Russian International Affairs Council
Editorial Board Editor-in-Chief:
I.S. Ivanov, RAS Corresponding Member, Dr. of History
N. Shishelina, Dr. of History (Lead Author and Compiler); A. V. Drynochkin, Dr. of Economics;
L.S. Lykoshina, Dr. of History; Y.A. Scherbakova, Ph.D. in History
I.N. Timofeev, Ph.D. in Political Science; T.A. Makhmutov, Ph.D. in Political Science;
D.M. Khaspekova; M.A. Gurova; A.A. Selezeneva
Russia and the Visegrad Group: The Ukrainian Challenge. Report No. 22 / 2015 / [I.S. Ivanov (Editor-in- Chief)]; Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). Moscow: Spetskniga, 2015. – 72 pages. – The names of authors and editors are listed on reverse of title page.
The Eastern Partnership policy that triggered the Ukrainian crisis has provided ample opportunity to reflect on Russia–EU relations, alongside with evaluating cooperation between Russia and the Visegrad Group countries (also called the Visegrad Four or V4). The Visegrad Four have taken on responsibility for the eastward enlargement of the European Union having become its members.
The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of RIAC.
Any linguistic inadequacies in the publication are the sole responsibility of the translation editors.
Cover photo credits (top down, left to right): REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh; EPA / JAKUB GAVLAK; wikipedia.org
The full text is published on RIAC’s website. You can download the report or leave a comment via this direct link russiancouncil.ru/en/report22
© Authors, 2015
© Drafting, translation and design. NPMP RIAC, 2015
Table of Contents
- Russia, the Visegrad Group and the Eastern partnership Programme (Shishelina L.N.)
- Evolution of the Visegrad Group’s Policy on Ukraine (Shishelina N.)
- Economic Relations between the Visegrad Group and Ukraine (Drynochkin A.V.)
- Ukraineand the Eastern Partnership in the Policy of the Visegrad Region Countries (Shishelina L.N., Lykoshina L.S., Shcherbakova Yu.A.)
- Visegrad–Russian Relations and the Ukrainian Сrisis (Shishelina L.N., Lykoshina L.S., Shcherbakova Yu.A., Drynochkin A.V.)
The Eastern Partnership policy that triggered the Ukrainian crisis has provided ample opportunity to reflect on Russia–EU relations, alongside with evaluating cooperation between Russia and the Visegrad Group countries (also called the Visegrad Four or V4). The Visegrad Four have taken a significant part of responsibility for the eastward enlargement of the European Union having become its members.
After almost a quarter of a century, relations between Russia and the Visegrad Group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) have not evolved as efficiently as Russia’s contacts with each of the group’s member countries. The reason lies above all in the geopolitical nature of the two actors, their potential, goals and tasks. Having launched reforms in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union paved the way for transformations in the Central European countries. However, it subsequently failed to preserve its leadership and prevent regional disintegration in the 1980s. Of course, Russia was not the only player in the region. Since it was not Moscow’s initiative to create the Visegrad Four, its attitude to the Group has been critical.
The European countries and the United States do not perceive the Visegrad Group as a subject or object of modern international relations. However, the United States still considers the Visegrad Group a region of its influence at the former Soviet Union borders. As for the European Union, it has repeatedly demonstrated its concern about the meetings of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic before summits in Brussels, and has delegated some of its projects, like in case of the Eastern Partnership, to the Visegrad Group. The former Soviet Union Republics represent an area of clash of interest. Russia has not yet severed its multiple links with the former USSR republics while the Visegrad Group countries feel responsible for the EU security in the East, alongside with the EU enlargement. This is why bilateral relations between Russia and the Visegrad Group countries can no longer respond to international challenges.
The mission of the Visegrad Group might have consisted in balancing Russian influence in Ukraine.
Ukraine that receives integration impulses from both sides brings together and at the same time separates the Visegrad Group countries and Russia. The mission of the Visegrad Group might have consisted in balancing Russian influence in Ukraine. Each of the Visegrad Group countries had its historical and economic interests in the country, but it was only together that Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic could become an equal and effective partner to Ukraine capable of balancing the “Eastern challenges” emanating from Russia.
Ukraine regretfully could not be turned from an area of confrontation to a space of cooperation that would reflect the interests of all parties to the conflict. Possible causes of the most dangerous European and global conflict of the 21st century might arise from internal problems in Ukraine itself, which has failed to become a politically stable state. Another reason might be the clash of other global powers’ interests in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The 20th century ended with the fall of the bipolar world, the collapse of the USSR, the last global empire and the world socialist system. After a quarter of a century of reforms some transformations, initiated in the late 1980s have not been completed yet. Most probably the Ukrainian conflict represents the final phase of the post-bipolar reshaping of the world order. Russia and the Visegrad Group countries have been caught in the midst of crisis in Ukraine, thus failing to regulate it and becoming victims of its unpredictable development.
