Bursting the Bubble

What lies behind Visegrad Four’s different positions towards Ukraine and Russia?

5 September 2014 | by

The current conflict over Ukraine has quickly escalated into a matter of geopolitical importance. Cornered by the events and pushed into assuming a position, the EU has officially responded to the situation by imposing sanctions against Russia in three waves. While the EU has so far largely managed to speak with one voice, this does not mean that member states must by definition agree with one another – publicly or privately. The region of Central Europe, and particularly the Visegrad Four (V4) countries, is – along with the Baltic States – most exposed to the negative effects of the EU’s sanctions taken against Russia and those of Russia against the EU.  Alluded to over the weekend during the Summit of European leaders in Brussels, the EU is eyeing another round of sanctions, whilst countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and, increasingly, the Czech Republic are now opposed to any further sanctions against Moscow.  And while the issue over Ukraine is not the first one that the states disagree over, does it have a potential to undermine the good relations among V4 states? And what is it that is behind their different positions?

Poland, tradition of hostility

Without attempting to delve into listing all wrong-doings that remain a sore spot in the relations between Poland and Russia; it is fair to say that the two countries, particularly in the past two decades, have shown a great deal of hostility towards one-another. The current Prime Minister, the recently appointed new President of the Council, Donald Tusk did, upon his accession to power in 2007, inherit a country which was both antagonistic to Moscow and suspicious towards Berlin. While the relations between Poland and Germany have improved, Russia remains at odds with Poland’s world view.

It is therefore of no surprise that Warsaw’s position, as regards the conflict over Ukraine, is hawkishly anti-Russian. Illustrating the animosity between the two nations, the Prime Minster Tusk warned on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the World War II against Russia’s expansionist ambitions. He drew parallels between the situation in the 1939’s Europe and today’s Ukraine. He said: “In 1939, only several hours before the outbreak of the most horrible war ever, nobody in Poland and Europe except for the leaders of Hitler’s Germany wanted that war”. He reminded the world that the declaration of, ‘Never again’ must not be reduced to a mere manifesto of countries that are weak and helpless. The animosities run deep. To the extent that the Polish authorities prevented the plane carrying Russia’s defense minister making an attempt to fly over Poland, from entering their airspace. The incident happened last week, when Sergei Shoigu was returning from his trip to Slovakia and, as a result of the dispute, was forced to to return back to Bratislava.

Poland’s political stance against Russia does, however, come at a price. Following the EU’s latest wave of sanctions, Russia has banned imports of certain agricultural products, among those banned are apples. The problem is that while some EU countries do not trade with Russia in great quantities, Poland’s apple producers export as much as 56% of their production. Closed borders leave Poland with some 677,000 tonnes of apples with no obvious export market to sell them to. Despite a number of initiatives to increase domestic consumption, Polish farmers are looking at a loss of EUR 500 million, of which only a small fraction will be reimbursed by the EU. Meanwhile Poland’s manufacturers are not doing any better. The reading of the purchasing managers’ index indicated a contraction in output, for the fifth month, in July.

Poland nevertheless, despite the high cost, remains a staunch critic of Putin’s regime. Poles continue to feel threatened by Russia, and given the history between the two nations, they are not ready to forgive, let alone forget.

The Czech Republic, the country of multiple foreign policies  

As is also traditionally the case in Slovakia, the Czech Republic’s foreign policy very much depends on which parties are currently in power. At the risk of oversimplification, a distinction between the left and centre-left on the one hand and centre-right on the other should be made. While generally we could conclude that the Communists are pro-Russian, the Socialists ambivalent and the centre-right rather pro-NATO the only certainty that exists in Czech politics is that nothing can be certain. That uncertainty is due to a rampant political opportunism which muddles the political waters.

