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Lyubov Shishelina

Doctor of History, Head of Vishegrad centre at the RAS Institute of Europe, Head of Central and Eastern Europe studies department, RIAC expert

The Visegrad Group (also called the V4) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, research centres in the four countries attempt to analyse the results of 25 years of co-existence and examine some new and even non-traditional blueprints for the community’s further development.

The Visegrad Group (also called the V4) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, research centres in the four countries attempt to analyse the results of 25 years of co-existence and examine some new and even non-traditional blueprints for the community’s further development.

Special attention should be paid to the report produced by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) entitled V4 Goes Global: Exploring Opportunities and Obstacles in the Visegrad Countries’ Cooperation with Brazil, India, China and South Africa edited by Patryk Kugiel [1]. The report, which was published with the support of the Visegrad Fund, is the result of the collective efforts of leading Visegrad Group research centres: the PISM, the Central European Policy Institute (CEPI) in Slovakia, the Institute of International Relations (IIR) in Prague and the Centre for Economic and Regional Studies of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

The report is marked by a high level of professionalism among the authors, rendering an extremely honest and clear appraisal, and the reader’s initial feeling that perhaps ambitions have been set too high disappears by the end of the introduction.

To be sure, despite initial scepticism that this union of three states in Central Europe (four after the breakup of Czechoslovakia) would last, the Visegrad group turned out to be the only successful project in the post-socialist space, which is still undergoing transformations. Not only has the Visegrad Group successfully made it through a difficult quarter of a century without any serious conflicts, it has also become a kind of brand in the region, and one that is still gaining influence against the background of the economic and political chaos that is consuming Europe.



Not only has the Visegrad Group successfully made it through a difficult quarter of a century without any serious conflicts, it has also become a kind of brand in the region.

Interim Results

Assessing the past, present and future of the Visegrad Group is quite valuable, since this particular European region has succeeded in virtually every aspect. Like the Benelux Union, the Visegrad Group started with the setup of a free trade zone, which was achieved in the early 1990s. The Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) consolidated the countries even further. Accompanying its success was a clear understanding that this step corresponded to their goal of joining the only market and integration mechanisms that were on the rise at that time. It is interesting to recall that even before the official document creating the Visegrad Group was signed, the leaders and foreign ministers of the four countries visited the Benelux Union to learn about their experience of interaction between the three states, which were also founding members of the European Union. The early founders of the Visegrad Group did not think it would be practical to copy all the institutional forms of the Benelux Union, yet the pressures of the economic crisis and the need to overcome them is bringing the positions of the “four” closer and closer together, making it necessary to coordinate their efforts in foreign policy and foreign economic relations.

Over the course of 25 years, the processes of drawing closer to western alliances, becoming members of those alliances, and dealing with security threats stemming from immediate neighbours have contributed to the consolidation of the region as well as a constructive exchange of experience with regard to carrying out reforms. As a result, in the process of restructuring their economies and adapting to EU standards, the countries started to rely increasingly on their own region as they were overcoming the crisis. The volume of intraregional shipments is growing steadily against the EU figures, which is a sign of the region’s independence [2]. Gradually, the countries in the region have been accumulating experience in coordinating energy security issues, environmentally safe manufacturing, patenting technological innovations, etc. It is conducive to shaping uniform policies on an ever-expanding range of issues. The Ukrainian crisis and the difficulties in Russia–Ukraine relations have stripped Slovakia and Poland of their crucial role in distributing Russian hydrocarbons. Now, the V4 countries are somewhat frustrated with the current system, whereby they receive Russian gas from the west, via Germany: it is more expensive, and also deprives the V4 region of some of its significance for the European Union, as a transit region for resources that are of vital importance for the entire Union.

The authors of the report justly note the trend toward creating a unique regional economy. They claim that the V4 countries are important trading partners for one another. Each of the “four” has at least one other V4 partner as one of its three principal consumers of export commodities. Slovakia, which borders all the Visegrad Group countries, considers all the countries of the union to be its principal trading partners: exports to partner countries constitute 31.5 per cent of its overall exports, more than the export share of the most important importer country: Germany (22.3 per cent of Slovakia’s exports) [3].

