The Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) published on its website an interesting article analyzing different positions of Visegrad countries towards Russian-Ukraine conflict. Authors conclude: “There is a deepening division in Central Europe. On one side are those countries which fear an escalation of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict and who are demanding the strengthening of NATO’s eastern flank and deterring Russia's aggressive actions through economic sanctions.”
The question whether these different positions can weaken Visegrad co-operation RV discussed with two Visegrad experts Mateusz Gniazdowski (Head of Central European Department of The Centre for Eastern Studies, Warsawa), Tomáš Strážay (Senior researcher – Central and Eastern Europe Program of Slovak Foreign Policy Association, Bratislava) and Lyubov Shishelina (Head of departament of Central and Eastern European Studies Institute of Europe RAS, Moscow).
RV: Visegrad Group has nearly fifteen years experienced period of useful and mutually advantageous co-operation. Is it possible that impressive results of Visegrad co-operation could be jeopardized by different attitude of individual V4 countries towards Russian-Ukrainian military confrontation?
Despite the differences in approach to Russia and Ukraine, V4 cooperation is able to maintain some security issues, as the V4 delegations demonstrated during the last NATO summit in Newport. Such misunderstandings do sometimes happen and they do not necessarily have fatal consequences. Finland, by the way, has also taken a critical approach to sanctions but nobody is talking about the end of the Nordic Council.
I think that the V4 has politically invested too much in the declarations on cooperation in the field of security and defence, which roused too far-reaching expectations. The V4’s ambitions in this area will probably be rationalized.
Both Poland and the other Visegrad countries are interested in continuing V4 cooperation. It is still beneficial to all countries, especially with regard to important EU policies, such as energy, climate, transport, the single market etc. Visegrad, in spite of the differences, is the most efficient format for multilateral cooperation in Central Europe.
There are many established flexible mechanisms of this cooperation – meetings before EU Councils, cooperation between various ministries, high level working groups on energy security and the new high-level group on transport issues.
It also serves as a platform for cooperation with other countries, i.e. the “V4 plus”, especially with Romania – a strategic partner of Poland – and Bulgaria. The entire V4 has also supported the Eastern Partnership and, despite all the differences in the approach to Russia, it is also working on the field of support for the pro-Western aspirations of the countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Practical cooperation in NATO is also moving in the right direction, despite the considerable neglect that Poland’s V4 partners have been guilty of in the field of defence policy. Nevertheless, the recent disharmony in the national
positions towards Russia does unfortunately reduce the credibility of the V4 and the region as a whole.
During its more than 23 years long history the V4 experienced various "tops and downs", including the period when the cooperation was more or less suspended (1994-1998). Nevertheless, cooperation in the Visegrad framework has become so multi-layered that the dissolution of the Visegrad Group is hardly imaginable.
It is simply due to the fact that Visegrad cooperation brings gains - both political and economic - to all four participating countries. It has taken long time to develop regional coalitions and the V4 countries are aware of that.
The V4 will therefore remain the most viable regional initiative in Central Europe and in the whole EU, prepared for the cooperation with other countries or groups of countries.
The situation in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea has definitely had an impact on the Visegrad cooperation, but the current status quo is far from an "existential crisis". It has to be underlined that the Visegrad Group has never been a coherent bloc of countries, but a coalition of those who have been willing to cooperate.
This also implies that the V4 countries can maintain different positions towards some issues, while having similar or even identical attitudes towards a number of other issues. Of course, the V4 countries should continue heading towards a closer coordination of positions and strengthened internal cohesion.
Any crisis can also serve as an impulse for a more intensive cooperation, at least in some areas. The gas crisis in 2009, for instance, strengthened the cooperation of the V4 countries in the field of energy security.
Let´s try to look on the crisis in Eastern Ukraine/Crimea from this angle - e.g. how the lessons learned can help us to reshape/recalibrate the Eastern Partnership project. The declared willingness of the representatives of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia to increase their defense budgets can also be considered as a positive sign.
One of the major reasons why the apple of discord fell on the heads of the Visegradians is disappointment in the results of the Partnership programme which failed on 29 November 2013 when it became evident that Victor Yanukovych left the Partnership programme.
