Europe // Analysis

22 november 2013

The Visegrad Group in the Common European Process

Lyubov Shishelina Doctor of History, Head of East-European Studies Section at the RAS Institute of Europe
Photo:
www.mzv.cz
Prime Ministers of Poland, Czech Republic,
Slovakia and Hungary, March 2013

The global economic crisis at the turn of the 2010s, which called into question the efficiency of the EU’s crisis recovery measures, created prerequisites for the consolidation "for survival" of regional alliances that had not, previously, been considered high profile. Thus, against the backdrop of skeptical reasoning over the EU’s destiny, the Visegrad Group has made efforts to consolidate and intensify interaction.

Stages in the Making

The Visegrad Group, also called the Visegrad Four, has been to-date the most stable, well-known regional group to emerge after the disintegration of the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe. During its establishment, the emphasis was primarily laid on the search for linking elements that could allow member countries of the defunct Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) to overcome the communications vacuum and create clear and definite, albeit provisional, regional associations. Unlike the Danube (Pentagonale and Hexagonale) [1] arrangements, the Visegrad Group made its mark on European history at the turn of the 1990s without affecting the geopolitical plans of Washington and Brussels, and enjoyed their full support.

From the inception, Russia responded with caution and without enthusiasm to the news of the Visegrad Group’s establishment. This reaction can today be qualified as "geopolitical jealousy": an alliance of States with direct support from Washington and under Brussels' sponsorship is being created in a region that Russia has just left and in which it set the agenda for almost half a century. In the meantime, the Visegrad Group transformed from “Three” to “Four,” and for over two decades has been maintaining contacts of varying intensity. Group activity peaked in 1993, when a free trade area was established. This step was connected with the signing of the European Agreements [2] and the start of preparations for EU accession.

For the 22 years of its existence the group has never been able to institutionalize. It has not established an organizational structure or the kind of central secretariat that could add greater stability to its regional image.

The next peak of activity was observed in 1998 when, after almost five years of stagnation, the four countries’ prime ministers met in Budapest and signed an agreement on the resumption of cooperation. It is indicative that this was preceded by the invitation to Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to join NATO.

The third peak happened in the mid-2000s. It was related to the first steps of the group as EU members and was characterized by their desire to achieve equal rights with other EU member states and adjust their status within the EU, and restore opportunities lost during the negotiations on their accession. At the same time this period is also associated with serious differences, even escalating to ultimatums [3], among the group members, and the joint search for historical and ideological foundations for consolidation.

The fourth peak of the Visegrad forum's activity started with the adoption of the Eastern Partnership Programme in 2009. This meant that the VG countries had found a common goal and a common interest that could really bring them closer together and lend their interaction real meaning, which had hitherto not been apparent and is still called in to question by the international community.

Problems and Contradictions

Photo: grafik.rp.pl
Weimar triangle

The main reason for skeptical attitude toward the Visegrad Group, besides the fact that for the 22 years of its existence it has failed to overcome its “standby” status in continental geopolitics, is that the group has never been able to institutionalize. It has not established an organizational structure or the kind of central secretariat that could add greater stability to its regional image. One reason for the emergence of this situation relates to the search for real equality, and individual members’ rivalry over their various leadership ambitions. For example, Hungary and Poland have repeatedly tried to take on this role.

The only entity created within the Visegrad Group and that shares its legal address and Permanent Presidency is the Visegrad Fund, established in 2000. It accumulates and allocates resources to support regional interaction in cultural areas and rapprochement with the Eastern Partnership countries.

The Visegrad Group’s annual interaction plans are coordinated alternately by Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with the Presidency rotating in late June [4]. It is important to note that the Presiding countries’ plans often lack the main element – continuity. In other words, the VG represents a policymakers’ club or a regional forum, which has been the target of recent attempts to invest it with certain obligations, for example, regarding the establishment of a regional military force [5].

Today, when the EU is chiefly preoccupied with overcoming the financial and economic crisis, the VG is trying, based on the Weimar triangle, to draw in not only the region of the "Baltic Three" [6] but also the Balkan countries and Eastern Partners by seeking to make "Carpathian Europe" a reality, which is probably the Visegrad members’ real goal.

