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Unity of the Visegrad Group in the Face of War in Ukraine

12.03.2015 | By Bartosz Światłowski

An adequate exemplification of this phenomenon are Polish – Czech relations and attitudes of these countries to the cooperation under the Visegrad formula. Badly demanded similarities (holistic conditions of specific epochs) were observed but they did not eliminate immanent differences. The latter ones included organically combined geopolitical differences of the idiom, varied legacy of political thought arranging fundamental categories of understanding one’s place in the post-communist international conditions or, last but not least, other lodestars of political rationality prioritizing strategic objectives of Warsaw and Prague. Significance and permanence of these factors deprived the V4 countries of the attributes necessary for the existence of political entity at the regional level – institutionalization of cooperation, political leadership, and developed willingness to compromise.

Apart from the EU and North Atlantic Treaty membership anniversaries celebrated by the Visegrad Group countries, or celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the end of communist rules, the year 2014 brought unexpected events in the close neighborhood of the region. Refusal to sign the association treaty with EU by Victor Yanukovych sparked a wave of protests and demonstrations at the Ukrainian Maidan, followed by mass protests across the country. They, in turn, led to overthrowing the President and the government formed by the Party of Regions. Developments in Ukraine accelerated the reaction of Russia that felt worried about the change of current order and, consequently, resolved to exploit such situation to question the territorial status quo consistent with the international arrangements made in the early 1990s. Occupation and annexation of Crimea and later support provided for separatists in Eastern Ukraine pose a challenge primarily for the closest neighbors of Ukraine and put to the test ability of V4 countries to adopt a collective and robust response to the neo-imperial policy of Moscow. Extraordinary character of this situation, its interpretative explicitness (Russia as an aggressor) and a scope of military operations verify the unity of V4 countries at a considerably higher level. This is not only collective negotiation strategies, concurrence of attitudes toward European policy or technical coordination of works, but compatibility of geopolitical perspective to ensure the collective response to the undermined security in the closest international environment. Current geostrategic challenges disrupted celebrations of anniversaries of the groundbreaking events, put an end to peaceful rhetorics which gave way to brutal and ruthless politics. Russian neo-imperialism led to an extreme situation – Ukrainians’ war for independence and territorial integrity and put to test  the value of regional and international alliances. The situation in Ukraine leaves no doubts about the relevance of membership of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary in NATO. Despite different points of view about a mode in which NATO should respond to the Russian offensive, the leaders of four countries stressed the significance of NATO and EU membership as a factor substantially enhancing regional stability and security.

Yet Russian aggression put permanence of fundamental conditions of effective political alliance to test. These conditions include not only current political and economic issues or geographical proximity but also such determinants as potential of individual countries, identity of political elites, public opinion attitude or historical and cultural similarities. Apart from the foundations constant and impacted by long-term historical processes, modern, direct foundations that decided about entering into Visegrad cooperation were put to test. This is because its most general reason was symmetry of political and economic departure point in the early 1990s. Reluctance to the development of security vacuum and an imperative of “the return to Europe” became the driving forces of cooperation between the newly elected governments in Central European capitals. Such situation had a huge impact on the character of cooperation inside the V4 group and marginalized opinions offered by a large number of experts about the stimuli of clearly asymmetrical significance. This is the reason for the illusion of effectiveness or correctness of the Group’s operation, which is reflected in bilateral relations between its members.

An adequate exemplification of this phenomenon are Polish – Czech relations and attitudes of these countries to the cooperation under the Visegrad formula. Badly demanded similarities (holistic conditions of specific epochs) were observed but they did not eliminate immanent differences. The latter ones included organically combined geopolitical differences of the idiom, varied legacy of political thought arranging fundamental categories of understanding one’s place in the post-communist international conditions or, last but not least, other lodestars of political rationality prioritizing strategic objectives of Warsaw and Prague. Significance and permanence of these factors deprived the V4 countries of the attributes necessary for the existence of political entity at the regional level – institutionalization of cooperation, political leadership, and developed willingness to compromise.

