The Visegrad Group — consisting of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary — will hold its next summit Feb. 15. The grouping, also known as the Visegrad Four, has been around for two decades, but in order to remain relevant and present a united front in dealing with Russia and the European Union, the four members would have to overcome a lack of common interest, a lack of leadership, and a general sense of rivalry and mistrust.
The heads of government of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary will come together for the Visegrad Group summit Feb. 15. The German and Austrian chancellors and Ukrainian Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov will also attend. The occasion gives Stratfor an opportunity to examine the development of the group, its recent evolution and its possible future. Also known as the Visegrad Four (V4), the group's evolution was influenced by several geopolitical forces, especially the Russian resurgence, the growing relationship between Berlin and Moscow, and the overall fraying of Cold War institutions, particularly NATO. However, in order for Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary to present a unified regional grouping on political, security and energy matters, they would have to overcome a lack of coherence as a geopolitical whole, regional rivalries and mistrust.
The Beginnings and Inspiration
The grouping originally called the Visegrad Triangle — Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia formed the group in 1991 — was constituted to encourage mutual development of democratic norms and free-market capitalism in post-Soviet Central Europe. As democratic institutions strengthened and as NATO and EU membership became a clear and realizable objective, achieving membership in the two Western European institutions became the goal of all three and later four countries. (The Visegrad Triangle became the V4 with Czechoslovakia's dissolution into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.) The four countries began to exchange thoughts and notes on best practices that would speed up their bids for membership in the European political and security institutions. Once these goals were achieved, however, the four countries lost focus for the already-loose regional grouping.
Three of the states became NATO members in 1999 (Slovakia joined the alliance in 2004) and all four joined the European Union in 2004. The V4 within a strong and vital European Union meant very little, especially when it never really rose much above a brainstorming meeting to compare notes on getting into NATO and the European Union in the first place. To understand the geopolitical constraints to V4 collaboration, it is useful to examine its historical inspiration. The grouping took its name from two 14th century meetings, held in Visegrad Castle in present-day Hungary, of leaders of the medieval kingdoms of Poland, Hungary and Bohemia — roughly the present-day Czech Republic. The second meeting concluded in the crown union of Hungary and Poland that placed the Hungarian king on the throne of Poland for 30 years.
That in approximately 1,000 years of history the four Central European countries could really only find a single robust example of cooperation upon which to model their 20th century grouping should probably have been a sign that the bonds between the states are weak, despite their geographical proximity. Separating Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia is a major geographic hurdle: the Carpathian Mountains. The Carpathians focus Warsaw's interests and concerns on the North European Plain, particularly down the eastern side of the mountain chain toward Belarus, Ukraine and ultimately the Black Sea. This has led Poland to contest with various Russian political entities in the east when powerful and to deal with both Russia and Germany in the west when weak. Extending its reach down the Morava and Vah valleys toward Vienna is a geopolitical foray that only the most confident of Polish regimes would attempt — as King John III Sobieski did when he liberated the city from an Ottoman siege in 1683. The Czechs and Slovaks are at the mercy of their location at the crossroads between Northern and Southern Europe, which has often meant German domination, either from Vienna in medieval times or Berlin in the early 20th century. As such, they rarely had the luxury of forming their own partnerships, and any thought of collaboration with their Slavic counterparts north of the Carpathians, the Poles, was limited.
That said, Bohemia has throughout its history influenced Warsaw culturally and economically, much more than it has influenced Hungary. Historically, Prague has had to go through Vienna to form links with Budapest, which usually meant a dominant role for Austria. Hungary, on the other hand, is primarily focused on dominating the Pannonian Basin that it inhabits. Its focus is most often directed at Austria, Croatia and Serbia, with concern for Turkey's role in the region. It wants to dominate the lower Danube, and venturing up the Vienna gap toward the North European Plain is inconceivable — and largely useless— as is crossing the Carpathians into the Russian-dominated Ukraine. This means that geopolitically, Hungary's interests rarely coincide with Poland's, except when Russia is strong enough to contemplate crossing the Carpathians and dominating both Hungary and Poland at the same time — which only really happened following World War II.
Furthermore, the Hungarians are not Slavs and therefore share few ethnic and linguistic traits with the Poles and Czechs/Slovaks. Divided by the Carpathians, the Visegrad countries have different areas of focus. This does not mean that they have fought numerous battles against one another — although the Polish-Bohemian rivalry was strong in the early Middle Ages. Rather, it means their geopolitical focus has been concentrated on different enemies and different regions to dominate and contest.
