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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club

The Prime Minister of Slovakia and Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Visegrad group countries almost did not mention Russia at the opening of the Global Security Forum in Slovakia. The Forum is a recognized platform for coordinating the foreign political agenda of the Visegrad Group – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Czech Republic. This year it has been its eighth meeting. The Visegrad policy-makers in their statements at the opening session basically mentioned Russia just between the lines. Is it good or bad?

The Prime Minister of Slovakia and Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Visegrad group countries almost did not mention Russia at the opening of the Global Security Forum in Slovakia. The Forum is a recognized platform for coordinating the foreign political agenda of the Visegrad Group – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Czech Republic. This year it has been its eighth meeting.

The Visegrad policy-makers in their statements at the opening session basically mentioned Russia just between the lines. The word ‘Russia’ was pronounced only by the Foreign Minister of Hungary who referred to this country along with Turkey as an important pole of attraction for the Visegrad group.

Is it good or bad? On the one hand it is good. We have long been used to hear the East European politicians speaking about Russia mainly in a negative tone. The very fact that we are no more looked at as a scarecrow by the Visegrad countries is encouraging. It is a proof that our relations are maturing and the generational targets are changing. Russia is not a threat to the Visegrad group. Otherwise, the foreign ministers would hardly mince the words.

On the other hand, the Russians got used to be talked about. That is why the silence worries a Russian observer even more than criticisms. Russia is clearly absent in the negative agenda, but we are almost missing in the positive agenda either. We are not a threat, nor are we an opportunity. Except for….

Exception – energy

If Russia is cited a little in the lines, it is implied quite a lot between the lines. Energy is among the priority items in the Visegrad agenda. Dependency on one supplier is the main problem. Guess who it is?

This dependency is regarded by the ministers if not as a threat, but as a problem. Therefore, they believe the problem must be addressed by: first, diversification of suppliers; and second, diversification of the sources of energy. A popular topic of shale gas revolution looked like an obvious solution. But then the nuclear topic was raised: nuclear power can if not eliminate but mitigate the gas dependency. Reliance on the EU is an effective instrument. It is easier to bargain prices with the Russian monopolist through Brussels than one on one; and it is better to push forward this agenda as a group of four than one by one.

At the bottom line the dependency on the Russian gas indeed is a problem, although none of the ministers said that the Kremlin had any evil schemes. It is a pleasing and to put it straight objective recognition. Indeed any “gas intimidation” of the East European partners is totally out of Russia’s interests. Russia would lose more than all others from any disruptions of gas supplies to Europe. Moreover, it would be a loss at all fronts – from reputation and money to technical problems with one’s own production wells.

It is noteworthy that energy was the first topic that the participants in the Forum discussed immediately after the opening session. And then of course Russia resounded in all, one after another, statements but again presented calmly and pragmatically. The Visegrad group is concerned with the price of fuel. This means that our dialogue at present can be “economized” by avoiding excessive politicization. Energy is a problem and not a threat. Besides it is a Russian problem as well.

The past is also forgotten

Photo: globsec.org

Here they go again. That is what comes into mind of a Russian observer when the East European colleagues start talking about “the communist past”. They do not. The Polish Minister Sikorsky speaks about Margaret Thatcher, but does not say a word of criticism against Russia. The Slovak Minister Lajcak recalls the 1990s and the first steps toward democracy and market, but nothing about Russia as a “counterexample”. The Hungarian Minister Martonyi speaks about common values of the Visegrad group, and common identity, but Russia is not mentioned among the “important others”.

Now, what is the past for the current ministers? Hard start in the 1990s, common transit problems, uneasy way to EU and NATO, attempts to act unanimously in their dialogue with major partners.

Is it a generation change? Not quite – all these ministers lived in the Soviet past, began their career then, some of them studied in Russia and speak Russian. Simply, one burden of their recollections has been substituted by another. There is less and less memory of Russia in them.

What are the priorities?

What else if not Russia? Wrong guess – neither the Middle East nor even the Korean Peninsula. Is it the EU? – Of course. The Slovak Prime Minister Fico presented a noteworthy position. Security of his country (and all Visegrad group) depends in many respects on EU stability, its capacity to overcome economic problems and maintain consolidated position. In other words, the prerequisite of security is at home. And the home is the united Europe.

At the same time practically all ministers spoke in favor of Euro-Atlantic values. Implicitly this can be regarded as a consolidated opposition to an idea of “Europe without the U.S.” in the area of security. The Visegrad group is if not a vanguard of Atlanticism in Europe, but certainly a solid pillar of the EU-U.S. relationships. But again, at the opening, no word was said on containing Russia by all means, including NATO.

Military spending was another topic of discussion among the ministers. It is indicative that the need for spending cuts by the Visegrad countries (all but Poland, are cutting their defense budgets) was perceived as a necessary evil. They should be beefed up at the first opportunity. This should be done following the logic of “smart defense” – one of the provisions of the Chicago NATO Summit. Where the money will go is to be explained by the Visegrad leaders to their voters and partners.

Eastern and Southern neighbors

An absolute priority for the Visegrad group is to assist the integration to EU of the former republics of Yugoslavia and USSR. The Visegrad four have the experience of transit, best practices and a possibility to move forward the issues in the common EU agenda. This makes of them the potential leaders in the dialogue with their Southern and Eastern neighbors. The Ukraine and Belarus are among them. Based on this approach the Visegrad group joins the advocates of further EU enlargement. This is a resource for enhancing their role in the European policy, a means of consolidation within the group, and an opportunity to increase their influence in the above mentioned countries, being just “a point of entry” to the EU.

What about Russia? -- Nothing. It is good that the Eastern partnership is not set in opposition to “Russian influence”. But the absence of Russia in that equation does not exclude the return of Russia as a negative factor as perceived by the Eastern European politicians.

Interests of Russia

Photo: globsec.org

The gradual “growth” of our topics in the positive agenda of the East European states without prejudice to our strategic goals is in our interest.

We must understand the energy concerns and softly promote our role as a stable and reliable supplier. By the way Russia can at least try and play its role regarding nuclear energy intentions of the Visegrad group.

The efforts regarding the “black spots” of history bring their fruit. However, hardly there is a need to bother in search of the “white spots” – the change of generations and relevant recollections do their work.

The potential risk has to do with artificial confrontation of the “European” and “Eurasian” vectors in the policy of the former Soviet republics. We need to further work out our position on this issue and openly convey it to our partners.

The role of Russia in addressing an enormous number of regional and global problems is another resource for this “growth”. This is proven by the topical panels and roundtables at the Bratislava Forum.

Bjezinsky’s post scriptum

Zbignev Bjezinsky is an expected honorable guest of the Forum. In his statement Russia was mentioned clearly straightforward as the curtain fell. And again it sounded quite unconventional: without Russia the West will hardly avoid a decline. Russia is quite capable of and should become a fully legitimate part of the West. The key driver is the Russian middle class – developed, cosmopolitical and creative.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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