Nevertheless, in order to achieve a level of market integration similar to that of the Benelux Union, the Visegrad Group will require EU aid. It will also have to harmonize economic relations in areas such as: deepening administrative cooperation to improve the domestic market; creating a common consumer protection group; developing interaction between national chambers of commerce at the EU level, as well as with third party countries; and ensuring the accountability of the professional journalist community [4]. Whether the range of issues delineated in the report by the Czech association is sufficient is questionable, but need not be discussed here. Perhaps the comparative nature of both integrations should have received greater emphasis, and more attention should have been paid to describing purely economic indicators and prospects. However, the research methodology may be viewed as a conscious decision by the authors based on sufficient facts, allowing them to take the report to a new level of analysis and reasoning.

V4 Expands its Influence

The ambitious task introduced in the Czech report is popular in the region, proven by the research done by the Polish Institute of International Affairs. The report claims that the Visegrad Group today possesses enough significant growth and influence to move beyond Europe. In particular, the combined GDP of the V4 makes it the world’s 15th largest economy, and the number of its representatives in the European Parliament is twice as large as the number of representatives of France, Italy and the United Kingdom [5]. The conclusion might thus be drawn that the group’s power lies in its unity, which should be maintained notwithstanding temporary disagreements.

The authors of the report justly note the trend toward creating a unique regional economy.

If in the past Euroscepticism had been demonstrated by individual countries, then now, in a time of crisis in their relations with their southern and eastern neighbours, the tendency to disagree with Brussels is stronger than ever, and countries are beginning to band together in order to achieve their goals within the European Union. Let us recall that before the adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon, the presidents of the Czech Republic and Poland spoke against the document, each putting forward arguments on different foundations . Now, as Brussels exerts pressure on Poland in response to the latter’s intention to revise several key pieces of legislation, Hungary, which had itself gone through a similar stage in its relations with the EU leadership, has resolved to vote against the Brussels-supported anti-Polish decisions. Thus, there is a growing trend within the region to jointly defend regional political interests. This may be a result of the events of the last two years: war in Ukraine and the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa have demanded that policies of the Visegrad Group be adjusted and other areas of life altered, especially against the background of demands issuing from Brussels that sanctions be imposed on Russia and migrant quotas be observed.

EPA / PIOTR WITTMAN / Vostock Photo
Vadim Trukhachev, Sergey Rekeda:
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It has been especially difficult for the V4 to work out a common stance towards Russia during the Ukrainian crisis. Some even predicted the inevitable break-up of the V4 as a result. Yet the crisis, this time of migrants, once again brought the positions of the parties closer together. It showed how each of the Visegrad Group countries perceived threats differently, and that Russia is not a perceived danger for most of them.

It is against this background that the issue broached in the report, concerning the Visegrad Group’s relations with the BICS countries (Brazil, India, China and South Africa), is relegated to secondary importance, as the reader is again made aware of problems of globalization of the world’s economic ties. The authors’ decision to cut the letter “R” from the name of the regional group (usually referred to a BRICS) cannot but puzzle the Russian analyst. On the other hand, in regard to the Visegrad Group countries, Russia does indeed occupy a qualitatively different geopolitical and geographic dimension compared to other BRICS members. It has a different history of relations with Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. To some degree, it justifies the approach adopted by the authors of the report, and at the same time, it heightens expectations for a separate report on the V4’s relations with Russia.

The group’s power lies in its unity, which should be maintained notwithstanding temporary disagreements.

The authors are brutally honest in defining the significance of the BICS countries for the Visegrad Group If China had not included these countries in the 16+1 strategy several years ago, then India, Brazil and South Africa still would “have not recognized the new potential of Central Europe.” [6]  At the same time, the authors emphasize that there are no significant disagreements among the V4 countries concerning the line of behaviour to which they adhere in regard to BICS since they “all have taken a very pragmatic approach focused on economic goals.” [7] They also note that the more consolidated and successful the Visegrad Group countries are within the European Union, the higher their chances of establishing strong relations with the BICS countries. And vice versa – their success with BICS may be conducive to raising the Visegrad Group’s influence within the European Union itself. What is the likelihood of this happening? In particular, the authors note that, compared to other EU members, the V4 countries have fewer opportunities. Yet, it does not mean that they should exclude this area from their economic and political strategy, especially given the growth of Euro-Atlanticism and the shaping of new EU–China relations.

