The V4 and Russia: Divided we stand – but divided we fall! How the V4 can avoid playing from the Kremlin cookbook?

27.12.2016 | By Péter Krekó

While the Visegrad cooperation seems to be more active and coherent then ever on the surface, hides at strongly divergent agendas in many matters. The most important, and also self-evident factor, that all analysts underline, is it’s relationship with Russia, and the overall attitude towards the Russian-Ukranian conflict. This rupture is nothing new, and call be mostly well explained by the differing historical experiences and attitudes towards  Russia – with the notable exception of Hungary, the most pro-Russian country of the block, the history of which the does not justify its strong pro-Russian stance. But while there have been many expectations in the past that the new Visegrad cooperation, mainly united by the xenophobia directed against refugees, will be seriously undermined by the differing views on this fundamental issue, so far we have not seen any signs which could confirm these expectations. Currently, the self-appointed leaders and drivers of the Visegrad cooperation (with the Czech Republic and Slovakia often looking to cooperate with external allies) are the two countries whose opinions most differ. Hungary is calling not only for the lifting of sanctions, but also for friendship between Russia and the West. Orbán makes important deals with Russia, and its foreign policy is often driven by Russian interest. At the same time, Poland is one of the most prominent NATO members that repeatedly call for steps to increase the alliance’s presence in CEE. Moreover anti-Russian conspiracy theories about the Smolensk catastrophe have gained official recognition.

These differences have poisoned too strong Fidesz-PiS (Law-and-Justice Party) relations beforehands. Kaczyński refused to meet with Orbán in early 2015 (right after Putin payed him a visit in Budapest),  and PiS said that Orbán is undermining European solidarity. Right now, their alliance is so strong that as Orbán said, he would even steal a horse together with Kaczyński, and they are both calling for a cultural counter-revolution in Europe. So, why has to Polish-Hungarian coalition become so strong despite the differences since the Russian threat is so deeply rooted in the identity of the Poles? And despite the fact that they are sitting in different parties in the European Union?

The response is threefold.

First: the need for enemies. The Hungarian and the Polish government are both vehemently against the refugees, and against the German-dominated EU mainstream, against the liberal elite of Europe.  Their common enemies are uniting these two countries the most.

Second: the need for allies. While both Orbán and Kaczyński thinks that they could be in the EU mainstream tomorrow, they have at times been having sometimes really difficulties explaining their policies to their European colleagues. This partnership is valuable for both of them – especially given that both countries have been targets of constant criticism by the EU because of their moves to transform the political systems, weakening the checks and balances thereof.

Third: differences are made invisible. Currently it is a friendship in which the two friends are do have an impact on each other. The Polish and the Hungarian government feel encouraged by each other and just strengthening the populist nationalist, Eurosceptic rhetorics and policies of each other – which is rather a dangerous development for the domestic politics and international position of these countries. But this friendship can have positive consequences as well, largely unnoticed by the public: the Polish government seems to play a positive role in shaping the public position of Orbán on Russia and Ukraine. Kaczyński’s friendship is so important that Orbán is doing its best to moderate its position on Russian in the joint appearances. A good example was the joint meeting of the V4 countries with the PM of Ukraine in Krynica, in which the V4 countries (having very diverging opinions on this issue on their own) have formulated a joint position on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Orbán, on the press conference right after the event, underlined the importance of the visa liberalization and the EU accession of Ukraine. While the importance of such public statements should not be overestimated, it seems that the Polish diplomacy can play a benevolent effect in shaping Hungarian position, at least in this particular issue. In the Hungarian public, where the PM is rather talking about the need for reestablishing a friendly relationship with Russia. But Orbán knows he needs a strong political alliance with Poland, therefore he can make sacrifices- at least in the surface.

Generally, the good news is that while in energy policy and rhetorics there are huge differences between the V4 countries when it comes to Russia and Ukraine, these differences are much less sharp when it comes to substantive diplomatic actions. The EU and NATO membership here plays an important role in creating convergence in the position. V4 in the Ukraine-Russia conflict can be described as “Diverging Voices, Converging policies”, as a joint V4 research project commissioned by the Böll Foundation focusing on this issue (with the contribution of Political Capital Institute) found. While we can find important differences in the last year, for example, in energy policy (While The Czech government cancelled plans for a Russia-built nuclear power plant in 2014, the Hungarian government decided to build another one in the same year), when it comes to official positions on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, assistance to Ukrraine, EU Partnership agreement, etc.- we can find a silent consensus. As Jacek Kucharczyk and Grigorij Meseznikov, the two editors of the book summarized it in a concise manner:” Whatever peculiarities one may discern in the V4 leaders’ positions as a result of a thorough analysis, it is fair to say that in the end, despite all the differences, the V4 group has remained within the orbit of the EU’s common policies on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. This is an undeniable reality, regardless of all the (often bizarre and incredible) statements made by certain Visegrad politicians. Ukraine should take this into account when building further relations with its immediate western neighbours.”

While differences remain and should not be underestimated, the V4 (in the broader framework of the NATO and EU institutional system) might work as an efficient forum to converge positions in this divisive issue. Of course, it is not as popular domestically as the anti-quota, anti-refugee position, the real common denominator of the new Visegrad cooperation. But given that the refugees does not pose any serious threat on the region (given that none of the V4 countries are targets of immigration, but only transit countries), while Russia does via trying to interfere into domestic affairs and threatening the sovereignty of countries in Eastern Europe, the big crusader fight against the refugees seem to be a substitute of dealing with the real issues. In my opinion, for the interests of its citizens, the V4 should deal much more with the Ukraine- Russia conflict, than it does with the refugee question.

The dangers that Russia poses on the region, trying to limit the independence of these countries, is obvious. In Hungary for example, there is a broad scale of Russian influence at the right side of the political spectrum. In Slovakia, paramilitary organizations with links to Russia are posing a national security threat. In all V4 countries, there are widespread attempts to push forward the ultraconservative, anti-Western, anti-human rights agenda of the Kremlin. And these attempts, according to our researches with Globsec Policy Institute and European Values, clearly have a strong impact on the public opinion of these countries – where anti-Westernism and hostilities against NATO clearly have their roots. According to our calculations, youngsters seem to be particularly vulnerable to such propaganda. And the attempts of Russia have been amplified since the refugee crisis, that they see as a good chance to divide and rule the EU, and weaken the European solidarity. If V4 countries put the refugee issue and in the focus of the cooperation (with a critical tone against the EU mainstream), they are playing from Russia’s cookbook, and helping Russia to extend its influence in Russia and the region. What is better: if the EU limits the sovereignty of its member states in the spirit of the Treaty, or if Russia does it without any inhibitions and political and legal legitimacy?

The “new V4”, currently with the Polish presidency, should do more to deal with these challenges. Applying some of Globsec’s recommendations on V4 would be an ambitious, however realistic program: Officially recognizing the problem of foreign propaganda in a form of joint political declaration; upgrading the security system and its ability to monitor, respond to, prevent and counter disinformation and propaganda; comprehensive communication strategies, increasing support for quality journalism and promotion of medial literacy, adapting the education system and immunize the younger generation to propaganda techniques, and increasing international cooperation and the exchange of good practices regarding strategic communication and countering propaganda.

While fighting against EU institutions could, on the longer run, undermine the sovereignty of V4 countries, fighting against Russian attempts to undermine their sovereignty can extend their independence. Time for the V4 to recognize the real threat and change the focus.


Péter Krekó is the director of Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based Central European political research and consultancy firm. At the same time, he is an associate professor at Eötvös Loránd University of Sciences in Budapest, Political Capital Institute and Fulbright’s Visiting Professor.