Geopolitical idioms

Although the logics of historical processes of the revival of Czech and Polish states was similar and could be regarded as an unifying aspect, it did not change basic characteristics of the geopolitical location of these countries. A common fate – restoration of independence following a fiasco of the concert of powers in the international order was typical for Central European countries when they were also victims of the two totalitarianisms. The same events in the post-war history, cooperation of anti-communist opposition groups and their participation in the transformation processes after 1989 blurred clear, even fundamental, differences and divisions. A simple fact that the Czech Republic does not border with Eastern European countries, absence of any Czech national minorities whose interests were threatened, the unique character and ambivalence of the Czech-German relations resulted in the peculiar geopolitical idiom whose fundamental characteristics include moderate favor toward Russia recognized as either an unthreatening element of the global system or (in a number of historical moments) an ally of the German hegemony. This is crucial from the Polish perspective since the core of the Czech policy was the attitude toward German culture, political and economic model. The focus on Western neighbor was associated with not only sense of European identity but also conviction that the Czech national life depends on the decisions made in Western Europe and not confrontation with distant Russia. In the early 1990s, “persistent inability to focus” on Eastern affairs, combined with a fear of Poland’s striving for dominance, resulted in distancing from the East (including V4), in the name of effective Westernization of political and economic course. While Poland sought new relations with Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania (integral parts of the former Republic of Poland) or Russia, Czechs’ priorities encompassed economic affairs combined with the need for definition of a new formula of co-existence with Slovakia. This essential asymmetry or disproportion of geopolitical challenges was reflected in political practice (Vaclav Klaus’ decision to abandon close cooperation within V4) and determined the choice of different traditions of political thought, which provided basis for the programs of the new political leadership or had an indirect impact on the way of thinking about the role of one’s country in the post-cold war world politics.

Czech diplomacy was dominated by the ex-dissidents and the personification of new “anti-political policy” was President Vaclav Havel. Czechs adopted alternative ways of thinking about politics as the field of moral revival that would result in “the life in truth,” “parallel polis” or “the power of powerless.” Certainly, this legacy was adjusted to the post-communist world, which involved the development of ethical brand of Czech foreign policy, consisting in highlighting the significance of the rule of law, human rights, humanism or democratization (regardless of political corruption affairs). Czechs tried to convince their neighbors this is a good choice but also invested in the development and transformation assistance, which showed the course of their political system transformation as a model of peaceful evolution. Elites’ approach correlated with increasingly popular ideas of peace and human rights. The pride about refusal to grant visa for such politicians as Alexander Lukashenka, which was against the will of Western leaders, is a perfect example of the unique Czech way of doing politics, their trademark. Polish elites identified the foreign policy primarily with the legacy of Parisian „Culture,” which obviously focused efforts on the Eastern historical and geostrategic issues. Renouncement of claims for old Polish lands in Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus was only a part of new conditions – collapse of the Soviet Union, establishment of new states or regain of independence by others. At the same time Germany was recognized as an inherent element of successful modernization (which met the demands made by Mieroszewski) and its unquestionable model. The need for reconciliation was identified in the sphere of axioms and a certain measure was left for the developments in the eastern borderlands of Poland. Sovereignty of Ukraine was found crucial as Ukraine was recognized as a key partner in stabilizing Polish geopolitical situation. It seems that different economic conditions determined the Czech foreign policy in a special way – unlike Polish foreign policy where politics was determined by the imperative of a series of historical reconciliations and a sense of mission in the Eastern policy (at least in declarative dimension) – Czech policy balanced between Havel’s anti-politics, Klaus and Zeman’s pragmatism. Therefore political activity of Prague was focused on Western Balkans and development assistance, while the unique international position of Poland determined its eastern orientation.