Today, when the EU is chiefly preoccupied with overcoming the financial and economic crisis, the VG is trying, based on the Weimar triangle, to draw in not only the region of the "Baltic Three" but also the Balkan countries and Eastern Partners by seeking to make "Carpathian Europe" a reality, which is probably the Visegrad members’ real goal.

Poland and Hungary are the most likely to cooperate with Visegrad. Except for brief moments of friction between the Polish and Hungarian Liberals and Conservatives during their government, these two countries’ main interests regarding the partnership are virtually fully convergent. At the same time, no politicians or social groups have ever emerged in the Czech Republic who would be likely to pay serious attention to Visegrad cooperation. Slovakia today is more active than the Czech Republic, but does not consider the VG either as more of a priority than its tasks in the EU. There have been numerous differences that have both a positive and negative impact on the VG’s cohesion. These various countries do not always support each other within the EU. For example, the Hungarian Prime Minister, F. Durchan’s attempts to bring the Visegrad members closer together in 2009, to counter the unfolding lobbyism of the Western European countries against a backdrop of crisis, failed when it was rejected by the Czech Republic, which held the EU Council presidency. Slovakia is the only Visegrad country that has so far joined the eurozone. Therefore, its interests already differ from those of the partners that are still considering whether such a step would make economic sense.

Statistics show that the intra-regional Visegrad market has grown significantly stronger over the years of EU membership, and most trade turnover involves areas within VG borders and the countries immediately adjacent to the region [7]. This can be seen as a trend toward regionalization within the EU against the backdrop of an economic crisis. Regarding policy and security issues, it should suffice to recall the ethno-territorial disputes between Slovakia and Hungary, fuelled by the acquisition of a second Hungarian nationality by some people of Hungarian descent who live in Slovakia, and the polemics among the three Visegrad member states [8] regarding the Benes Decrees [9]. Slovakia did not follow the example set by Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic and recognize Kosovo's independence. Poland and the Czech Republic decided on the U.S. missile defense deployment without consulting Hungary and Slovakia, and later raised a question over the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, while Hungary signed first. To date, multidirectional vectors have been eroding regional cohesion due to the contradictory nature of each country’s national interest.

Photo: eastbook.eu / Konstanty Chodkowski
Visegrad group conference

On the other hand, the EU is also facing similar problems. It should suffice to recall the conceptual battles seen over the last four years between Brussels and Budapest [10]. The EU is trying to live by a uniform body of laws while the VG continues to be united only by regional affinity, common foreign policy concerns and its newfound common foreign policy goal of Eastern Partnership. It is for this reason that the Visegrad states have intensified their efforts to ensure the Vilnius European Partnership Summit, scheduled for November 2013, success – as they expect Ukraine and Moldova to make a decisive breakthrough towards Western integration by signing the Association Agreement. This will impact the broader geopolitical situation in Europe, and boost the Visegrad countries’ prestige in the West [11], but it will also draw them into confrontation with Russia, since the authors of the Eastern Partnership seem to have forgotten that this involves former USSR Republics and Moscow’s historical sphere of interests.

Visegrad Group and Russia

The Visegrad member states’ embassies have recently noticeably intensified their activity in Moscow by offering joint programs to the Russian scientific and cultural community and advancing their views on the regional situation, relations with Russia and their relations with the EU and NATO. Each country is essentially persistently pursuing this policy in its own way, depending on its ambitions and the vision of its role in the "Visegrad game." The Polish diplomats have so far been the most active on this, and the Czechs – the least active.

Is Russia prepared to participate in this proposal? If Russia accepts it, it needs to decide to what extent it is more profitable to deal with the “Four” rather than the countries of the region on an individual basis.