The authors consider in great detail both the activities of individual V4 countries in Brazil, India, China and South Africa, and their cooperation. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are particularly active in their attempts to establish trade and economic relations. Slovakia, having the smallest population and territory of the Visegrad Group countries and fewer diplomatic missions around the world, is less active in far-off markets; however, it does consider the possibility of joining efforts with, for instance, the Czech Republic, which is the closest country to Slovakia geographically. Hungary implements these ties within the Eastern Opening Strategy, and adopted its Southern Opening Strategy relatively recently. What is more, Hungary opens trading houses in those countries it considers strategically important. Poland conducts its own traditional trade missions policy, and also works actively within the relatively recent policies of GoChina (2012), GoAfrica (2013) and GoIndia (2015).

The Czech Republic is also active in China; however, it has fewer results to show in other areas. This, however, does not decrease the importance of the opening of the Visegrad House in Cape Town in 2010. At first, the initiative was supported by only three of the V4 countries, but a few months later, Poland also joined in support [8]. Thus, the Visegrad House in Cape Town, a cultural and economic mission of the Visegrad Group in the south of the continent of Africa, established a new development in the history of the V4.

What are the Prospects for the Future?

The tendency to disagree with Brussels is stronger than ever, and countries are beginning to band together in order to achieve their goals within the European Union.

What is the payoff? How effective is the group? It is hard to make predictions today, when former leading world players are losing ground. Maybe the “Visegrad Tigers” (as regional specialists on the Visegrad union sometimes call themselves), with their growing ambitions, will take their places. At the very least, the beginnings of global undertakings are present in many of the group’s initiatives. The economic forum in Krynica is still relevant, while the GLOBSEC Bratislava Global Security Forum is gaining increasing international influence (link in Russian). Prague and Budapest have not ceded their positions as leading pan-European discussion centres either.

On the whole, in conceptualizing their chances for success in a new area, the V4 shows that it is looking for answers to the global challenges presented by the economic and political chaos. Learning from the mistakes of the USSR/Russia, it would be prudent to try to establish order in the immediate vicinity first and then to increase presence in other parts of the world. At the current stage, there are concerns that the V4 countries may be lacking both economic potential and the necessary experience in their relations with the BICS countries. Here, the necessity to coordinate policy in this area with the group’s most experience traditional partners inevitably arises. Russia may just be one of these partners.

REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh
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The authors of the report draw entirely objective conclusions. Their principal conclusion is that relations with the BICS countries are not a priority for the Visegrad Group. China is most attractive within the BICS, which is due in no small part to its own efforts. Since the 1990s, China has rapidly increased its presence in Central Europe, using the above-mentioned 16+1 programme as one of its instruments. At the same time, relations with those Visegrad Group countries that are members of the European Union enhance China’s positions within that organization.

However, cooperation mostly affects business circles, since in reality, the BICS elites have still not completely grasped the goals and depth of possibilities afforded by the Visegrad Group [9]. A lot depends on the Visegrad Group itself [10]. Today we can see that the Visegrad Group, inspired by the results of its first 25 years, is ready to put forward new goals and solve emerging tasks.

During the 1990s and in the first half of the 2000s, the Visegrad Group’s principal foreign policy efforts were directed at joining the European Union and NATO. Other areas, notably the east, were of lesser interest to them (primarily due to instability and unclear prospects). After joining the European Union and NATO, the Visegrad Group’s independent foreign policy initiatives were significantly curtailed by the need to coordinate them with Brussels. However free the statements, and to a certain extent the actions, of some Visegrad politicians may appear (Viktor Orbán, Robert Fico, Miloš Zeman), the Visegrad Group’s official statements still strictly tow the political line of the European Union and NATO.

There is a growing trend within the region to jointly defend regional political interests.

