There’s no need to believe in the Visegrad Group – but do try to understand it
It took just a year for Poles to appreciate and then become disillusioned with the power of the Visegrad Group brand. In 2013 we all started to believe that we were really part of the four countries’ community of shared interests and identities. By the end of 2014, a conviction grew that the V4 countries don’t actually share the same fundaments anymore; and today, tensions between the group’s members have started to resemble the era before 1989, when Soviet propaganda embittered one against another enforcing the old maxim divide at imperia.
Just a year ago, Poland opened a new chapter in the history of regional cooperation. Under the year-long leadership of former Ministry of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski, Visegrad became a brand for promoting the political, economic, and cultural potential of the region. The Polish yearly-rotating presidency of the group, which took place between mid-2012 and 2013, has been an opportunity to repeat the successful scheme of the EU presidency chaired by Poland in 2011. During the 12 months of the presidency, Poland attributed the Visegrad brand to virtually everything: from cultural events, energy security – building gas interconnections, infrastructural projects, consulting on EU strategy – to development assistance served worldwide from us, the champions of transformation.
To be sure, all these areas are part of the cooperation forged mostly through a process of consultation at the highest political level (since its beginning in 1991), as well as practical local, cultural, educational, and civil society cooperation, funded by the International Visegrad Fund, the only existing institution established in 2000 to sustain and develop genuine cross country cooperation of citizens. The fund spends 8 million euros yearly, 90% through grant schemes and scholarships distributed already to more than 4,000 grantees and 2,000 scholarship holders.
Even though one year is not enough to consolidate an idea in public opinion, Visegrad has built up a brand amongst Poles, who at the very least have been intrigued by the name and, of course, the Polish leading position in an international structure. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the other hand, has skillfully cloned PR activities from the EU presidency and communicated the leading position in Europe abroad – this time not of Poland alone, but of Visegrad as whole.
“A strong Poland in the EU also means a stronger Visegrad Group. This is because Central Europe is no longer a land of tragedy,” Milan Kundera once wrote. “It is more reminiscent of the dream, at last fulfilled, of the free and prosperous region described by the Hungarian writer György Konrád,” communicated Sikorski in the Polish Sejm in 2013 and abroad. “In recent years, the growth rate of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary has surpassed the EU average. In the mid-1990s, the GDP of the four Visegrad Group countries amounted to almost 270 billion dollars. Today, it is almost four times as large. Together, we are Germany’s biggest trading partner. Pursuant to the still applicable law, in the Council of the European Union, our four countries hold 58 weighted votes – as many as Germany and France combined.”
This message read clear – the region is booming and its time to drop the usual tone of nostalgia and complaints for the more optimistic, hope-driven note. Sikorski has delivered several speeches in the region’s capitals, marking a new practice of that sort in the history of the V4. Not surprisingly, his message was most contrasted with the usual tone and best received in Budapest, even though Poland was already putting pressure on the Hungarian government to change its current foreign policy strategy.
By the end of 2013, the group had earned recognition from Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy, and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, all of who attended V4 summits with our heads of state. It meant a great deal in diplomacy as well as in how Polish public opinion began to appreciate the Visegrad Group, which for a long time previously had not been relevant in the public debate, even when the common expression “Central and Eastern Europe” was recalled.
But by the beginning of 2014, Polish belief in the potential of Visegrad was undermined. It came with policies of the three other member states that were not living up to the expectations raised in that short period of 2014, during which Poles began to believe that Visegrad was one geopolitical entity with shared interests and identities.
Poland vs. the rest of the V4
Firstly, in January 2014, Budapest signed a contract with Moscow for expanding their nuclear power plant, which was backed by a suspiciously low interest rate 10-12 billion euro loan from Russia. Due to its secrecy and surprise announcement as well as timing, in Poland it was immediately perceived as Hungarian backing for Russian foreign policy – including its involvement in Ukraine. When the events on Maidan unfolded, Hungary made another faux pas that infuriated Poles politically and emotionally engaged in Ukraine. Viktor Orbán again demanded, in a yearly ritual repeated for decades, autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine.
The timing was really bad, as it seemed to echo Putin’s demands to federalize and therefore subordinate Kyiv to his policy. This even sparked a public clash between Orbán and Donald Tusk during the annual GLOBSEC regional security conference in Bratislava in March 2014. However, this did not stop Hungarian support for the eventually dropped South Stream pipeline project that would encircle V4 gas deliveries. It then criticized the sanctions to be imposed on Russia by the European Union; and although they were adopted, Polish-Hungarian brotherhood has been shattered to the point that even right-wing admirers and apologists of Orbán in Poland have reviewed their positions. Igor Janke, who wrote a celebrity-like biography of Orbán in 2013, has been shocked by what his idol thinks of potential cooperation with Putin.