Lodestar of political rationality

Legitimacy of the Czech foreign policy was anchored in the two primary dimensions – moral disagreement on human rights violations and elimination of the economic gap between Czech and Western standards. Yet departure of the old dissident groups from political life along with the new challenges associated with globalization and adaptation of the Czech economy to the EU common market conditions led to abandoning the ethical component. This consolidated the political rationality lodestar that showed Czechs not only found the priority objective was to join the European financial system but also promote economic national interest at the expense of the collective efforts of Central Europe, which was manifested by treating V4 as just an economic instrument (CEFTA in the 1990s) or reflected by extremely pragmatic philosophy of membership in international organizations. This is associated with the so-called “Czech fate,” cult of mediocrity, passivity of a small nation condemned to defensive. Thus the Czech policy rather followed specific direction of political rationality that provided space for accomplishing particular goals in a skillful game aimed to balance influences of Continental Europe, Anglo-Saxon liberalism, and the minimum state. This foundation of the Czech Euroscepticism demanded influencing powers’ game so that Czechs could possibly be its beneficiaries. Although this attitude had little in common with what Milan Kundera said in 1968 – “I believe in a big historic mission of small nations in the modern world, where superpowers dictate rules of game and aim to unify it” – Czechs preserved capability of assertive defining their priorities, which condemned Visegrad cooperation to political insignificance. Unlike its Southern neighbor, Poland has always defined its foreign policy goals on the basis of the regional geopolitical perspective. Even if Polish diplomacy was considerably impacted or performed according to foreign instructions, it still faced the primary geopolitical challenge – geographical location between Germany and Russia. Thus Polish diplomacy activity increased in 2004, 2008 or 2014 in Ukraine and Georgia, regardless of the ideological background of the ruling political parties or presidents.

This substantial difference is clear in the catalogue of controversial issues but primarily in the issues that may bring Czech and Polish positions closer. Close cooperation between the government of Mirek Topolanek and Visegrad Group was based on the shared but asymmetric factors. When the Czech Republic accomplished key priorities in the foreign policy, they lacked a new program so decided to seek new objectives. Therefore Prague became more engaged in the Eastern policy. This primarily resulted from the external challenges, such as energy dependence of the Visegrad countries, gas crises in Russian-Ukrainian relations, presidency in the European Council or seeking new markets, and not specific reinterpretation of the Czech diplomacy paradigm. The critical feature of Czech foreign policy was primacy of home policy and its political rationality, which represented a narrowly-defined national interest. Even the affairs that should be common for conservative parties, such as objection the Lisbon Treaty and bureaucratic centralism of the Brussel machine, they were found so insignificant and asymmetric that made it impossible to develop any positive EU program (e.g. political cooperation in the European Parliament). The history of Polish – Czech alliance between 2007 and 2010 proves a minimalist character of cooperation based rather on the  defiance of Brussels than the real ideological convergence. On the other hand, what Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have in common is the lack of national doctrines after 1989 and redefinition in the international policy. Such doctrines should identify the key challenges, institutional, political and economic reforms, parallel processes of democratization, de-communization, and enable clear evaluation of the cooperation potential in the organizations such as the Visegrad Group.