The current position regarding  Russia, Ukraine and the sanctions is as follows: the coalition government is split over the issue of sanctions – with the Socialists having reserved the right to oppose any new forthcoming sanctions due to the economic costs. One of their centre-right coalition partners agrees with the Social Democrats’ position, while the other is rather in favour of stronger and more effective sanctions against Russia. The remaining centre-right parties who currently form the opposition have called for an exceptional meeting of the Parliament for the purpose of, “protecting the dignity of the Czech Republic and its reputation as the land which honours the principles of freedom, democracy and the international law”.

History plays greatly into various parties’ stances on issues relating to foreign policy. In the current political and public discourse one often hears historical parallels being drawn between the conflict of Ukraine and Russia on the one hand, and betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1939 by the Western allies on the other, when the policy of appeasement led to anything but peace. The Czech government, while split internally, is rather careful with bold statements – whether condemning Russia or equally defending it. The careful attitude of the Czech government towards Russia is a result of numerous influences such as history, ideology, political opportunism and yes, the economy. Interplay of these has created a situation which is difficult to read, certainly in comparison with other V4 countries.

Slovakia, where personal interests may be mistaken for those of a country

The Czech Republic and Slovakia, due to their common history and cultural proximity, do share some aspects of their foreign policy, though the two countries see eye to eye on many issues other issues too. This is true to the extent that this similarity is recognized even at the EU level. Here in Brussels, even after a decade of membership in the EU as well as 21 years since  the two countries went their separate ways, you can still hear EU officials joke that splitting Czechoslovakia into two nations have put both at an advantage: by having gained two votes in the Council when, in effect, almost always voting along the same lines. But while fundamentals of the two countries’ foreign policy remains similar, the situation in Slovakia is easier to read than in the neighbouring Czech Republic. That is because the government, which consists of only one party – the Socialists, is ideologically opposed to the rest of the political spectrum.

Upon his return from Brussels this past Saturday, the Prime Minister Fico stated that Slovakia reserved the right to object to further EU sanctions against Russia, if the EU decides to press ahead. Decoding the message, he is trying to say that the government is prepared to block economic actions targeting Russia. In fact, Slovakia has never been entirely supportive of the EU’s take on Moscow although it has, albeit with reservations, agreed to all waves of sanctions so far. On a number of occasions, Fico has criticized the Western member states for searching for unnecessary enemies (i.e. Russia) which has resulted in measures that are both meaningless as well as harmful to Slovakia’s interests. Bratislava has also posed obstructions to the so called reverse-flow of gas and while on Tuesday the country finally opened the pipeline and allowed the gas to flow to Ukraine, its criticism of the EU’s action against Russia remains the order of the day.

The reasons behind the government of Slovakia’s position are manifold. The most-likely prime mover in the government’s relations with Kiev and Russia is Fico’s own ideological or belief system, which departs from a simple dichotomy of a black and white reality. Fico simply does not subscribe to all dogmas preached and pursued in the West. This allows him to have a more open relationship with Moscow. In fact, his world view could be interpreted as Russian-friendly, while he remains suspicious of the hawkish policies of neo-conservatives and of a pre-emptive war in general. That is why Fico’s first government withdrew Slovak soldiers from Iraq on the first occasion possible.  Another potential reason why Bratislava is giving Kiev a cold shoulder lies with Fico’s promise to lower gas prices for Slovak households by double digits – a decision which will be subject to re-negotiation with Moscow, by the way. Moreover, the country’s economic prosperity is albeit indirectly, but nevertheless tied with Russia’s economy and further sanctions will make it more difficult to address the chronic unemployment. The third reason could be related to a strategic positioning of the country in the post-conflict era. Prime Minister Fico is perhaps relying on the fact that the war in Ukraine will at some point draw to a close and Putin, emerging from the conflict reinforced, will pursue a very different style of politics towards the West. In that case, Slovakia could be seen as either Russia’s entry gate to the EU or a mediator mending the bruised relations between the West and Putin. There is, however, another explanation. It is more simplistic and more human that the ones listed so far. Personal relationships in politics should not be underestimated. When in 2008 Slovakia was caught up in the midst of the gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine, the country was cut off completely overnight from the supply of Russia’s gas, causing the economy to suffer a blow that the first Fico government had not foreseen. Endless negotiations followed in order to resolve a stand-off between Kiev and Moscow, which on a personal level affected Fico to the extent that the country’s foreign policy may now be taken hostage by his personal animosities. Having previously felt betrayed by Ukraine, Fico is, it seems, in no rush to help the eastern neighbour.