Secondly, when Gazprom started to cut down gas supplies to Ukraine, to put pressure on political decisions made in Kyiv, the three bordering countries (Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland) agreed to deliver energy supply via reverse flow through their pipelines. The biggest share could have been from the start delivered through Slovakia, but Robert Fico’s government delayed technical possibilities far too long, quoting contractual penalties from its contract with Gazprom as a formal obstacle.
Thirdly, the most practical and de facto strongest bilateral cooperation between the Czech Republic and Poland was shattered by two processes, which have if not begun then intensified in the last year, and threaten to loosen the bonds in the future. Yet, a 2013 report by the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw on mutual perceptions of Czechs, Germans, and Poles, showed that Poles have a very favorable opinion about Czechs, which is unmatched by Czech perception about Poles.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the de facto infowar in the Czech media carried out against anything branded Polish. It may have started with reports of some cases of low quality food delivered to the market by Polish producers at a time when Czech liquor stores were shutting down due to the threat of poisonous home-distilled alcohol. This could have easily been understood as a PR cover up campaign sponsored by major Czech food producers, but later reports about deadly windows made in Poland and other threats from the Czech Republic’s northern neighbor were just too much to simply blame on the low quality of exported goods.
Funny enough, the shock came with a satire based advertisement by T-Mobile using the stereotype of a shady Pole trading in low-quality phones. It was widely reported and commented on in the main Polish media, such as Gazeta Wyborcza, and even involved social campaigns in social media based on mems and virals to influence the official authorities. The Polish ambassador to Prague, and former deputy minister of foreign affairs, Grazyna Bernatowicz, perhaps misfired when she issued an official protest note and demanded that the advert be taken off public TV, but it just proved the level of disappointment felt across the border with our much liked neighbors – love we again learned that is not always returned nor easily earned. It should be added that the food and products infowar is a long-term strategy mastered by the sanitary services of the Russian Federation, which has supposedly taken the diplomatic conflict out of the saloons and into the abattoirs and potato fields.
Voices of disillusionment
As the negative sentiments grew and Polish beliefs about the possibility of cooperation diminished, these trends empowered right-wing bloggers like Marcin Kędzierski from the Jagiellonian Club, a right-wing think tank, and the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Plus, to write in autumn 2014 that “the V4 does not have a present; it even does not have a close past. Does it have a future? Please note that V4 is not recognized by any single EU document.” Such claims came both from old neo-imperial nostalgia that still fuels the Polish right scene, but which would not have been prompted if not for the disappointments of 2014. All this despite the eventual adoption of common positions by the leaders of the V4 – after long battles – in key issues involving Ukraine, gas security, and even upholding plans for the creation of a Visegrad battlegroup in 2016.
There are many other such voices of disillusionment from more recognized experts across the political spectrum, including Edward Lucas from The Economist and former FT editor Judy Dempsey, expressing their disappointments with the V4’s lack of common geopolitical perspective, which simply echo heated Polish in-country debates on the future of the region. Perhaps one soothing comment was provided by Igor Merheim-Eyre from the Global Europe Centre, University of Kent, saying that the “Visegrad Group helps to amplify influence when possible, but this process happens neither at all times nor at all costs. … We should therefore not criticize the regional framework for something that it is not, or expect it to behave as our own imaginations would like it to.”
In fact, there are several new significant accomplishments, which have only been dimmed by the shadowy future of Ukraine and Russia. As Marta Szpala, an expert from the Eastern Studies Centre in Warsaw (OSW), noted on 31 October on the website of Visegrad Insight: “The ministers of foreign affairs of the Visegrad Group reaffirmed their support for European Union and NATO enlargement, underling that conditionality and the merit based approach should be applied but that both the EU and NATO should respond appropriately to the progress made by aspirant countries. The V4 also supported the idea of establishing a Western Balkan Fund modeled on the International Visegrad Fund, which is considered one of the best models of regional cooperation of the countries in transition.” The V4 continues to influence not only domestic but foreign policy as a best practice and role model; definitely a soft power success.
Tomáš Strážay, Head of the Central and Southeastern Europe Program at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association and coordinator of Think Visegrad – V4 Think Tank Platform, later concluded that despite “some analysts and journalists – once and again – do not hesitate to draw up dark scenarios regarding the future of the V4. In fact, if the V4 was dead or at least dying, there wouldn’t be so many viable initiatives and plans for the future. The dead can dance only in cheap, third class horror movies – reality is different. The V4 is alive and kicking, and ready to serve as the core for broader regional initiatives in many areas. There is no need to look for its replacement by a new initiative, there is just a need for its continuous development.”
Indeed, V4 cooperation was almost asleep in 2008 until a major gas crisis revived it, and if we managed to survive through 2014, then 2015 gives the promise of new hope. What we must overcome, however, is the new infowar that keeps us from understanding and pushes us towards hasty generalizations based on emotions. Just like after the Solidarity movement in 1980s when Soviet propaganda embittered its satellite nations using the power of gossip and negative stereotypes, today we allow the poor press to do the same. It’s time to say – never again!
Wojciech Przybylski is the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and Polish bi-monthly Res Publica Nowa.