Russia's open military aggression against Ukraine has provoked strong reactions around the world. The V4 countries, whose outwardly apparent unity seemed to be crumbling, also took a stance. How serious is the schism between Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic on the one side and Hungary on the other? Is the breakdown of V4 inevitable or is there still a room for cooperation? Slovak political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov reflects on the current state the Visegrad Group finds itself in.
Visegrad Group vs. EU: V4, V2+2 or V3+1?
Once the Soviet domination ended, the cooperation between the countries of the Visegrad Group after its founding in 1991 was for many years associated with the efforts of the four Central European nations to join the integration groups of the democratic West.
The Visegrad Group (initially V3, since 1993 V4) is built on the shared historical narrative of the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians, especially that of the second half of the 20th century marked by the Soviet rule. Another common denominator shared by the group was the effort to transform into well-functioning democratic states, to overcome problems inherited from the past and to strengthen the stability in the region.
The group’s efforts laid the solid groundwork for its members on their journey towards joining EU and NATO.
After securing their place among EU members, V4 countries went through a period of adaptation when crucial integration process took place. Although the positions of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary towards individual European policies may vary, the countries always came together in fundamental issues. What is more, their stance was rarely fundamentally different from that pursued by the EU as a whole.
The situation began to change after the domestic political scene in the two Visegrad Group countries – Hungary and Poland – began to follow the direction that caused concern in Brussels, especially with regard to the rule of law and democracy as such. Later on, the problems in the two Visegrad Group countries were perceived to be affecting the whole group, thus painting the entire V4 as problematic and insufficiently pro-European. That was even before the refugee crisis of 2015. The crisis alienated the V4 from Brussels even more, as all four countries took a strong anti-immigration stance and refused to take their fair share as proposed by the EU or, to be more precise, “old” member countries (to cite the words of V4 politicians), which in fact bore the greatest burden in dealing with the refugee crisis. These countries advocated for a more even distribution of this burden between individual member countries. Thanks to the refugee crisis, the “2+2” format of the Visegrad Group was transformed in an instant into “a strong 4”.
7 years have passed since, and Russia attacked Ukraine with the full military force in February 2022. Once again, the V4 “regrouped”, this time to the “3+1” format. This time, the divisive factor was the stance regarding the help to Ukraine and the condemnation of the aggressor.
Budapest and its stance
While Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia unequivocally sided with the warring Ukraine, provided it with all-round assistance, including military assistance, strongly condemned Russian aggression and took a pro-active stance on the issue of common EU policy, Hungary took a different position – it refused to help Ukraine militarily, it advocated for keeping its economic ties with Russia, did not directly condemn Russian aggression, most recently blocked financial aid to Ukraine from EU funds and continues to block Ukraine's cooperation with NATO. Hungarian officials interpret their stance on the war as an effort to achieve peace. However, if the entire Western community took a similar attitude (“we will accept refugees, but we will not supply weapons”), Ukraine would have long been crushed by the brutal Russian aggression and would have ceased to exist as an independent state.
In its attitude towards the Russia-Ukraine war, Hungary essentially followed up on its long and friendly relationship with the Kremlin. Budapest consistently emphasizes the importance of economic cooperation with Russia and boasts the friendly relationship between Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin. Budapest also continuously rejects any deepening of relationships between EU, NATO and Ukraine due to the “unacceptable” policy of Kyiv towards the ethnic Hungarians living in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine. While Poland, in its problematic relations with the EU on issues of democracy and the rule of law, views Russian aggression as one with the EU, Hungary has deepened its conflict with Brussels on issues of democracy – this time over its attitude towards Russia and Ukraine.
Slovakia on the right side of history
The unequivocal positions of Poland and the Czech Republic towards Russian aggression were quite expected, but the equally unequivocal pro-Ukrainian position of Slovakia surprised many observers. Although Slovakia has supported sanctions that were gradually being imposed by the European Union on the Russian aggressor since 2014, the two-faced stance of some Slovak politicians, including former prime ministers Robert Fico and Petr Pellegrini (“I support sanctions in Brussels, I criticize and reject them at home”), left room for doubt and speculation.
After Russia's massive military attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Slovakia reacted with all-round support for the victim of Russian aggression, strong condemnation of the aggressor and demands for harshest possible punishment. This attitude persists even after nine months of Ukrainians' struggle for their survival, freedom, democracy and pro-European future, and it shows no signs of stopping. Today, Slovakia is one of the leading countries (given its size) in terms of military aid to Ukraine. Slovakia supports Ukraine politically (by supporting the resolutions of the UN General Assembly and the decisions of the top institutions of the EU), militarily (by supplying weapons and military equipment) and humanitarianly (by accepting and caring for Ukrainian refugees on its territory).
It should be noted here that Slovakia's firm pro-Ukrainian position should not be taken for granted as the political parties Smer-SD and SNS lost their grip over the country in 2020. Today, these parties flirt and vote in unisono with far-right extremist parties and openly support Russia. Slovakian policies would almost certainly copy their rhetoric if they stayed in power after the last election.
