall, the V4 countries committed firmly to eradicating the Soviet legacy and pursued membership in NATO and the European Economic Community.
Together they set about implementing sweeping economic and industrial reforms, promoting common cultural projects, and establishing mechanisms of cross-border consultations in a range of areas, including education, defense, and disaster management. Legacies of the V4’s early successes include the 1992 Central-European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), the International Višegrad Fund, and coordination in the field of energy security. The V4 countries’ accession to NATO in 1999 (2004 for Slovakia) and to the EU in May 2004 signaled both the completion of their profound democratic overhaul and their recognition as key contributors to stability in the region.
In recent years, however, the V4’s unity and solidarity has waned. “Post-enlargement fatigue” closely followed the V4 countries’ NATO and EU accession, and they must again negotiate a muscular Russian foreign policy driven by the Putin doctrine, which emphasizes protecting a reunited Russian civilizational community (Russkiy mir) from Western conspiracy. Increasingly strained by differing political affinities and divergent opinions on their Russian neighbor, the V4 states have pursued separate strategies—ones that may undermine the founding V4 principles of “functionally complementary and mutually reinforcing cooperation and coordination”.
Hungary and its increasingly illiberal president Viktor Orbán is the friendliest state of the four towards Russia, despite a troubled history. Initially a purely pragmatic relationship, owing to the historical trauma of the brutal Soviet repression of the 1956 Budapest uprising, rapprochement and ideological convergence between the two countries have increased over time. Economic alignment—including the €10 billion euro contract for joint construction of two nuclear reactors in the Hungarian Paks plant and Budapest’s support for the Russian-backed South Stream pipeline—have sealed the strategic partnership. Russia’s considerable financial and natural resources and the geopolitical clout it wields have convinced Orbán to pivot toward Russia and away from the EU—which he has always regarded with skepticism.
Conversely, Poland has opted for defiance and hostility towards Moscow. Since its independence from the Soviet Union, Poland has remained wary of Russia, as evidenced by its accommodation of George W. Bush’s request to host U.S. long-range missile interceptors on Polish territory. More recently, as a vocal opponent of what Polish President Bronisław Komorowski has dubbed Putin’s ‘imperial’ ambitions, Poland spearheaded a movement of countries eager to place comprehensive sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea. The most recent manifestations of this animosity are the dispute over Gazprom’s reduced natural gas deliveries to Poland and the Russian ban on certain Polish agricultural products. In response, Poland strongly reaffirmed its Atlanticist ties and its commitment to the EU. The recent nomination of hawkish former Polish President Donald Tusk as head of the European Council makes reconciliation with Russia unlikely.
In the Czech Republic, party politics dictate foreign policy orientations—engendering continuous flux in policies toward Moscow. Subject to these partisan views, with little or no continuity and consistency, the Czech Republic has witnessed prominent members of the same government recommending contradictory foreign policy stances: from 2006 to 2009 Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek urged his country to exercise caution with Russia, while former President Václav Klaus was outright friendly to Moscow. This is symptomatic of the frequent divisions in the country’s political establishment and of the diversity of actors and lobbies—including the Czech counterintelligence agency BIS—vying for influence in foreign policy formulation. Plagued by internal disagreement, the current incongruous coalition of socialists, liberals, and Christian Democrats in government since early 2014 has also struggled to formulate a coherent stance on the issue of Russia’s expansionism: while President Miloš Zeman (despite his alleged pro-Russian views) has made a comparison of Crimea’s annexation to the 1968 invasion of the Czechoslovakia, his government has nevertheless been reluctant to impose new sanctions on Russia.
Meanwhile Slovakia has proven even more apathetic than its Czech neighbor. This is characteristic of its approach to foreign policy, which has been dubbed “multivectoralism”— the capacity to maintain balanced, multilayered relations with its various partners. Indeed, as the smallest and least developed of the V4, Slovakia is keen to maintain dialogue and close economic relations with Russia while also stressing its commitment to the EU and NATO. Thus far, Slovakia has attempted to position itself as a mediator and proponent of diplomacy in the current Ukrainian crisis by pushing for a political solution in the EU-Russia dispute. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico exemplifies this international posture: having deemed the sanctions “unnecessary and harmful”, and having successfully renegotiated the terms and price of its gas deal with Russia, he has nevertheless agreed to support Kiev “by opening the Vojany-Uzhgorod reverse gas pipeline that will allow shipments of gas from Europe”.