The answer to the question concerning what drives Slovakia’s government to express certain level of skepticism towards the West’s position regarding Russia is most likely a combination of all the reasons listed above. But the slightest suspicion that the country’s foreign policy has been corrupted by the Prime Minister’s personal grudge is rather worrying.

Hungary, ideological ally of Putin

Since the accession of Victor Orban’s Fidesz to power in 2010, the country has been, both economically and ideologically, more and more tilted towards Russia. While Orban’s efforts to reach out to nations beyond the EU are nothing new, the recent level of activism and the more evident political rapprochement of Hungary with the east are raising eyebrows in many a capital across Europe.

In order to account for Hungary’s close relations with Russia, one needs to understand the larger context – that of the so called global race. On the occasion of visiting ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Victor Orban has recently delivered a speech that has unearthed his long-term plans for the country. There he spoke of the desire to build an ‘illiberal state’, which would be based on national or nationalist foundations. In doing so, he cited Russia as one of the examples Hungary should emulate. According to this doctrine, countries that often succeed in the ever more globalized world are not necessarily liberal or democratic, and the West would do better to accept this reality. Moreover, and according to Fidesz, Hungary’s membership in the EU should by no means preclude the country from realizing its illiberal ambitions. Leaving aside the complete disregard to Hungary’s commitments to the EU, commitments that it signed up for upon its accession to the bloc, Budapest has made it clear that national economic interests, which are being emphasized at the moment, will be pursued at the expense of values such as democracy and freedom.

The project of opening up to the east has put Hungary at a crash course with the EU, but equally and more recently with Norway in particular. Following a raid on three NGOs responsible for re-distributing Norwegian grants, Oslo has demanded the EU to take appropriate action to ensure that Hungary is not slipping away from democratic principles. It is of no surprise then, that for as long as Orban continues to consider Russia’s ill-defined democracy as a matter for inspiration, Hungary will remain a staunch supporter of Putin’s policies. Budapest has been trying hard to persuade its European partners to not pull away from Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. While not blocking the sanctions against Russia, Hungary’s Prime Minister has far from embraced the EU’s measures. In fact, Orban has publicly criticized the sanctions. According to him, Europe has ‘shot itself in foot’ and sanctions should be reconsidered.

V4 – the beginning of the end?

It has become obvious that on the issue of the crisis in Ukraine countries of the V4 hold positions that sometimes divide them more than unite them. These positions range from Poland’s pro-NATO and anti-Russian stance, to Hungary’s attempt to emulate Moscow’s regime, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia somewhere in-between. Occupying the same region, despite their cultural and historical proximity, each country has its own reasons behind their respective foreign policies: whether it be history, economy, ideology, political opportunism, personal animosities or even an attempt to re-define its system from liberal to illiberal.

Given these divergent positions, however, one might ask whether any further cooperation within the framework of V4 is desirable, let alone viable. It should be said that the basis for cooperation between these four countries has never been based on coercion and countries have previously disagreed on a range of issues (e.g. defense spending). Moreover, V4 still manages to speak with one voice on many more issues including that of the energy security or ecology and greenhouse gas emissions reduction. That the project is not yet dead in the water is also supported by the ongoing debate with regards to a potential expansion of the bloc to include countries such as Slovenia and Croatia. Nevertheless, and despite all this, I believe that the questions concerning and doubting the bloc’s survival are justified – not because of the current disagreements over Ukraine but because of Hungary’s flirting with the idea of an illiberal state. That, in fact, may be a step too far not only for V4 but for the EU as a whole, in which case V4 will lose its credibility and the desire to keep the cooperation going will wither away.


This text was co-published with Visegrad Insight.

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