Relations of Central European countries with Russia are not easy. It is caused by historical burdens as well as by some aspects of current Moscow´s foreign policy. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia –Visegrad Group members- have several possibilities how to develop their policy towards rather complicated partner. They can use integration platforms like the European Union or the Visegrad Group and at the same time they can build bilateral relations. Each V4 country looks for its own tactics and reaches different results. Russkii vopros discusses various aspects of this process with Robert Kron, Senior Analyst and Director of the U.S.-Visegrád Initiative of the Center for European Policy Analysis, U.S.A.
Katyn 1940, Budapest 1956, Prague 1968 as well as the experience which today´s V4 countries made with communist regime installed and strongly supported by Moscow they are historical burdens having their impact on V4 countries attitude towards Russia until today. How strong this impact is?
It is clear that the regions troubled history with Russia has had a profound impact on the development trajectory of these countries after 1989. Foremost, the experience of the Cold War intensified the desire of these states to reinforce their ‘Europeanness’ and ‘rejoin the West,’ in a sense to escape and put behind them what they considered an interruption of their long European history while trapped behind the Iron Curtain. This zeal in many ways was a driving force in pushing these countries to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), which was accomplished with almost miraculous speed and is still held as a global example for the power of democratization and the potency of Euro-Atlantic institutions and Western values.
Second, the experience of being dominated by a not always benevolent hegemonic force intensified the need for the V4 states to find a strategic patron that would support their freedom and encourage and support their development, leading to the strong affinity for the United States and the overall transatlantic relationship.
Finally, this history has created a bastion within Europe of countries committed to championing human rights, democratic governance and free markets and safeguarding the freedom of peoples from political oppression. Today in the midst of transitions across the North Africa and the Middle East, the V4 countries are seen by many as not only leaders in this regard, but as examples, with a prominent role to play in guiding new democratic aspirants down the path to freedom and prosperity.
Concerning complicated historical heritage, can we observe some differences among the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia?
But despite common overarching goals, the four Visegrád states also took different individual lessons from the past. In Poland, this experience has fostered a strategic and national drive for self-determination, and to be among those that shape the European continent at the highest levels of diplomacy. As a result, we see increasingly prominent Polish leadership helping navigate and shape the development trajectory of the EU, in the region through the Weimar Triangle and the Visegrád Group and within the transatlantic space as a leader in NATO.
In the Czech Republic it entrenched an already historically strong desire for independence and freedom from interference, arguably the true cause behind the country’s relative Euro-skepticism and a driving force in its unique advocacy from Cuba to Burma and beyond.
In Hungary and Slovakia, this aspiration is similar but voiced through the commitments to multilateralism and Europeanism, to be integrated and positive members of Europe with a balanced strategic portfolio of international partners and positions.
Is there a visible impact of these various positions on V4 countries foreign policy?
The need to respond to these factors more than anything has traditionally split political attitudes towards Russia among the V4. Poland and the Czech Republic since the end of the Cold War have tended to be more affected by their troubled history and thus acrimonious toward Moscow, seeking closer (especially military) partnership with the United States to try and balance Russia’s overbearing potential. Slovakia and Hungary, by contrast, have at times tended to be more pragmatically minded in their approach, and thus sought to improve relations with Russia as a way to mitigate these threats and keep a more balanced portfolio of international options. In the energy sector for example, Budapest and Bratislava have generally speaking preferred to allay the threat through partnering, rather than external balancing.
And what about position of generations and various political wings in V4 countries towards Russia? U.S.S.R does not exist, Russia is different state but historical distrust has been preserved…
As regards attitudes toward Russia, the answer is as complex as the trouble history that the V4 states share with their former political hegemon. At the popular level, one sees a degree of variance among different generations. Those of older generations that still vividly remember the Cold War tend to have the most visceral opinions, generally negative, while younger generations tend to be milder mannered or even ambivalent.
At the political level, opinions vary between the left end of the spectrum, which tends to be more pro-Russian, and the right, which tends to be more antagonistic toward Moscow. From a geopolitically perspective, though fully fledged and contributory members of the Euro-Atlantic institutions, Russia still represents a major player in the Central European strategic equation.
On the one hand, Moscow remains a troubling partner. It remains the largest potential security threat to the region, with a large military and often revisionist minded leadership—the memory of the 2008 Russo-Georgia War is still fresh—and attempts at political and economic subversion (chiefly through the acquisition of strategic assets) in the region. The legacy of the Cold War has also created a near total dependency on Russian energy imports in the region, which brings political leverage and the constant threat of supply cut-offs (as was in the in the 2009 Ukrainian gas crisis which had chilling—literally—effects on the region). On the other hand, under the right circumstances, Russia could also be an important economic partner with its large consumer base and broadly untapped market potential.
Although, the historical burdens are a very complicated load, V4 countries should look for mutually acceptable modus vivendi. What ways would you see?
The relationship between Russia and the V4 states is evolving in response to the wider changes taking place in the global geopolitical landscape. Historical tensions seem to be, at least temporarily, easing. A major factor has been the changing foreign policy preferences of the United States as embodied in the strategic rebalancing toward Asia (the “Pivot”) and particularly the “Reset” policy with Russia. Though greeted with skepticism, and in some cases open hostility, in the region the U.S.-Russian ‘Reset’ brought with it more benefits than many Central European capitals were originally willing to admit it could. In turn this has pushed some players—notably Poland, but also the rest of the V4 states to varying degrees and extents of optimism and enthusiasm—to pursue their own versions of détente with Moscow.
Pragmatism rather than history, even if cynical at its root, seems to have become the new pattern for dealing with Russia at the moment. However, while this change in atmospherics is bringing tactical benefits and allowing for easier interactions , the ultimate seriousness of both the U.S. ‘Reset’ and its regional corollaries is not a given. Unless internal changes within Russia itself begin to inspire more confidence, this cannot be viewed as a long-term pillar for Central European security. The regional perception of Russia as a threat may be diminished, but it has not disappeared and much remains to be done before East-West rapprochement and partnership can be considered as an enduring geopolitical reality. As a result, we may yet see a reversion to more traditionally skeptical attitudes toward Moscow in the region sooner rather than later.
Robert Kron is a Senior Analyst at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and Director of the U.S.-Visegrád Initiative. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CEPA.
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