THE WARSAW INSTITUTE REVIEW

Date: 24 September 2018    Author: Piotr Bajda, PhD

The Visegrad Group in the security architecture of Europe

While attempting to understand the role of the Visegrad Four (V4) in the security policy of Central Europe or, more broadly – the North Atlantic Treaty, it should not be forgotten that the Visegrad Group is a strictly political and not defensive project.

Strbske Pleso, Slovakia, October 11, 2018. Polish President Andrzej Duda (L), Hungarian President János Áder (2L), Slovak President Andrej Kiska (2R), and Czech President Miloš Zeman (R) during the official welcome ceremony in front of Grand Hotel Kempinski, where a two-day summit of V4 Presidents was held.

This was the case when the project originated, and this is how it is now. However, this does not mean that cooperation within the Visegrad format has no impact on the security policy in the region. In fact, it is quite the opposite: the Visegrad Group is a kind of political core of Central Europe, and the agenda of meetings in the framework of the annual V4 presidency of particular states has a visible impact on the discussions about the security policy in Europe, though perhaps not in the hard, defensive dimension, but undoubtedly in what we call soft power.

This dimension of soft security was at the origin of the Visegrad Declaration signed in February 1991. Today it is hard to imagine Central Europe without the Visegrad Group, but this was not so when the process of political transformation began in our region. The main initiator and author of the project of the founding documents was the then president of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, who – as befits an author of theatre plays – knew how to assign new political roles to particular states in the region. But his first concept, announced in Bratislava in April 1990 at a meeting with representatives of new Hungarian and Polish political elites, was the division of the region into the North and the South. According to Havel’s concept, the real Central Europe was supposed to include the states of the Danube region, in the Adriatic Basin, and the task of Warsaw in this project was to organise an alliance around the Baltic Sea, together with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia who were at that time fighting for their independence[1]. The scenario drawn up by the Czechoslovakian president was not a sign of dislike towards Poland; after all, Havel had plenty of friends there, which he mentioned in February 1990, during a speech in the Polish parliament – but rather a result of the assessment of the international situation. In the mid-1990s it was not certain how the process of dismantling the Eastern Bloc would go, what would be the result of the process of the reunification of Germany and with what borders, and whether the Red Army would peacefully leave East Germany and Poland. In this situation, it was safer for Havel to propose an alliance of small Central European states, leaning on Austria and based on the alliance with Italy. It was supposed to protect Prague from a geopolitical storm. The president of Czechoslovakia was therefore concerned about the security of his own state when he was presenting his ideas in Bratislava.

A year later, at a meeting in the Castle of Visegrad, things were no different. Havel was aware of the progressing decomposition of the USRR, growing ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia, and, what is more – of the lack of interest of Vienna to play a more significant role in stabilizing the area of the old Habsburg monarchy. In this situation Poland, which had just signed a border treaty with Germany, became a more attractive partner. Otherwise the only alliance left for Prague would be Hungary, dreaming about building autonomy for Hungarians living in neighbouring countries, including those in south Slovakia. This is why in the following stage Havel proposed the cooperation of three Central European states, which resulted in signing the Visegrad Declaration in February 1991. The above-mentioned document should be closely examined because of two reasons. Firstly, due to the title, which emphasizes the goal of this initiative: a namely, a common goal towards achieving European integration[2]. The second significant detail was a specific character of the new structure of this form of regional cooperation. From the very beginning, Havel assumed it would not be a new international organization of any kind, but rather a loose form of political cooperation between the three states. This is how he wanted to avoid the danger of the new structure being dominated by the biggest state, Poland, and of Warsaw forcing its agenda on it. The rule of consensus that was accepted resulted in smaller countries feeling safe and equal.

The most significant result of the rising of Visegrad Group, however, was the creation of an area of relative security and the setting up of a regional structure which was a credible partner for Western capitals. Rather than follow the Yugoslavian scenario of ethnic conflicts and generate further tensions, the three Central European states declared their intention to cooperate. Looking at historical animosities, one may have been surprised by this. Common experiences and a unity of principal objectives, emphasized during the Visegrad summit, were a smart use of a communication code which was clear to Western politicians. This is how the Visegrad Group filled the geopolitical void after the fall of the Berlin Wall, proving to European institutions and the most powerful European capitals that there is a regional political centre behind the eastern border of Germany which is ready to accept the Western model of action. Therefore, the motto of returning to Europe was not included in the title of the Visegrad Declaration on purpose. And as for the then European institutions and Western capitals the establishment of the V4 was a relief; instead of a new problem there was a chance for dialogue between partners and stabilization in a strategic region.