First of all V4 countries were responsible for the whole project. If they had built up its Eastern partnership policy correctly from the beginning, taking into consideration the geopolitics of Ukraine and the interests of Russia, they would have tried to initiate a dialogue with Moscow about the partnership programme and the world might be different today.
Nothing has been done. Experts on Russia in V4 countries should act like a think-tank and not like a simple rams, should concentrate on the possible reactions of Russia and strive for compromises. Not to hurry the events and to jump over stages of the process as finally Lithuania did.
RV: If we mention Visegrad cacophony it is also necessary to take into consideration cacophony inside individual V4 countries which has its impact on level of co-ordination of the Visegrad group. How both these cacophonies are understood and interpreted in Moscow?
Russians have very vague idea about the Visegrad Four in general. It is a prerogative of comparatively small group of professionals to analyze processes going on in the Visegrad Group on the whole. Most of Russians distinguish rather between the positions of the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe.
Analyzing the situation from professional point of view, there would be revealed some basic and evidently insuperable inherent contradictions in this interstate structure. In the frame of the events around Ukraine and anti-Russian sanctions each country has acted according to its national interests. However, at the same time they have tried to keep these interests not to break their obligations as the members of NATO and EU. V-4 solidarity seemed to be another matter.
Ukrainian crisis revealed the real capacities of the Visegrad group as an orchestra. Thus, the naming of Mateusz Gniazdowski and his colleagues article might be perceived as a real godsend.
However, there are more visible internal contradictions in assessment of Ukrainian events and sanctions against Russia. We in Russia distinguish substantial contradictions between positions of President Andrej Kiska and Prime-minister Robert Fico in Slovakia, as well as sometimes contradicting statements of Czech President Milos Zeman which show – in our understanding - his will to keep balance between existing perceptions of the situation.
On this background, positions of Poland and Hungary may represent two poles of determination in the “Visegrad attitude”: from unified chorus of Polish political elites to almost monolith effort of Hungarian Government to stand back. With the exception of the former foreign minister Janos Martony, Hungarian higher officials either restrain from evaluation of the situation around Ukraine, or speak openly on the negative effect of economic sanctions.
Returning back to Mateusz Gniazdowski’s article I would like to point to certain misinterpretation of the prime-minister Orban’s saying: his “Dove in economy and Hawk in defence” refers rather to simultaneous possibility to preserve good economic relations with Russia remaining a true ally of NATO.
Thus, we are witnessing a little rift within the lute in the Visegrad solidarity as the result of the conflict over Ukraine and attitude towards anti-Russian sanctions. The attempt of Catherin Ashton to supply the countries of the region with a single ideological basis in the formula: Ukraine is not Hungary of 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and Poland 1980, repeated next day in chorus of the Visegrad foreign ministries has currently remained the only attempt of the EU to consolidate Visegrad Europe in front of the “calls from the East”.
I think that Orbán's bon mot about being "doves in economy and hawks in defense", quoted in our paper, was meant to reassure Hungary’s NATO partners, as well as those in the V4, that despite its economic rapprochement with Russia, Hungary treats its membership in the alliance seriously. He also wanted to wash away the confusions present among Hungary's allies, caused by his statements about the decline of the West and liberal democracy, the usefulness of sanctions and demands about autonomy for Hungarians in Ukraine, while it was facing Russian aggression in the East. Orbán's stance during the Newport summit showed that despite the "Eastern opening" in Hungarian foreign policy, the country perceives its security in the framework of NATO. However, the ever closer cooperation with Russia in the strategic field of energy might prove to increasingly difficult for Orbán to pass off as a purely economic activity.
I consider Orban´s words about „hawks” and „doves” as just another interpretation of his sentence „We are sailing forward Westwards under the Eastern wind” which was made much earlier than Ukrainian crises broke out. This statement is just another confirmation of duality of Viktor Orban’s foreign policy which has longer prehistory, though mass media on all the sides like to present him like a kind of „stanby trouble-maker.” They sometimes use conflicting interpretations of one and the same.