This internal discord between V4 countries might just be playing into Putin’s “divide and conquer” strategy for several reasons. The difficult transition from authoritarian regimes and state-led economies to representative democracies and capitalism accomplished by these countries en bloc elevated them as a symbol of successful political cohesion and economic transformation. The Višegrad Group represented a legitimate competent actor to facilitate similar change in countries like Macedonia and Moldova—both of which aspire to join the EU. However, the current context of inner dissension is quickly eroding the V4’s credibility. Not only does the splintering of the group prevent the regional bloc from delivering a strong pro-European message, as it once did, but it also harms the soft power and brand image of an alliance that reflects European ideals of integration, stability, and solidarity. As the V4’s solidarity decreases, Russia reinforces its bilateral leverage and politics of seduction—energy supplies and economic incentives to the pliant. This could result in Hungary or Slovakia becoming Putin’s “Trojan Horse” inside the EU.
Second, the Višegrad Group is a cultural and economic incubator as well as a foreign policy think tank, encouraging exchange and competitiveness. In attempting to coordinate their policies in these domains, these countries have fostered a unique transnational experience. However, growing disenchantment threatens promising defense and security projects, most notably the Višegrad Battle groups project—a combined rapid-reaction unit with autonomous command and logistics comprised of 3,000 men from the V4 countries. The latest casualty of this fragmentation is the proposed joint development of a mobile air defense radar system, from which the Czech Republic has withdrawn according to Business New Europe. These setbacks in cultivating a “pan-Višegrad” defense are welcomed—even encouraged—by a Moscow eager to impede the militarization of the platform. Further splintering of the V4 would therefore deprive the area of a stability guarantor and an example worthy of emulation, notably in the realms of political visibility, cross-border cooperation, and economic and cultural development.
Thus what once seemed a coherent alliance based on a common worldview and shared history has given way to a political hydra. The Ukrainian crisis—a symptom of the Russian resurgence—has laid bare the organization’s rifts. Hungary’s realpolitik and Poland’s ideological hostility to Russia place them at opposite ends of the foreign policy spectrum in their respective stances towards Moscow, while the characteristic Czech oscillation and Slovak caution equally impede a joint resolution on the Ukrainian crisis. Although attempting to find common ground in official communiqués, the V4’s inner differences are fundamental and visible. These countries even possess “varying conclusions concerning the appropriate response to make to the Russian moves, the need for Western pressure on Russia and the problem of taking Russia into account in the resolution of Ukrainian problems”.
The V4—bereft of political momentum and increasingly undermined by conflicting national agendas—appears unable to present a united front and thus may no longer be a viable political structure. If the Višegrad Group wishes to play a role in the region’s future, it must awake from its state of torpor and actively resolve the internal divergences interfering with a unified stance internationally.
The Central European constellation faces two choices: it must either re-invent itself around less divisive objectives such as economic and cultural collaboration or it must push for greater political alignment, embrace a more formal, institutionalized structure, and accept the inevitable collateral damage. The former, less ambitious option would spell the end of the V4’s political and security missions and relegate the group to a framework for low politics, focused on initiatives such as job growth and scholarship programs. This would significantly dilute Central Europe’s clout in European and global politics.
The latter, more ambitious configuration would require the establishment of a permanent secretariat, the harmonization of foreign policies, and significant commitments in the security realm. It might also demand revitalizing the organization by extending membership to like-minded countries such as Romania or Bulgaria. Enhancing the institutional basis and the linkage of strategic interests, including defense, would enable the V4 to tackle major policy issues—like energy security—and to make its voice heard in the EU.
Such a process should be supported by the group’s most powerful member, Poland, with Hungarian defection from the project a possible drawback. Only Poland—a member of the EU G6 and a country of 40 million people—has the power to “transform the V4 from spectators to players, from talking to taking action” and to restore the group’s unity behind a common political and foreign policy line. Only then will the V4’s goals of “fostering cohesion and competitiveness”, “ enhanced international visibility”, and “strengthening…its position in the global arena” be truly fulfilled.
About the Author
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