There was also an unexpected result from establishing the Visegrad Group in 1991. Thanks to the initiative of Havel, the term “Central Europe” made its way back into the political science vernacular. A new, local and original initiative was placed on the old, Cold War division between the East and the West. An additional result was in the creation of an independent political centre. This was rightly predicted by Karl Schlögel, professor at the Viadrina European University who noted that Germany will be “ousted” from Central Europe and that decisions will be taken independently in Warsaw, Prague or Budapest. The day before the V4 entered the EU he wrote: “Central Europe is not a utopia, not an idea or fiction, but a fact which can be discovered by any interested person – it is a historical and very cohesive land”[3]. I dare say that the Visegrad Group strongly contributed to this statement and to a certain political independence of Central Europe.

This sense of independence of the V4 had to be dealt with during quite turbulent times. Apart from the final act of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in Belarus (December 1991), Czechoslovakia was also divided (January 1993). For many Western observers, who looked up to Havel, this came as a big surprise. Only few had actually taken into consideration Slovak aspirations and fears, which were best illustrated by Ján Čarnogurský – former dissident and prime minister of the Slovak republican government at that time – in an interview for PAP (Polish Press Agency) in 1991 about the Slovak people’s desires to have their own star on the European flag[4]. Nevertheless, it was not the dissolution of Czechoslovakia which represented the most important test in the early years of the V4. A more severe crisis happened between 1993 and 1998, when the leaders of the newly created independent Slovakia and Czech Republic, in order to emphasize their underlying differences, rejected the Central European identity they had previously declared. Vaclav Klaus, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, declared that the Czech people are a bastion of Western civilization in the Central European desert[5], while one of the closest advisers of Vladímir Mečiar, the head of the Slovak government, declared that the Slovak people are the only bridge between the East and the West[6].

Hungary, Visegrad, February 15, 1991. A summit in Visegrad, trilateral talks: Czechoslovakia’s delegation (L), Poland’s delegation (C), Hungary’s delegation (R).

However, already in 1998 The Visegrad Group turned out to be an exceptionally useful and effective tool. As a result of Slovakia becoming internationally isolated during the rule of Mečiar, Bratislava was rejected from the group of the first candidates invited to join the European Union and NATO. There was therefore a threat that a black hole would appear in Central Europe – a state which would be a grey area of security, and, in addition, separating Hungary, about to join the North Atlantic Treaty, from other members. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the cabinet of Mečiar was given a particularly warm welcome in Moscow, where ideas of some politicians from the government coalition that Bratislava should declare neutrality were much anticipated[7]. There is no space for a more profound analysis on this particular matter, but it is clear that for the Russians, Slovakia was the last chance to halt the process of NATO enlargement or to marginalize the Central European coalition – the Visegrad Group.

However, the V4 turned out to be an instrument worth maintaining, a form of cooperation which had the power of mobilization in breakthrough situations. The first depiction of this phenomenon was perhaps the diplomatic support given to Slovakia on the international scene. When the government of Mačiar was ousted from power, it was under the aegis of the Visegrad Group that Bratislava was given the perspective of membership negotiations with the EU and NATO. Thanks to the diplomatic support of the Central European states and to the resumption of the Visegrad cooperation, Slovakia, until recently an isolated state, entered the European Union together with other Visegrad states, as well as NATO – with a slight delay, in the second wave of enlargement in 2004.

This lesson of Visegrad solidarity in the face of Slovakia’s struggles, as well as the adopted mechanisms of institutionalization of the Visegrad cooperation (annually rotating presidency, creating the V4+ format and establishing the International Visegrad Fund[8]) raised the overall level of attractiveness of the Visegrad Group. It should not therefore have come as a surprise when new candidates started applying for V4 membership. This was the moment when the Visegrad states’ leaders took a decision which may have been difficult to understand at first. The goal of each organization is to strengthen its position, and its attractiveness is defined by the number of applicants for membership. However, with Lithuania, Slovenia and Romania applying for membership, the Visegrad Group decided not to expand and proposed the V4+ format to all of the parties interested in cooperation. There were two principal reasons for this decision. First and foremost, this self-limitation was due to security reasons. The V4 feared that accepting new members could create an impression that the intention of Warsaw or Prague is to build an alternative political centre or an alternative defensive alliance, which could be used by others. The ultimate aim of the V4 states was always to be stronger within the European Union and NATO, and not outside these structures. The second reason for the decision was tactical; it was in the best interests of the small Visegrad states to maintain the exclusive status of being a founding member. In other words, if the V4 accepted Romania or Lithuania, the presence of the founding members would become blurred, and their position – weakened. Among all V4 states, it was the smallest, Slovakia, which cared the most about the exclusive membership status. This was largely due to  the benefits this provided to the country’s image and the opportunity for it to represent the Visegrad Group in the European Monetary Union, as it was the only V4 state to have adopted the euro when it did in 2009[9].