RV: Hungary is not the only country which tries to find a way how to harmonize its economic interests with its security issues. Other V4 countries are doing the same but their solutions are more or less different what has provoked mentioned cacophony. Is the Visegrad group able to find any minimal common denominator enabling to it to preserve at least elementary unity in V4 foreign policy? Are V4 countries able to find some consensus in building of relationship with Russia?
The V4 countries surely have common interests in foreign policy, but since the Visegrad Group is a weakly institutionalized entity, joint declarations adopted on the group level are not legally binding. This has also caused problems in terms of responding to the developments in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea – jointly adopted V4 declarations did not always correspond with the positions of individual V4 countries. In fact, one could have an impression that individual V4 countries are hiding behind V4 declarations while pursuing their own policies, also towards Russia. This has had a negative impact on the reputation of the Visegrad Group as such, which made several political analysts – mostly journalists – start speaking about the dividing lines and existential crisis in the V4. Still, the positions of individual V4 have not hampered the position of the EU, which also applies to the debate about the sanctions against Russia
Russia seems to be aware of this institutional “weakness” of the Visegrad Group and therefore V4-Russia relations practically did not exist. Of course, Russia has developed bilateral relations with individual V4 countries, but due to the absence of a joint coordination body on the V4 level Russia did not have a partner to talk to. Despite the fact that the EU is much more integrated (and institutionalized) than the V4, even in this case Russia has been pursuing more or less the same strategy. Instead of establishing ties with the EU, it always preferred to talk to individual countries, such as Germany, France, etc.
Nevertheless, weak institutionalization of the V4 also has advantages, since the V4 countries can concentrate only on the areas of their joint interest, without concentrating on issues in which they can’t speak in one voice. Regarding Russia, the V4 countries are, for instance, pretty much united in their aim do develop a regional gas market and decrease their dependency on Russia through building new interconnectors on the North-South axis. Also in the future the V4 countries should aim to identify and than cooperate in as many areas as possible.
Tomas has stressed, that Russia did not take the EU as a single institution preferring to have deal with individual countries separately. This is only partly true. May be you forgot that in 2006 Poland had vetoed the General agreement between Russia and European Union. Afterwards, Lithuania used another veto. Thus, Russia was put into situation when it had to concentrate on bilateral relations. Returning to our main topic. As I understood, as regards one of the reasons of recent “cacophony” in V4 ensemble, you find– in a lack of a common approach to sanctions against Russia, contrary to joint declarations and determined political statements.
Being a historian of international relations I always pray to follow strictly the sequence of the events. In case we break this order, we shall get a completely different picture, bringing us to wrong conclusions and inadequate measures. It seems that we’ve got the picture of the exhausted Visegrad group lost in front of “Russia’s aggressivity”. Please, correct me if I am wrong…
I would like to remind here that already Fyodor Dostoyevskyi wrote in his diary about Piccolo Bestia in Europe’s attitude towards Russia in crisis situations: „Europeans sense to understand each-other and even fail to understand what they themselves want. There is the only thing they share: they immediately point to Russia: everybody is sure that harmful bastard every time runs out of it.”
RV: Tomas has opened our old discussion: would it be the Visegrad cooperation more effective and more coherent if it were more institutionalized? Bigger institutionalization has its pros and cons. Maybe in a current situation freer scheme of the co-operation is better for more or less comfortable preserving of the Visegrad Group. If we had more institutionalized co-operation our problem to find common position could have negative impact on V4 on the whole.
I would also add a brief reference to the Tomáš's answer. I do not think it is a good time now to develop our old discussions on deepening the institutionalization of the V4.
My intention was to describe the status quo, not to re-open the question of further institutionalization. The non-existence of the joint coordinating body, however, gives the V4 countries a natural opportunity to develop their own individual positions, which might not correspond with the ones adopted on the V4 level.
I am pretty fine with the low level of institutionalization of the V4, especially under current circumstances but also due to the fact that the V4 countries are on different circles of European integration.