These far-right extremists capitalize on the fact that the population of Slovakia has been continuously fed with conspiracy theories, anti-American sentiment and cultural-political Russophilia inherited from the past. According to the public opinion survey GLOBSEC Trends 2020, up to 56% of Slovaks believe in conspiracy theories and 51% of Slovaks are convinced that Jews have too much power and secretly control governments and institutions around the world. In the GLOBSEC Trends 2022 research, 39% of Slovaks saw the US, which is Slovakia's main NATO ally, as a threat to their country (in contrast to 6% of Poles, 18% of Hungarians and 25% of Czechs), while only 20% of Slovaks saw a threat in Russia. The same research also showed that from among the nine countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Slovaks accept the pro-Kremlin narrative to the highest degree, and say that invasion of Ukraine was provoked by the West, and that Ukraine oppressed the Russian minority population. Only half of Slovaks blamed Russia. For many years, Slovaks tended to see Russia as a victim that the West has been hurting. Almost half of Slovaks considered Russia to be an important strategic partner.
In their perception of the Russian-Ukrainian war, many Slovaks emphasize their sympathy with the victims of Russian aggression and also advocate for a “peaceful” solution to this conflict at the price of concessions to the Kremlin’s regime, show understanding for Russia’s imperial ambitions and propaganda disguised as the Pan-Slavism. In such an atmosphere, government policy that contradicts the ideas of a largely disoriented part of the population is not easily enforced. Today's Slovak pro-Russian opposition refers to these ideas as the sacred “voice of the people”.
Invasion of Ukraine 2022 as a reminder of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968
Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová is very active and persistent in her support of Ukraine. She was the only head of a foreign state (apart from Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky) who addressed the occupiers in Russian with a request to stop committing war crimes against Ukrainian civilians, especially women.
Čaputová repeatedly pointed out the bravery of Ukrainians in defending their homeland and addressed the war crimes committed by the Russian occupiers. She emphasized that “Ukraine did not start the war, nor did it provoke it. Ukraine simply desires to become a part of the democratic Europe”. The president pleaded for Slovakia to help Ukraine: “Ukrainians are fighting a fair fight for their sovereignty and national self-determination. We, as a Slovak nation, must understand this when looking at our own history. I am proud that Slovakia is on the right side of history by helping Ukraine.” The President stated that “the older generations still remember the year 1968, when Soviet tanks invaded Slovakia under the disguise of protecting us from the (non-existent) counter-revolution. Something similar is happening in Ukraine now, but much worse.”
President Čaputová's unequivocal position was the same as that of other Slovak constitutional officials - Prime Minister Eduard Heger, Minister of Defense Jaroslav Naď, Ministers of Foreign Affairs Ivan Korčok and Rastislav Káčer, as well as the Speaker of the Parliament Boris Kollár.
On the day of the Russian invasion, Čaputová, Heger and Kollár issued a joint statement in which they strongly condemned the Russian invasion and confirmed that Slovakia stands by the Ukrainian people. They pointed to “Ukraine's full right to defend itself” and emphasized that “Slovakia is part of the Western civilization, a member of the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance.” They emphasized that “it is in Slovakia's vital interest to be a solid part of a union in which the members guarantee each other's security, especially when facing an aggressor who did not hesitate to attack their own neighbor and in their demands seek to weaken our sovereignty as well.”
As part of supporting the Ukrainian people in the fight against Russian aggression, Slovakia handed over to Ukraine its S-300 anti-aircraft system, delivered self-made Zuzana gun howitzers, MiG29 fighters, BVP armored vehicles, ammunition and other military equipment. 90 thousand Ukrainian citizens found temporary refuge in Slovakia.
Only the victory of Ukraine will guarantee peace in the Central Europe
With their attitude towards Russian aggression, the three Visegrad Group countries have joined the Baltic and Scandinavian countries, as well as the Great Britain, as the most loyal allies of Ukraine in Europe. The historical experience of most of these states with Russian and Soviet expansionism leaves them with no illusions about the “peaceful” intentions of the criminal Kremlin regime. The European allies are determined to help Ukraine defeat Moscow's “Mordor” and deter it from ever thinking about devouring its neighbors again. This expansionistic regime would not spare anyone and would commit atrocities if given the opportunity in its quest for glory. It is an illusion to think that Kremlin would leave Budapest alone, as some Hungarian politicians seem to think. Hungary - as well as the whole Central Europe - could only be saved from the Kremlin's war crimes by the victory of Ukraine, which Hungary so persistently refuses to help today.
The V4 has existed for 31 years. 9 months of Russian aggression against Ukraine is too short a period to draw any conclusions about the impact this event might have on the future of Visegrad cooperation. The V4 is not a coherent block of states within the EU, much rather it is a group of states wishing to boost cooperation between and within its regions. V4 has its own dynamics, it is influenced by various factors, the most important of which is regional interactions followed by the peculiarities of the internal political situation of individual states, and the relationship with EU institutions. After its founding, V4 went through several periods of turmoil when unity seemed to be a lost cause. Today, we have to relive this harsh reality once again.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022 brought to the forefront the inconsistency of the positions held by Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic on the one hand and Hungary on the other. Given the current problems V4 faces, Brussels might start to perceive this pact as not worthy of its attention. However, this does not automatically mean that V4 ceases to exist. The cooperation can focus more on the areas like regional development, transport, cross-border cooperation, and culture. These areas seem far less dependent on macro-European and geopolitical factors than big issues. The foreign policy and security of V4 countries are highly dependent on the membership in the EU and NATO, and will undoubtedly remain so in the future.
The opinions expressed hereunder are those of the author. They do not necessarily to reflect the opinions or views of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.