Central Europe’s Divide: Exploring Visegrád Four’s Challenges

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has caused significant political and security repercussions for countries across the region, including concerns about potential Russian aggression against other allies in Central and Eastern Europe, including NATO frontline states. The Kremlin’s “special military operation” against Ukraine has also created growing disunity in the Visegrád 4 (V4) group, which comprises Poland, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, and Hungary.

The group’s founding declaration in 1991 called for the states to collectively abandon their totalitarian past and obeisance to the Kremlin. In the early 1990s, the V4 group aimed to return to Europe as future EU and NATO members. Czechoslovak President Václav Havel emphasized the opportunity to transform Central Europe into a political phenomenon and approach Western Europe’s richer nations as potential contributors.

The Visegrád countries, a Central European coalition of states, emerged from the aftermath of communist rule and expanded to four with the birth of the Slovak Republic in 1993. Despite occasional clashes, the V4 successfully collaborated during the 1990s to achieve its founding goals of NATO and EU membership. However, the coalition is now facing tension over opposing views on Russia.

Since joining NATO and the EU, the Visegrád countries have found common ground in resistance to Brussels’ mandates. In response to the 2015 European migrant crisis, the V4 expressed strong opposition to the EU’s common immigration policy and disdain for EU rule of law norms, including judicial independence, press freedom, LGBTQ community support, and political opponents’ rights. Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS), Hungary’s Fidesz, Slovakia’s Smer, and the Czech Republic’s ANO party all actively opposed EU rule of law standards, leading to the denial of funding by Brussels to Warsaw and Budapest in 2022.

During this decade, two of the four Visegrád members were generally on good terms with Moscow, with only Warsaw holding a consistently anti-Russian view. Bratislava pursued a middle course between Moscow and Brussels, but ended with massive anti-government street demonstrations due to the murder of a young journalist and his partner.

In Prague, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš maintained positive working relations with the Kremlin, while Czech President Miloš Zeman sided with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence services. Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán and his Fidesz party used the 2015 migrant crisis to strengthen their control over courts, education, and the press, following Putin’s autocratic playbook.

The Kremlin’s attempted invasion of Kyiv in 2022 led to political shockwaves and millions of Ukrainian refugees, causing tensions within the Central European Union (V4) states. Warsaw, Prague, and Bratislava all shoulder significant financial and social burdens in their embrace of Ukrainian refugees, with Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia being among the leaders in bilateral aid to Kyiv.

Hungary is not among the nations sacrificing for Ukraine, with fewer refugees than Montenegro. The conflict has escalated tensions within the V4 states, with recent elections deepening fissures. Hungary’s ties with Warsaw have weakened, while Poland finds Orbán’s pro-Russian leanings unacceptable. Warsaw views Russian aggression as a fundamental threat, more dangerous than Brussels bureaucrats.

The Czechs, after the election of Andrej Babiš, experienced a turbulent, populist era. Petr Fiala, a moderate and pro-European prime minister, skepticism about Moscow’s intentions in the region and a pro-European stance on rule of law issues, causing tension between Prague and the EU. In early 2023, the Czech Republic regained its center with the election of former general Petr Pavel as the country’s president, replacing Miloš Zeman. Pavel’s opponent was Babiš, who campaigned on a negotiated settlement in Ukraine, questioning the Czech commitment to NATO. Pavel won the presidential runoff, placing the Czech Republic alongside Poland as staunch defenders of EU and NATO support to Kyiv.

Slovakia’s political landscape was uncertain for five years after Robert Fico’s fall in 2018. Under the last two governments, Slovakia pursued a strong pro-European policy, particularly following Moscow’s 2022 assault on Ukraine. Slovakia’s head of state, Zuzana Čaputová, emphasized Bratislava’s support for Ukraine during a May 2022 visit to Kyiv, and later in April 2023, in a joint visit with Czech President Pavel.

However, Robert Fico and his SMER party regained power in early elections in September 2023. Fico ran on an illiberal, anti-war platform, mirroring his political soulmate, Viktor Orbán. Since returning to the prime minister’s chair, Fico has kept Brussels guessing on Slovak intentions vis-a-vis EU support to Kyiv with mixed signals regarding the war. On January 20, 2024, Fico stated that Ukraine must give up territory to Russia to end the war, while also stressing his opposition to Ukraine’s membership in NATO.

In October 2023, Polish politics underwent a significant change with the ascension of the former opposition parties to the conservative PiS government. The new centrist government, led by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, initiated a program of “de-PiS-ification” of the country’s media, courts, and economy to align with EU standards. However, Tusk’s regime did not change Poland’s stance on the Russian assault against Ukraine. Despite differing views on many policy areas, both the previous PiS government and Tusk’s coalition agreed on the existential threat posed by Moscow’s revanchist gambit in Ukraine.

As 2024 began, strategic differences reduced the Visegrád 4 to a V2+2, with only Warsaw and Prague remaining unequivocally committed to the Ukrainian cause. Orbán remains Europe’s most prominent opponent to EU policy on the war, but his obstructionist stance has come at the expense of any remaining V4 leadership solidarity. Tusk admonished Orbán for playing “games” with EU financial aid to Ukraine, highlighting the political rupture in the group. Martin Dvořák, the Czech minister of European affairs, stated that the V4 is not politically homogenous and does not have the strength or ambition to participate in negotiations on peace in Gaza or Ukraine.

Despite some V4 accord in opposition to EU policy on the import of Ukrainian grain in the second half of 2023, the strategic underpinnings of the group have been severely weakened by Putin’s aggression. Without a dramatic political U-turn by Orbán regarding the catastrophic war to his east, the deterioration of quadrilateral cooperation in the center of Europe will remain a pernicious consequence of the Kremlin’s military adventure in Ukraine.

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