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A Question of Trust

Mutual suspicions still rule out large-scale military cooperation in Central Europe. 

by Martin Ehl 17 April 2012

Could Slovaks ever imagine Hungarian pilots patrolling their airspace? That question is worth asking this week, a month before the NATO summit in Chicago, as ministers from Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic contemplate their first joint security initiative in the 20 years since they made a pact of mutual cooperation in Visegrad, Hungary.


The question of mutual trust in an area as sensitive as defense remains key, as the discussions at the Globsec security conference in Bratislava last week highlighted yet again. The economic situation of the Visegrad countries and all of NATO has been pushing them to scrutinize every crown, euro, zloty, or forint – and what they can’t afford on their own, they should learn to buy or share together. In NATO that’s called Smart Defense.

The Central Europeans have already created a working group for defense cooperation. The preliminary conclusions suggest that some great cooperation between the armies doesn’t look likely so far, although the four countries would like to build a joint battle force for the European Union by 2016. “Real savings won’t come from some academic discussion but only deep cooperation, meaning full integration of units or equipment,” reads a report for the conference.


In the present situation of mutual distrust, overly ambitious plans are doomed. Experts recommend starting smaller and only then building mutual trust based on “pragmatism and added value,” as one of the authors of the report emphasized during a discussion in Bratislava.

 

Joint protection of airspace – practiced, for instance, in the Baltic states – offers a possible area for cooperation. But it is probably too ambitious, like the idea of joint planning, which would allow the neighbors to gaze at one another’s cards and delve into one another’s pockets. The only well-known attempt at a joint purchase of equipment – light armored vehicles for the Czech Republic and Slovakia – ended in a corruption scandal. As one of five NATO countries that are not reducing military spending, the Poles are keeping the level at 2 percent of GDP and are planning further development. The historic role of the army in Poland is simply different than elsewhere in the Visegrad group. On the other hand, the Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians are struggling with the sheer survival of their armies because of budget cuts.

 

In an interview, Boguslaw Winid, the Polish deputy foreign minister for security, told me that there are around eight programs for joint military cooperation of the Visegrad countries but that different countries have different views of what should be done under the auspices of NATO and what under the European Union. 

 

“In Poland, we are, for example, preparing a large tender for the purchase of helicopters,” Winid said. “All of us will gradually be replacing Russian technology, so it would be good to coordinate our approach and assume, for instance, a single [negotiating] position.” And he gushed about how satisfied the Poles are with the Slovak barrels that they buy for their cannons.


Cooperation in the defense industry already exists. But as Czech military diplomats say, the Poles, aware of their size and military spending, enthusiastically embrace it when we want to buy something from them but are careful about shopping elsewhere. And the Hungarians and Slovaks have no money for almost anything other than maintaining current troop levels. Defense is a sensitive political issue: the military and domestic defense industry are major employers, which in times of economic crisis carries the greatest weight. Nothing is then left for modernization.


Close cooperation and “capacity sharing” is a novelty throughout Europe. A small step for the army, but a big one for Visegrad and NATO could then be a different proposal that rang out in Bratislava: to set up a joint rescue unit that would help during major industrial accidents, like the dam burst at a Hungarian aluminum factory in October 2010. But it is still just an idea.


A key test of mutual trust for Visegrad will be the formation of the EU battle group by 2016. The probability of a deployment of troops under the EU’s banner is so low that this initiative would be just, and above all, an exercise in confidence building. And if the bankers can trust each other so much that both parts of the former Czechoslovak Commercial Bank (now the Czech and Slovak CSOB banks) have their servers located in Hungary, so the soldiers could and should be able to overcome the traditional regional prejudices.

Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.


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