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Will the Visegrad Four Survive Ukraine?

The crisis to the east is severely testing cooperation in Central Europe. 

by Martin Ehl 17 June 2014

Is a successful “trademark” still working in the current political climate and could it survive an existential crisis? The answer to this question is key for the Visegrad Four – the most visible cooperative project of post-communist countries in Central Europe.


Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia founded this grouping in the early 1990s as a common vehicle to drive them countries into the EU. The association became the Visegrad Four after the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Some have repeatedly wondered if the group – which has no official tie beyond the  International Visegrad Fund, a grant-giving organization based in Bratislava – still makes sense, as the member countries have achieved their goals of becoming EU and NATO members.


A new Visegrad crisis began – as many other strange occurrences similarly erupted in Europe – with the rapid developments in Ukraine over the past several months. The four members profoundly disagree in their assessments of the dangers posed by developments in Ukraine to Central Europe.


On the one side, there is Poland, which has asked the United States to station thousands of troops on its soil. On the other, there is Hungary, which has signed a very suspicious deal with Russia for a loan to build two new nuclear reactors that will tie Budapest to Moscow for the next three decades. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are somewhere in between, but both strongly reject an additional NATO (read U.S.) military presence in their countries.


Polish diplomats present at recent conferences such as Globsec, where the prime ministers of the four countries openly disagreed, or at the Wroclaw Global Forum, have started to ask whether the country should invest so much energy into regional cooperation that does not reflect their basic national interests.


Milan Nic, director of the Central European Policy Institute in Bratislava, said that considering the Czech and Slovak prime ministers’ rejection of an American military presence, Poles “have to wonder about our attitudes and if Poland would be better off giving more attention to cooperation with Romania, the Baltic countries, and some Scandinavian ones, which see the threat from the east likewise.”


The Polish propensity to push their partners into a corner and entertain even the worst-case scenarios is viewed in Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest as hysteria, according to Nic. “The level of our strategic dialogue and understanding was not prepared for such a grave crisis as the Ukrainian one,” Nic said.


Well, that's no surprise, we could add. The same assessment could apply to the entire EU.


Mateusz Gniazdowski, director of the Central European department at the Polish governmental think tank, the Center for Eastern Studies has noted, “Above all, in Poland the opinion prevails quite often that countries with a common heritage and who are neighbors on a map have common interests.” While EU members obviously have varied histories, one would have thought their current priorities in regard to Russia would align more frequently than they do.


So far Visegrad has been a successful trademark, a natural lobby group in Brussels, that has created a unique network among administrative officials from all four member countries. And – as one former director of the International Visegrad Fund pointed out – to be head of the fund and travelling around the region handing out money (under strict rules, of course) is a dream for any diplomat. It's rather unusual, after all, to be able to boost a regional organization's image and provide positive value without any special effort. From its foundation in 2000 until the end of 2013 the fund had distributed about 53 million euros ($72 million) in grants and contributed to the creation of a special Visegrad network in academia and cultural institutions. [Editor’s Note: TOL has also been a recipient of several grants.]


There is fruitful cooperation in energy issues and there have been productive programs targeting countries over the EU’s eastern borders. Defense cooperation has also been discussed widely. Some of that could be threatened by disputes over Ukraine.


Now it seems that Visegrad needs rebranding, to use a marketing term. We have moved from the post-Cold War order to a post-economic-crisis situation – with a new Cold War emerging as well as a growing economic nationalism in EU countries. The soft power of the Visegrad was based on the assumption that the leaders were at least pretending to talk to one another. That is no longer the case.


“The leaders should at least think about better communication,” said Michal Koran, deputy director of the Institute of International Relations in Prague and a leading Czech expert on Central Europe. “This tone sends us back into the late 1990s, into an era of mutual intolerance and jealous competition among themselves.”


The interest and energy put into Visegrad could be abandoned, but according to Koran, this political trademark, and the possibilities offered by such regional cooperation, still have potential. “Visegrad has been written off many times in the past, but the internal force of cooperation always prevailed,” he said.


But that was during a time when Europe was unifying and Russia was considered tapped out. The Ukrainian crisis is a test unlike any that post-communist Central Europe and the Visegrad Group have experienced since 1989, the year of miracles.

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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