The Eastern Partnership policy remains the main area of differences between Russia and the Visegrad Group

Today, Russia’s interest in the VG is both general and particular, which is not directly related to the nature of interaction among the countries in the region. Russia’s bilateral relations with each individual country of the region are developing intensively: since the early 2000s there has been a stable tendency toward increasing trade and mutual investment; while cultural exchange and cooperation in tourism and education is also growing. However, interaction in the political sphere, where there is potential for the convergence of views on particular issues in international affairs, has not yet been achieved. Ideological differences that emerged in our relations in late 1980s have not yet been fully resolved, and this is unlikely to change so long as the Visegrad countries remain members of NATO. In this context, the general public’s mood in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic vis-à-vis Russia have significantly improved. They can now compare the pros and cons of participating in the two pro-Moscow or pro-Brussels integration projects. This cannot but nurture hope for better relations and mutual understanding at senior government levels.

There is the sense that, besides changing the names and addresses of the key figures each year, Visegrad’s official representatives do not have much freedom of maneuver. They are constantly looking over their shoulder to either Brussels or Washington. For example, at the VG foreign ministers’ meeting in Gdansk, in February 2013, Russia was mentioned in just one comment which noted that "the situation regarding human rights is deemed worrying." [12]

The Eastern Partnership policy in which Poland has been playing a major role from its inception remains the main area of differences between Russia and the Visegrad Group, although other VG countries seem to have already agreed that the EU delegated them a significant body of authority in shaping relations with their Eastern neighbors. While they are intruding upon an area of Russia’s geopolitical and historical interests, policymakers are reiterating, in chorus, that this does not run counter to the Russian Federation’s interests, and stubbornly disregarding concerns voiced by Russia.

Photo: globsec.org
Ivan Timofeev:
The Visegrad agenda: Russia between the lines

What are the Visegrad Group’s ambitions? Why does it need to establish a 3,000-strong international battalion under Polish command if all VG countries are already NATO members? The Benelux, which the Visegrad Four have long compared themselves with, does not have an army. Clearly, the authors of the program understand the potential risk of regional destabilization after the signing of agreements with Ukraine and Moldavia [13]. Moldavia has existed as a divided country for many years now, and, perhaps, the avoidance of raising the final destiny for Transnistria is based on an expectation that this issue will be "solved naturally."

For Ukraine, however, the signing or non-signing of an agreement will be a serious domestic political test since Ukraine’s Eastern regions and the Crimea will likely come out against it, while the country’s Western regions will do the same. Russia has lost an opportunity for talks on this issue – both because of delays in the implementation of the pro-Moscow integration project and insufficient attention to developments in Central and Eastern Europe, including its skepticism regarding the Visegrad process. Russia’s options look limited, given the process that is gaining momentum in Central Europe. However, it is never too late to at least try to transform today’s regional confrontation between Russia, Ukraine and Moldavia into unity and harmony based on shared interests across the region. This is an achievable agenda for three-Party negotiations – the VG (representing the EU’s regional interests with the eventual involvement of the EU as a whole) – former Soviet states – and Russia. Indeed, all parties are interested in regional stability and security, in establishing a common market through the revival and preservation of our economies, and self-preservation in a globalizing world. Therefore, if the Visegrad members’ agenda has not yet been filled with specific proposals for Russia, why shouldn't Russia break the vow it made after withdrawing its troops to abstain from any activity in the region that is not based on constructive proposals emanating from the region [14], and at least try to formulate its proposals?

Maturity test: Bigger than Benelux

Although the Visegrad Group, over the 23 years of its existence to date, has not made the transition into being institutionalized regional structure, it has, without any doubt, become a recognizable Eastern European forum. It embodies the stable part of Central and Eastern Europe, which has become more significant in the current realities than Benelux – on which it focused during the years of its evolution. In short, since its establishment, it has filled a gap that existed in the European political discourse. This is an entity, which has gradually developed its particular internal dialogue and internal market. Perhaps this was possible even without any particular efforts by the participants, as a result of the wave of spontaneous regionalization that, amid the crisis, rippled out across the European Union after the Eastward expansion. Due to the existence of its only permanent body, the Visegrad Fund, the Visegrad Group has succeeded in promoting a common economic, cultural and information space. The Visegrad Four acquired its area of responsibility in the EU in the form of the Eastern Partnership Programme. Finally, the VG has now begun to develop a regional security structure as an integral part of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy [15]. This is already a serious signal to neighboring countries, and for this reason alone the Visegrad alliance cannot be disregarded by today’s European policymakers.