Visegrad Group as the ephemera of  entirety 

War in Ukraine revealed deep cracks in the Visegrad Group, exposing two defects crucial from the Polish and Czech perspective – inability  to maintain a long-term impact on the crisis situation in the close neighborhood and futility and superficiality of ideological justifications for the current foreign policy. Poland was excluded  from international negotiations at the initial stage of crisis and the attitudes of Czech, Slovakia and Hungary were quickly adjusted to the economic and energy interests. This meant fiasco for Warsaw given the policy of  rapprochement with Russia which was the prime capital of trust and a driving force for the diplomacy of Foreign Affairs Minister Sikorski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk after 2007. The attitude of Czech elites destroyed delusions of those who persistently believed in the ethical element of Czech diplomacy. The last politician who clearly identified his activities with the moral dimension of political relations was Schwarzenberg, Foreign Affairs Minister, who balanced cold pragmatisms of Vaclav Klaus. Interestingly, one of the primary reasons for the defeat of Schwarzenberg in the second round of presidential elections was his criticism of the post-war decrees of Benesh. Definitive  departure from the dissident mindset in the Czech Republic along with the lack of relevant instruments of the Polish Eastern policy (current formula of the Eastern Partnership failed) confirm the chronic  lack of the mode of development of a new modus operandi consolidating positions of both countries and the Visegrad Group, which means   surrender of V4 as the consolidated group. Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia consciously abandon ambitious, regional geostrategic objectives, while Poland struggles between the need for defense against Russian imperialism and shortage of resources to implement original institutional ideas, such as Energy Union. All this happens after years of negligence in Eastern policy and the choice of Germany as a reference point. The dispute about permanent military presence of NATO in the region divided the Visegrad Group countries again – Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia support German restraint, while Poland is seeking means to neutralize Russian threat, which pushed it closer to the Baltic States and Great Britain. Superficiality of the political significance of Visegrad Group should worry in the context of the future of the region since Central European countries will soon be forced to respond to the redefinition of current European order.

The primary question will be about the future shape of European integration. Nowadays it seems that willingness to develop economic cooperation between individual EU members prevails over the EU enlargement. Given recent developments in the close neighborhood of Central Europe such trend should arouse anxiety of the V4 countries and primarily induce them to increase their defense budget and redefine the mode of existence of the Group as the economic-geopolitical entirety. As there are no common essential foundations of the Group, capability of self-identification in the international environment has recently so much deteriorated that any definition of common interests, such as geopolitical Russian threat, common risk of the loss of EU funds after 2020, change of the method of counting votes in the EU Council (becomes effective this year) will be impossible. Although it is hard to identify the main factors responsible for such situation, primary obstacles and  neglects can be identified.

Poland has abandoned political leadership that, given its socio-political potential, could turn natural leadership predispositions to its advantage – of course after recognizing the equality of all V4 members. The concept of Eastern Policy – triumphant, at least in rhetorical terms, after 1989 (ULB doctrine) – resulted from the need to fulfil Polish pre-war desires to become a regional power. The Republic of Poland was expected to abandon such dreams after regaining independence and primarily care about the conciliatory approach to historical processes and predictability of modernization schemes. Czechs were determined to highlight the status of ‘top student’ of economic transformations, rightful member of the European family and leader in respecting human right persistently  stayed on the path determined by the lodestars of political rationality that did not go beyond the horizon of national interests. Hungary and Slovakia were long plunged in national and territorial disputes (Gabcikovo/Nagymaros), which only  enhanced inability of compromising as a fundamental rule of the Visgrad Group operations. Thus the essence of its to-date achievements are not R&D funds or coordination of political positions  but  the ephemeral nature of cooperation. The Group is not organic entirety because Poland abandoned regional leadership aspirations, abandoned the idea of being a center sending impulses for individual elements of the system. Visegrad Group is not able to become the effectively operating entirety due to the lack of consent for the institutionalization of cooperation, which would require abandoning the national perspective in favor of the common operations. Finally, V4 is not even the synthetic entirety that could develop compromising mechanisms combining theses and anti-theses of its parts. Symmetry of significant weaknesses and asymmetry of  similarities determine the lack of substantial contents able to  revive the Visegrad Group.

photo: Orbán Viktor miniszterelnök hivatalos közösségi oldala. / Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s official community page.

About Author

Bartosz Światłowski

PhD student of political science at the Jagiellonian University. Master’s degree in international relations (Jagiellonian University) bachelor in social policy (Jagiellonian University) and international relations (Tischner European University). Analysts in Diplomacy and Politics Foundation. Speaks Polish, English and Spanish.