Szczerek: Three decades of the Visegrad Group
Visegrad is a slightly ephemeral entity, a quantum-like model and Schrödinger’s cat in one – sometimes it exists, sometimes it does not – it’s hard to tell, really. The interests of individual member states sometimes clash, at other times overlap. Any V4 country can be a ball hog, but regional alliances are also formed in the group. While some members have certain accomplishments, others have not been so successful.
by Ziemowit Szczerek
Hungary is doing quite well, Budapest reaches beyond Visegrad because Viktor Orbán is a man of Mikheil Saakashvili’s proportions: acting in a manner so spectacular that it does not seem to befit the size of the country he governs. They oscillate from one extreme to the other, political gangsters with far-reaching visions. As a result, Hungary seems to be the most active Visegrad country, one that is playing for its own gain, not the collective good. And when it defends others at the EU forum, Poland for instance, it does so for strategic reasons.
For anyone who has envisaged, in any form, Intermarium, or an alliance of Central European countries (the list includes Halford Mackinder, George Friedman, Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves or Micheil Saakashvili) Poland has always stayed at its very centre, the biggest and most powerful country, with well-established and far-reaching traditions of the state. Despite always stressing Poland’s leading role in the Central European alliance, Viktor Orbán has been the tail wagging the dog. He has gone solo, becoming the world’s most important ‘Messiah’ of populist anti-liberalism – the list of those that should be grateful to him includes Salvini, Trump, Putin, Bannon, and even, as some readers might remember, Jarosław Kaczyński with his post-election pilgrimage to be trained in how to take over the state. It was Orbán who imposed the anti-liberal narrative on Europe, it was with him, and not with Warsaw, that Angela Merkel played the Central European game (Polish diplomacy under Witold Waszczykowski at that time was impermeable and sulking, souring relations with all neighbours and allied international organisations, including both the EU and de facto NATO. Now, after Trump’s departure and the inauguration of Biden, a US president who is reluctant to ‘illiberal democracies’, Poland has been left with no significant ally. It was with Orbán that Macron negotiated a potential rapprochement between Central Europe and Russia.
Orbán used Kaczyński mainly as a shield: all the anger of the EU against Central European ‘illiberals’ was to focus on Poland, but the leading role was to be played – and indeed was played – by Orbán. He eventually gave up that role, because it had eroded in a natural process, but continued his stage performance by pairing up with other authoritarians: Serbia’s president Alexander Vučić to the heads of some Central Asian countries.
Visegrad countries do not pursue a common foreign policy. Each of them plays their game with Germany: the Czech Republic and Slovakia (as well as Lithuania and Romania, which are outside Visegrad) told Poland early on that they did not intend to take part in the irrational, anti-German crusade. Although in theory, Visegrad should pursue a common policy towards Russia, the effort, it seems, has produced meagre results: Hungary, and to some extent, the Czech Republic, get along well with Moscow because this plays into the hands of diversifying their geopolitical and economic options, while the populist authorities in Poland, who are supposedly at odds with Russia, de facto serve as (geo)political idiots who force through Moscow’s narrative (populist conservatism, autocratic mechanisms set to replace liberal democracy, party state, etc.), driving a wedge between the countries of the West.
Visegrad was founded to prevent Central Europe from being Metternich’s Mitteleuropa – a group of states deprived of a strong voice in relations with the Western world, having to accept Germany’s economic and political dominance, which in itself would not necessarily be bad, were it not for the fact that from the German perspective, the region would simply be Germany’s hinterland, away from the pivotal point, something of an eternal periphery. And the outskirts of Germany, such as former East Germany, for instance, have not exactly been a success story. They might be one day, but so far they have been viewed as a province with no singular development opportunities.
Yet, Mitteleuropa has not exactly panned out and apart from PiS’s loud complaints and Orbán’s skilful moves, little progress has been made towards the emancipation of Central Europe. The V4, however, have at least politically articulated such need.
This does not mean, however, that there are reasons for distancing oneself from Germany. The Czech Republic’s or Hungary’s culture and economy, their societies, traditions, architecture, are quite well developed because of their tight political, economic and cultural-societal contacts with Germany. If, towards the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern history, Poland had not taken the eastern course, moving closer to Lithuania and Ruthenia, if it had instead become a subject of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, whose name hides nationalistic implications (but only if interpreted from today’s perspective), it would have fared much better. Germany is an old civilisation that has bordered the Roman Empire and drawn from it, and even it did not have the political and economic strength to develop the ‘Lebensraum’ in the east, a direction where the ‘Drang’ was cultivated. And that is why with Poland’s Sarmatia, a power whose strength was based on raw materials, which – like Saudi Arabia – translated into the earnings for the elite but kept the majority of the nation in ignorance and backwardness, a similar effort also failed.
The V4 was supposed to protect us from being sucked in by the East on the one hand and expelled by the West on the other. So far, it has not been effective in that regard.
Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which are former provinces of the Habsburg Empire, naturally gravitate towards Germany, culturally and economically, but their economies draw comparisons to something of a middle-income trap compared to the West. Poland has also fallen victim to that trap but has also pursued a slightly different historical policy towards Germany compared to countries of the post-Habsburg Central Europe, and there is also a problem with one point of reference, namely Russia. In Poland, as in the Baltic states, the fear of real intervention from the east is much greater. Hence, diverse ideas for charting one’s path within V4. Whether its implementation is effective or counter-effective is another matter.
There are, of course, some initiatives in which the V4 countries collectively participate, such as the major undertaking of building the Via Carpathia route, or the Three Seas Initiative that makes a lot of economic sense. It turns out, however, that they are implemented alongside, and not within the V4 group itself.
The V4, of course, has potential and its cogs are turning – heads of state and parliamentary delegations hold meetings, personal and institutional relations have been established, which is extremely important in politics. It is a pity that this effort has not translated into more consistent – and effective – cooperation.
Ziemowit Szczerek is a Polish writer, journalist and traveller, focused on the particularities of Eastern and Central Europe. Author of several novels and non-fiction books. He contributes among others to the Polityka weekly and Nowa Europa Wschodnia.