I would not also look for the reasons of cacophony in the lack of institutionalization. As far as I remember, the initial goal of V4 had been the establishment of the Central European forum capable of prevent a possible vacuum in regional contacts after the fall of the Eastern bloc and before daybreak of the new European order. Later new ideas like common customs space and etc. were developed.
The structures alike, from Central European Initiative, to Benelux and Weimar triangle have also undertaken declarations claiming Russia, approving sanctions on words and continuing trade relations with it. Cacophony in reality reins Europe and not only the Visegrad group.
RV: So we agree that lower level of V4 institutionalization serves like a specific shield protecting the Visegrad Group against even deeper mutual misunderstanding. However, back to the original question:
I would say that the different approaches taken to the EU sanctions within the V4 does not only stem from short-sighted economic calculation. There are also some differences in the strategic culture of the V4 countries, resulting from historical memory (which is wider than the memory of Soviet oppression), the geographic location (unlike Poland they have no border with Russia) and the differences in scale.
Poland’s V4 partners do to some extent understand the concerns of Poland and the Baltic countries, though; even if they do not feel threatened by Russia directly, they have had some negative experiences in relations with Ukraine – a country much larger than themselves, and they believe that, anyway, in geostrategic issues the last word belongs to the powers. So some leaders try to manoeuvre and make some deals on the margins of this dispute and this approach is warmly welcomed by Russia.
This trend is substantially enhanced by influential business circles dominated by the representatives of companies which have extensive interests in Russia, or by those who are largely interested in maintaining their position on the Russian market or in developing economic co-operation with Russia. This is the reason why some leaders of the V4 countries criticized the sanctions adopted by the EU; and they thus undermined their governments and the EU’s common position.
I think that the minimal common denominator of the V4 is associated with our credibility as members of the fundamental structures in which we participate. So the basic condition of V4 consensus in the relationship with Russia is not undermining the common position – not easily built – of the EU and NATO to Russia. I think that the governments of all the V4 countries are aware that this is crucial and they still see the added value of the V4 cooperation in the East.
Regardless of the differences, the V4 as a group highlights the respect for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized border. For example, the V4 Ministers of Foreign Affairs and the UK’s Foreign Secretary criticized the decision of the separatists to hold "elections" in the Donbas Region on 2 November 2014 and they called upon the Russian Federation to contribute to the peaceful solution of the conflict by refusing to acknowledge such “elections”.
I agree with Tomáš that the V4 as a whole is not a partner for Russia. And I do not regret that there is no developed V4+Russia format. The V4 should be more active and credible in shaping the concrete and coherent position of the EU and NATO towards Russia than trying to build its own multilateral formats with this country.
RV: First of all I would like to thank you all for taking part in this specific round table which was organized on the Internet and let me put last brief question assuming a brief answer: Can we look optimistically at V4 future?
The Visegrad Group has a potential for further development – no doubts about that. On the other hand, we have to have realistic expectations, otherwise the glass will remain ”half empty” forever. This, however, does not imply that our expectations cannot be moderately higher and higher year by year…
I would say optimistically that the reports of the V4’s death are always naive and "greatly exaggerated”. The large part of the political elites in all of the V4 countries still do not want to give up the geopolitical added value of the V4, which is an important factor of our presence in NATO and the EU. The critics of ambitious V4 cooperation will not find any reasonable, attractive alternative for this format.
The Visegrad Group tried to be active within the first months of the Ukrainian crises, but afterwards its Western partners took the whole affair of the lost „Eastern partnership deal” into their hands. This is major reason of the current discord in V4. I do not take it as serious and long-lasting affair. This look rather as a temporary problem, however, it might lead to some serious overestimation of the situation, as well as to corrections of the V4 course, but not towards the decline of the idea of Visegrad Europe – as I call it.
 Mateusz Gniazdowski, Jakub Groszkowski, Andrzej Sadecki: A Visegrad Cacophony over the Conflict between Russia and Ukraine. http://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2014-09-10/a-visegrad-cacophony-over-conflict-between-russia-and-ukraine
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V4 COUNTRIES SEEM TO BE DOOMED TO REPEAT THEIR HISTORY