This interview does not represent the opinions of PRINCEPS Advisory.
Is the Visegrad Group a thing of the past? And what can we expect from its members in the future? We discussed this and more with Pavlína Janebová, a foreign policy specialist focusing on Czech policy and relations within the CEE region and the Research Director at the Association for International Affairs. She recently published the Association’s new publication “Trends of V4 States’ Policies in Eastern Europe”.
How would you describe the dynamics of the current relationship among the members of the Visegrad Group?
There is no use in denying that the current atmosphere in the Visegrad group is not the best. In fact, it is arguably one of the worst in the history of the organisation. There has been a lot of talk about it: that the V4 no longer makes sense because Hungary’s interests are diametrically opposed to those of the other members. But while this is true, the members have always had their differences, only less apparent because Russia wasn’t explicitly attacking Ukraine – or at least not on the scale we have been seeing since last February. So yes, the dynamics of the Visegrad relationships are not ideal, but on the other hand, when we look at Central Europe in a broader context and also in the context of the EU, we notice a significant emancipation of the region. It has become the centre of the EU’s Ukraine-related activities, which is currently one of the most important topics the Union is dealing with. The context is terrible, but it has given the region the opportunity to shake off the image it has been carrying in the past years: that of countries that still can’t quite make it to the west.
Will this manifest through the activities of the V4, or would you say that is now a relic of the past?
I don’t believe this will manifest through the V4 because it is blatantly clear that Hungary is headed in the completely opposite direction. But I can see a lot of potential for the independent role of Poland, which views itself as a leader of the region, and given its size and military strength has the potential to become one. I also see its potential for cooperation with Lithuania, the Baltic states, and the Czech Republic.
Would you say that this situation also symbolises the region’s turn towards the west?
The question implies the region’s identity is directed toward the east, which I do not think is true. For example, the Czech Republic is generally dominated by the perception that we belong to the west rather than the east. It cannot be denied that many people here are politically and ideologically leaning eastward or even towards Putin himself. But the official lines of Czech foreign policy have always had a west-leaning identity. We are NATO members, we are EU members. If I am to return to the emancipation of the region, I view that as a reaffirmation of our identity. We are stating that we are here, we have experience with dealing with Russia, and this is how we can contribute to NATO and the EU.
Could you specify how this will manifest on the European level?
This is of course complicated when it comes to Poland, where we have the country’s relationship with Russia and support for Ukraine on the one hand, and the issue of the Polish justice system, media, and rule of law on the other. I am expecting the key manifestation on the European level to be the individual states’ growing confidence, which I believe is key. The question remains, however, whether they will be not only loud enough but also sufficiently constructive and capable of securing the support of their western counterparts.
According to your publication, Hungary is interestingly still dominated by pro-Visegrad sentiment, more so than in the case of the other members. How do you explain this?
We must point out that the respondents in our research were foreign policy elites and had we polled the general public, the results may have been different. But in terms of Hungarian foreign policy, Viktor Orbán’s governments have viewed the platform as a way of influencing the EU with the help of their three partners, who were backing joint positions. This platform was increasingly important for him, given the growing disenchantment of other EU member states with his domestic policies. Realistically, however, there were few shared stances on policies and Orbán mainly relied on good personal relationships with the country leaders, such as Andrej Babiš. As such the V4 also falsely appeared to be a united political bloc to many of its foreign partners.
Do you think the V4 may be in danger of falling into oblivion or complete dissolution in the current situation?
The highest political level of cooperation was inadequately boosted by becoming Orbán’s and Babiš’s private display in the last years. The political level is now at a truly low point, and it seems unlikely that it will be possible to restore bilateral relations between Hungary and the other members on the top political level in the near future. But the V4 is not only about high politics, it’s also about communication among bureaucrats and among civil societies, as well as about the International Visegrad fund, which is the only, albeit very successful institution of Visegrad cooperation. I believe that it will be possible to continue our cooperation on certain joint topics – for example, the question of our joined interest in nuclear energy development. Then again, it is also true that Hungary has commissioned a nuclear power plant from a Russian company with the help of Russian funding, which of course carries security implications. Furthermore, the weakening of the Visegrad cooperation can lead to the development of other bilateral and multilateral partnerships in the region, a positive development for sure. As I have already mentioned, the region’s potential to face the Russian threat and support Ukraine is crucial.
What is the position of the region on support and the later reconstruction of Ukraine?
Based on our research most respondents believe their country should be involved in the reconstruction, which of course is no surprise. I believe it is an important question for the Czech Republic and Poland in particular, who intend to be active in assisting Ukraine not only with the immediate technical side of post-conflict reconstruction but also on Ukraine’s path towards the EU membership, including economic, political and societal dimensions and focusing on sustainability and resilience. But I believe we can expect a large amount of initiative from the region in this respect, not only from the V4 countries but also from the Baltics. The discussions have been ongoing and involve various actors. It is clear that in the long term, the process of the reconstruction of Ukraine also brings opportunities for individual countries’ business sectors, and it will be crucial to find the right fit and apply specific skills and experience in a suitable area. For financial reasons, convincing western partners and the EU as a whole to get involved will also be important of course.
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