The contemporary role of the V4 in the security architecture of Europe can still be discussed, as the Visegrad Group was not dissolved the moment the Central European states entered the European Union. In theory, the task of the V4 included in the Visegrad Declaration was in greater cooperation towards European integration. This aim was accomplished in 2004. There could be no objections when the leaders of the Visegrad states announced the success of the project on 1 May 2004. Nevertheless, a couple of days after the greatest enlargement of the EU, the leaders of the V4 met in the lovely Czech town of Kroměříž and decided to continue regional cooperation in the Visegrad format. In the announcement published after the meeting, they emphasized their satisfaction with achieving the main aim, but that they had also decided that the Visegrad cooperation ought to be continued for the sake of strengthening Central European identity. The Kroměříž Declaration includes a statement that the unique experience of the V4 should be used to continue the process of EU enlargement with other Eastern and Southern European states[10]. It was the eastern and the southern neighbourhood that made up one of the principal areas in which the V4 states wanted to work and contribute their added value to the entire European community. And indeed, from that moment on, meetings of the leaders of the V4 states with the leaders of the Western Balkans or the Eastern Partnership became almost obligatory in the program of each Visegrad presidency. For a long time before it became popular in Brussels, the idea of a Western Balkan EU enlargement was largely promoted by the Visegrad politicians. It should however be emphasized that this engagement for the stabilization and Europeanization of the Western Balkans was often met with the approval of EU or Western states leaders. It relieved them from actually taking care of this subject, which for many capitals was not a priority. As a result, many Czech of Slovak diplomats were given community tasks in this region, for instance the present Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, who on behalf of the EU was responsible for organizing an independence referendum in Montenegro (2006), and between 2007 and 2009 was the EU High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Visegrad cooperation can also be perceived as the inspiration of a new regional project – Three Seas Initiative. The frequently used V4+ format contributed to meetings of representatives of Northern and Southern Europe, at various levels and under the Visegrad aegis.

And yet, despite so many initiatives stabilizing the immediate surroundings of the European Union, the Visegrad Group was recently perceived by many as the main obstacle for the new migration policy. The objection of the V4 states to accept migrants on a mass scale became almost a trademark which strongly polarized the EU members. Over time, the policy of Visegrad states to seal the external borders of the community and to preserve the attainment of the Schengen zone was in the most part considered the right approach. However, the fact that the European outskirts broke ranks of the decisions taken by the most powerful capitals was regarded by Brussels almost as a rebellion, hence threatening them with withdrawing European funds or imposing financial penalties for not accepting refugees.

For new, small members of the European community, the Visegrad Group is a chance to express their fears under the auspices of a recognizable regional structure. However, due to the fact that actions of the Visegrad Group often irritate Brussels or powerful Western capitals, the potential of the format of this cooperation is not fully used. Nevertheless, the V4 has naturally become the region’s main political centre; if not governing, then certainly organizing the outskirts of the European Union, which stabilizes the European neighbourhood and advocates for the soft Europeanization of these states (the Western Balkans, the Eastern Partnership).

