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Are Sanctions the Visegrad Four’s Last Straw?

The grouping of Central European countries has been strained before, but this time feels different.

by Katerina Safarikova 20 August 2014

The Visegrad group of Central European countries – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary – has never had an easy life. Intended to serve as a lobby group for the four post-communist states in wider Europe, it was not wanted by the Czech ruling elite at the time of its creation in the first place. Rather the idea arose around the then-Czech and Polish heads of states, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa. Then Slovakia turned away from Europe under the autocratic Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the 1990s, as nearly did Poland’s euro-skeptic twin brother leaders, Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in the 2000s. Each time, the V4 was sidelined.


With the sanctions against Russia, we’re witnessing a new split that tests the group’s reason for being.


The Poles have taken a hard line. It is not only the government that fervently supports the EU sanctions. The people, too, are taking in stride the retaliatory Russian ban on foodstuffs, as shown by the spontaneous “Eat Apples” campaign.


The Czechs are less united. The government has backed the sanctions even as the coalition parties question the reasoning behind them and let businesses exploit the situation with demands of compensation for any losses – however minor – unlike in Poland.


The Slovak and Hungarian governments have agreed on the sanctions as well, all the while fighting them outright.


Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has called them “completely senseless.” His Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, went even further, vowing to form a coalition of like-minded countries to stop the sanctions, which he said violate Hungarian national interests.


On the one hand these divisions are natural, and the V4 has seen them many times. Especially when it comes to European decisions touching on the economy, since the countries are economically diverse. But in this case something more fundamental lies beneath.


For the four former Eastern Bloc satellites, their stances on the Ukrainian crisis stem from the root of a new story being told or a new identity being forged in each state. More precisely, they reveal whether the new identity is built on Western European ground and around Western European values, or if they are built on and around something else.


The Czechs, for instance, seem to be on uncertain ground. They have agreed on the sanctions and approved of each step taken by the EU so far even if they complained about them later. Still, they have never proposed anything. The Czechs are reactive and complacent, going with the main European flow.


Poland took a different road. Its ruling elite has decided that the European environment will be the new “kingdom” in which the nation will flourish. And if the Poles can’t be the kings, they aim to be the confident princes, or the Central European hegemon.


Polish policy has been very active in recent months – look at Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s proposal for a European energy union to gain leverage against Russia in energy purchases, or Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski’s part in negotiations on the Ukrainian crisis – and their people support it. The new Polish pride is clearly built on and around its success among Western European superpowers.


Hungary’s government has yet another strategy. The highly popular Orban has built a personality cult. He bends state rules – or sometimes laws – according to his visions and goals, and uses nationalism and a tight grip on power as his main tools. The state, slowly but surely, becomes him.


It was Orban who rushed to Moscow at the beginning of this year to strike a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the modernization of and loan for the Hungarian nuclear power plant in Paks. His crusade against the sanctions is a logical follow-up. But his solidarity with the almighty Putin reveals a fear, too, that the Russian president could cut off the gas flow through Ukraine, hitting Hungary and Slovakia the hardest of the V4.


As for Slovakia, it has a new president who takes a reasonable approach to things, but the executive power remains within the government of Prime Minister Fico, who goes in for the same autocratic style as Orban. Fico, too, has an appetite for the cult of personality and exploits nationalism and populism to get what he wants. He also looks up to Putin. But he, too, fears him, since a Russian energy blockade could deprive Slovaks of warmth and Fico of power.


If the crisis is solved within months, nothing major happens to Visegrad. But if it lasts longer, say years, the current divisions will grow deeper. The V4 states will likely stick to the new stories they are telling about themselves, and they will likely part ways – Hungary towards a greater isolation in Europe, with Slovakia probably behind; Poland to the core of Europe, with the Czechs probably behind.


If this scenario comes true, the V4 will not survive. Half of it will look for a shelter in the EU, while Slovakia and Hungary seek the shelter of Russian gas.

Katerina Safarikova is a journalist with Czech daily Lidove noviny.

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