The V4 had a lull in its focus and orientation once the four member countries joined the European Union, completing their integration into Europe's security and political structures. However, following the Ukrainian Orange Revolution in 2004, Moscow began to reassert itself in its sphere of influence and push back against the West's attempts to expand NATO into its former territory. The Russian intervention in Georgia was a clear sign that Russia had returned and that it intended to play a key role in its former Soviet sphere. What was most troubling for the V4 countries was that despite Russia's resurgence, Berlin continued to strengthen its political and economic links with Moscow. This left all four countries feeling that they were largely being isolated, both on political and security matters, between a resurgent Russia and a similarly ascendant Germany looking to maintain close relations with the Kremlin. Furthermore, the 2008 economic crisis — and particularly the unwillingness of Germany and France to bail out the then-troubled Central European economies — was another signal to the V4 countries that the EU heavyweights were not necessarily reliable partners. Subsequently, Germany took control over the European Union during the 2010 sovereign debt crisis, setting up a bailout mechanism for the eurozone states in exchange for promises of fiscal austerity measures. Germany plans to continue to tighten its grip on the eurozone in 2011.
Essentially, the 2008 Russo-Georgian war showed Central Europe that the NATO security guarantee might not be as robust as they thought, and Germany's lack of assistance during the 2008 Central European economic crisis showed that the European Union was not the guarantor of economic prosperity they thought it was. It is in this context that the V4 re-entered the discussion. The four members have identified three main themes within which to cooperate: energy security, geopolitical security and internal EU politics. However, they will still have to overcome their lack of coherent regional interests in order to maintain a common negotiating platform.
- Energy: The one trait all V4 members share is dependence on Russian energy, particularly natural gas. Therefore, they have lobbied the European Union to make Central Europe's energy diversification drive the bloc's main energy policy. The four plan to continue lobbying the European Union to fund the construction of natural gas, oil and power links from Poland to Hungary that would ultimately create a north-south energy infrastructure linking the Baltic Sea with the Adriatic Sea. The first two projects would be linking Polish and Czech natural gas systems, then the Hungarian and Slovak systems would be linked.
- Security: Aside from a memorandum signed in September 2010 on air force training cooperation, there is very little concrete security cooperation among the V4 states. However, there does seem to be a move toward greater cooperation, particularly in the field of procurement, coordinated defense cuts and training. Despite modest collaboration thus far, the latest NATO Strategic Concept presented a lack of coherence in the alliance, putting the onus on regional groupings that share security concerns to strengthen collaboration. The V4 countries are perfect candidates in that all four are committed U.S. allies and view the Russian resurgence with concern.
- EU Relations: Over the past two years, the V4 countries have begun coordinating much more on economic and EU matters. With Hungary and Poland holding the EU presidencies in 2011 — six months each — the V4 will attempt to present a united front on the upcoming 2014-2020 EU budget debate and on how money is proportioned via the Common Agricultural Policy. All four want to see funding continue to new member states in Central Europe and therefore form a relatively united front against Berlin and Paris, which want to see the union transfer less funds eastward.
The Future of Visegrad
Ultimately, the problem for the V4 is not so much mutual suspicion — although certainly it is strong between Hungary and Slovakia due to often contentious relations regarding the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. Rather, the problem is a lack of clear mutual interests. This means that it is necessary to forge common interests at times when none seem to exist.
Although all four countries see Russia's increasing power as a problem, they do so to varying degrees. Hungary is protected by the Carpathian Mountains and therefore has less immediate concern. Slovakia has gone through periods of very close collaboration with Russia — in part the reason for its delayed entry into NATO — and is not as opposed to a strong Russia as the others. Poland is of course the most concerned, but it also understands that the V4 alliance would benefit the other three more than it. Poland needs a strong ally to share security responsibilities with, not three states for which Warsaw itself would be a security guarantor. Poland is concurrently being lured by France and Germany to join the elite of the European Union via a forum called the Weimar Triangle. Warsaw also sees close cooperation with the Nordic countries, particularly Sweden, and of course with the United States as crucial for its foreign policy. All of these alliances are not exclusive, but they do divert the focus from Warsaw's ability to lead the V4. Its dealings with France and Germany could come into conflict with its dealings with the V4. As such, Warsaw could be forced to choose between being part of the European elite and being a leader of Central Europe.
In the past, when offered the choice, Poland chose the former. On economic matters there are also considerable differences in interests. The Czech Republic is far more aligned with Germany on fiscal prudence than with its fellow Central Europeans, but it is also aligned with Warsaw in its suspicion of the euro, which is beginning to irritate Berlin. Slovakia is a member of the eurozone but is also one of the countries most opposed to various eurozone bailouts. Hungary is currently in the poorest economic state of the four, and it generally resents the fact that it lost the economic leadership it had in the region due to the early successes of its immediate post-communist reforms. Ultimately, the four Visegrad countries would have to overcome their lack of leadership to become an effective regional grouping. Whether Poland will take leadership of the bloc in earnest and whether the geopolitical climate remains conducive to further ties among the four countries, especially on security matters, will be key to determining its role in Europe's future.