From the perspective of Warsaw, the Visegrad Group is one of the most important instruments in Polish foreign policy in two ways. The principal dimension concerns European politics. The V4 considerably strengthens the position of particular Central European states in key areas.  It is mostly thanks to efficient Visegrad cooperation that the club of “Friends of Cohesion” was established during negotiations on the last multi-annual EU budget. The second aspect relates to regional dimension of Polish foreign policy. The occasion when the opinion of Budapest, Prague or Bratislava on a given issue varies from that of Warsaw is not unprecedented. Probably the most visible difference is the policy towards the Russian Federation. Moscow has succeeded in building strong and influential pro-Russian communities in smaller Visegrad states. The framework of this article does not allow for a more profound analysis of the roots of these pro-Russian attitudes, which vary greatly among the states. In the Czech Republic or in Slovakia they are deeply rooted in history and are built on the idea of Pan-Slavism, while in Hungary it is a decision of the political leaders, who perceive a close relationship with Russia mostly as a chance to carry out lucrative business projects and who do not consider Russian policy as a threat to international order. There is an analogical difference of opinion between Warsaw and other Visegrad capitals when it comes to relations with Ukraine. For Slovakia it is mostly a partner in the transit of Russian energy fuels, for Budapest – a state discriminating against the Hungarian minority living in Zakarpattia, and for Prague – a secondary partner. Despite different opinions on such sensitive issues, it is most often thanks to Polish initiatives that Ukrainian leaders are invited to Visegrad meetings, while the International Visegrad Fund has a program of support for the Eastern Partnership states. It is hard to specify to what extent coexistence within the V4 contributed to the fact that our partners did not strongly object to the program of the pronounced presence of NATO troops on the Eastern flank or that all they did was to declare that they are not interested in hosting alliance troops on their territory.

The Visegrad Group is therefore not a perfect structure of regional cooperation of regional cooperation, but it is a proven instrument, so there is no urge to replace it with something else. For all four capitals it constitutes an important an important tool in their respective national foreign policies. The V4 – despite being mostly a strictly political project – contributes importantly to building regional and European security. In addition, it creates an environment in which the partners trust each other, and which positively influences relations with direct neighbours of the EU in the Western Balkans or with the states participating in the Eastern Partnership.

 


[1] President Havel wanted Czechoslovakia to be a kind of keystone between the two subregions – that is how he wanted to make Prague the indispensable element of cooperation for each of the two projects. Text of the speech: Projev prezidenta ČSFR Václava Havla na setkání představitelů Polska, Československa a Maďarska, Bratislava 9 dubna 1990, http://vaclavhavel.cz/showtrans.php?cat=projevy&val=318_projevy.html&typ=HTML (accessed on: September 8, 2018).

[2] Exact title: Declaration on Cooperation between the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, the Republic of Poland and the Republic of Hungary in Striving for European Integration, http://www.visegradgroup.eu/documents/visegrad-declarations/visegrad-declaration-110412 (accessed on: September 8, 2018).

[3] K. Schlögel, Środek leży na wschodzie. Europa w studium przejściowym [The centre is in the East. Europe in a temporary stadium]. Warsaw 2005, p. 73.

[4] Czechoslovakia: interview with the PM of Slovakia, „Przegląd Międzynarodowy – Dodatek Tygodniowy PAP” [International Review – PAP Weekly Supplement] no. 1189, from July 13, 1991.

[5] After: B. Doležal, Niebezpieczne zaszłości [Dangerous animosities], „Gazeta Wyborcza”, July 27, 2000, p. 12.

[6] R. Chmel, Poslední rusofili strednej Európy, „OS – Občianska spoločnosť”, no. 2/2007, p. 22.

[7] More about the Russian support for the Mečiar government in: P. Bajda, Elity polityczne na Słowacji. [Political elites in Slovakia] Kręta droga do nowoczesnego państwa [Winding road to a modern state], Warsaw 2010, p. 108–115.

[8] In 2000, the V4 defined the mechanism of presidency from July to June of the following year, in the following order: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic. Also, the V4+ format gives a lot of freedom to invite third states to meetings in the Visegrad format; there are annual V4+Western Balkans meetings, and V4+Japan, V4+Germany and France summits were also organized in this format. The International Visegrad Fund is the only institution which joins all the four states under a formal agreement, in the framework of which a sort of foundation was established, to sponsor projects allowing for connecting and cooperation in various areas and formulas (NGOs, local government, schools and universities).

[9] More about the V4 role in the strategy of Bratislava in: P. Bajda, Małe państwo europejskie na arenie międzynarodowej. Polityka zagraniczna Republiki Słowackiej w latach 19932016 [Small European country on the international scene. Foreign policy of the Slovak Republic in 1993–2016], Cracow-Warsaw 2018, p. 251–260.

[10] Declaration of Prime Ministers of the Czech Republic, the Republic of Hungary, the Republic of Poland and the Slovak Republic on cooperation of the Visegrad Group countries after their accession to the EU, http://www.visegradgroup.eu/2004/declaration-of-prime (accessed on: September 10, 2018).

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