The Visegrad Group is granted a certain amount of freedom in the Eastern Partnership policy, since the Group’s countries border the European Union’s eastern neighbours. From the moment the Eastern Partnership policy was adopted, the Visegrad Group’s participation in it was limited to periodic meetings with the representatives of the countries the programme is focused on in the V4+ format, and to supporting humanitarian interaction with their neighbours.

***

Today, the Visegrad Group is fairly active both in NATO and in the European Union. The V4 countries continue to use the Visegrad Fund to exercise so-called “soft power” policies in regard to their neighbour states, the former Soviet republics and the Balkans, funding a series of educational projects and programmes for supporting civil society and the mass media in those countries.

The authors of the report draw entirely objective conclusions. Their principal conclusion is that relations with the BICS countries are not a priority for the Visegrad Group.

Russia is almost completely absent from the Visegrad Group’s foreign policy. As the Ukrainian crisis has shown, the Visegrad Group either delegates relations with Russia to Brussels, or persistently puts them outside the scope of their foreign policy agenda. This is perhaps why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation does not list the V4 among Russia’s cooperation partners [11]. Against this background, Russia’s bilateral economic relations with Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic continue to develop in a fairly positive vein. Relations with Poland, however, have for many years remained hostage to the politics of their history.

Three of the four Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland) have already held the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Slovakia will assume the role in the second half of 2016. Despite the fact that since the adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon, this function has increasingly become a sort of formality, each country strives to realize its ambitions. Slovakia is expected to take another step towards developing the Eastern Partnership. Bratislava will decide the shape that the programme will take in the short- and medium-term, since the next time that a Central European country is due to hold the presidency of the Council of the European Union is a long way off. The prestige of the Visegrad Group and the recognition of its special “Visegrad style” of foreign policy, and even the existence of this foreign policy as a possible surprise for Brussels, all hinge on the decisions made in Slovakia’s capital.

However free the statements, and to a certain extent the actions, of some Visegrad politicians may appear, the Visegrad Group’s official statements still strictly tow the political line of the European Union and NATO.

It is perfectly evident today that the Visegrad countries have moved away from the confusion of the early 1990s. They have become more independent and have enriched themselves with the experience of European politics and policies. They have taught Europe to conduct a nearly equal dialogue – and that is an achievement on par with their own development. Today, the Visegrad Group comes to the formulation of new tasks fully cognizant of the situation. I believe that the Visegrad Group has matured and is ready to shape new relations with Russia, which is still an important potential partner for the majority of the group’s countries.

This idea gets confirmation in the titles of reports describing the group’s global tasks and comparing it to other regions. Thus, the Prague-based Association for International Affairs released an anniversary report titled V4 and the Internal Market: Benelux of the 21st Century? [12] The above-mentioned report by the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs attempts to size the Visegrad Four tohandle global tasks, such as the prospects of interacting with the countries of BICS, which for us sounds odd without Russia [13].

1. V4 Goes Global: Exploring Opportunities and Obstacles in the Visegrad Countries’ Cooperation with Brazil, India, China and South Africa / Ed. Patryk Kugiel. PISM, Warsaw, March 2016.

2. Drynochkin A. Economic Aspects of the Functioning of the Visegrad Countries within the European Union / Visegrad Europe. Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences 2012, p. 91 (in Russian).

3. Krylis Krystof, V4 and the Internal Market: Benelux of the 21st Century? / Policy Paper 2/2016, Association for International Affairs. March 2016, p. 6.

4. Ibid.

5. V4 Goes Global: Exploring Opportunities and Obstacles in the Visegrad Countries’ Cooperation with Brazil, India, China and South Africa / Ed. Patryk Kugiel. PISM, Warsaw, March 2016, p. 8.

6. Ibid., p. 5.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 66.

9. Ibid., p. 70.

10. Ibid., p. 71.

11. Marusiak Juraj, Russia and the Visegrad Group – More than a Foreign Policy Issue / International Issues and Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs. Bratislava, 2015, vol.1–2, pp. 28–46.

12. Krylis Krystof, V4 and the Internal Market: Benelux of the 21st Century? / Policy Paper 2/ 2016, Association for International Affairs. March 2016

13. Brazil, India, China, South Africa.

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