So, fundamentally, what is it? An attempt to protect the region against continental and global challenges, or nascent preparation for achieving longer-term goals associated with the search for a distinct regional identity? Even if the VG is not a geopolitical entity, it remains an important resource. In the near future, new initiatives can be expected from this association, aimed at both regional issues, supra-regional issues, neighboring countries and beyond. This is already a reason for a country that is developing its plans for the region to look more closely at the VG. This might be an opportunity for Russia.

1. Pentagonale is an association of the Eastern and Central European States that emerged as a potential alternative to socialist integration. It was established in 1989 and comprised Austria, Italy, Hungary and Yugoslavia. After the accession of then-Czechoslovakia in 1990 it took the name Pentagonale. In 1991, after Poland joined, it was re-named Hexagonale.

2. European Agreements – cooperation and association agreements with the prospect of EU accession, which were proposed to Eastern European countries on the basis of their 1990 declarations. In particular, during that year Hungary, Poland and then-Czechoslovakia submitted their applications. In 1991, the EU signed the relevant agreements with these countries.

3. In March 2001 the Prime Ministers of the Czech Republic and Slovakia refused to participate in the VG regular Heads of Government Meeting in Visegrad, thus expressing their protest against the attempts of the Hungarian Prime Minister V. Orban to blame these two countries for the post-war deportation of Hungarians under the Benesh Decrees. In 2006 Prime Minister of Hungary F. Durchan did not meet with President of Poland L. Kachinsky who arrived with official visit to Hungary. See for more detail "The Visegrad Europe: Whence and where? Two decades on the way of reforms in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic" M., Entire World, 2010.

4. As of July 1, 2013, Hungary assumed the Presidency of the VG.

5. At the meeting of the VG Defense Ministers on May 4, 2012, a decision was made to establish a military V4 EU unit under Polish command by 2016. http://www.visegradgroup.eu/calendar/2012/joint-communique-of-the

6. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which joined the EU after 2004.

7. A. Drynochkin, Economic aspects of the Visegrad countries’ function within the EU // Visegrad Europe. IE RAN, 2012.

8. Hungary, on the one hand, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the other. This was one reason why the Czech Republic took so long to put its signature to the Lisbon Treaty.

9. From May to October 1945 President of Czechoslovakia E. Benes signed six decrees under which over 3 million inhabitants of that country of German and Hungarian descent (nationality) were deported. This operation cost thousands of lives; the property of deported families was confiscated.

10. Rejection by Brussels of legislative initiatives by the V. Orban Government. Interference in the drafting of the new Constitution, Law on the Press, Law on the Central Bank, Regulations for Judges, etc.

11. Since Poland is the author and the main driver of that program and the Visegrad Group as a bordering region links certain geostrategic prospects with the Eastern Partnership Programme.

12. Meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Visegrad, Nordic and Baltic States. February, 20, 2013, Gdansk. http://www.visegradgroup.eu/documents/official-statements/meeting-of-foreign

13. The Association Agreements that are intended to be signed with Ukraine and Moldavia at the November 2013 EU Summit in Vilnius will link them more closely to EU integration projects and regulations confronting them with a tough choice: a Customs Union oriented toward Moscow or intermediate integration status with Brussels of an undefined duration. The leaders of Ukraine and Moldova will have to decide in the absence of consensus on that issue among the populations of their countries.

14. Russia’s policy regarding Central and Eastern Europe from the late 1990s through the first decade of the 21st century can be assessed by reviewing statements made by Russian Foreign Ministry officials. Excerpts from the statement made by Russia’s First Deputy Foreign Minister at the IV International Scientific Conference "Russia and Central Europe in new geopolitical realities" in June 2001 are particularly telling.

15. Joint Communiqué by the Visegrad Group’s Defense Ministers. Litomĕřice, 04.05.2012. http://www.visegradgroup.eu/calendar/2012/joint-communique-of-the

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Lyubov Shishelina, “ The Visegrad Group in the Common European Process,” Russian International Affairs Council, 22 November 2013, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=2733

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