Ukraine regretfully could not be turned from an area of confrontation to a space of cooperation that would reflect the interests of all parties to the conflict.
The causes can be found in the traditional clash of the forces of the Sea (Euro- Atlanticism) and the Land (Russia). In that case, the question is whether the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) can be seen as an element of the scenario that provoked a war in the heart of Europe?
Other possible reasons frequently mentioned in the mass media embrace the battle of oligarchies for oil, gas and control over transportation networks and the urge for the democratic transition, which was the key slogan of Maidan.
The latter version, actively promoted today in Ukraine and Europe, can hardly be taken seriously because there were no signs of hatred towards Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych until the third Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. On the contrary, in late November 2013, people gathered on Maidan Square to support the President’s determination to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. If that document had been signed, he would have become the most popular figure in Washington, Brussels and in pro-Western sectors of Ukrainian society.
We should also pay attention to the regional aspect of geopolitics that puts Ukraine’s immediate neighbours – Russia and the Visegrad Group countries – on the frontline.
The Visegrad Group’s relations with Ukraine became a priority back in 2003, when the European Neighbourhood Policy was adopted, and continued in 2009 with the Eastern Partnership policy.
The Visegrad Group’s development and its commitment to further evolution was bound to boost copperation with neighbouring countries. The Visegrad Group’s relations with Ukraine became a priority back in 2003, when the European Neighbourhood Policy was adopted, and continued in 2009 with the Eastern Partnership policy. The argument for putting the EU “Eastern Policy” within the competence of the Visegrad Group was that it was hard to control all the strands of foreign policy from Brussels. The Group being on the Eastern periphery of the European Union was consequently more interested in the security of its borders – the Eastern borders of the European Union – than other countries. Although there were no official resolutions, it was easy to see that the Visegrad Group played a leading role in the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership. It
is enough to recall that the Eastern Partnership summits took place in the capitals of the Visegrad Group countries and the Baltic States, with representatives of those countries and Angela Merkel forming the backbone of EU participation.
A closer look at the Visegrad Group leadership in implementing that programme reveals the leading role of Poland, and an active stand of the Czech Republic.
The special relationship between Poland and Ukraine played a crucial role in the evolution of the Eastern Partnership, alongside with a dislike of Moscow that was partly inherited from pre-perestroika times and was most pronounced during the presidency of Lech Kaczynski. The latter circumstance made first the ENP, and subsequently the Eastern Partnership, hostages to the deep-seated grievances nurtured since the Soviet period of these countries’ history. This is why Russia was never invited to take part in the negotiating process conducted exclusively between the European Visegrad countries and the former Soviet republics. The Visegrad Group countries responsible for the Eastern Partnership initially saw the attitude of the post-Soviet states towards Russia through the prism of their own biased perception. They did not pay attention to studying the complex political, ethno-cultural and socio-economic links between Russia and the former Soviet Union countries. They enjoyed support of the powerful West and counted on it.
Part of the reason for the one-sided view of the situation was Ukraine’s urge for an independent foreign policy. Kiev has persistently declared that it could become a member of the Visegrad Group.1 This made Ukraine the main partner of the Visegrad Group and at the same time a territory for competition between the Visegrad Group and Russia.
The European Union, with its disposition to symbolic actions was likely to expect to add to its list of events in celebration of NATO and the European Union expansion eastward (the 15th and 10th anniversaries, to which we could add the 25th anniversary of revolutions in Eastern Europe) by at least two more. The Vilnius Summit and Ukraine’s signing of the Association Agreement was to be the turning point in the EU policy, marking the tenth anniversary of the ENP and the 5th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership. However, the celebrations did not take place: President Viktor Yanukovych did not sign the Association Agreement. Moreover, massive EU and U.S. support of opposition forces in Ukraine has plunged the country into a geopolitical catastrophe triggered by the uncompromising policy of the Eastern Partnership, which has ignored the multiple Russian–Ukrainian ties.
What has happened as a result of pressure on Ukraine cannot be reversed. However, it is highly important to analyse mistakes to work out possible solutions to the crisis. Russia has made a few crucial mistakes. 24 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has failed to become an attractive alternative centre and to elaborate an effective integration model. This is partly the reason why Russia couldn’t fully estimate the consequences of the Eastern Partnership policy and respond to it either by initiating a similar programme or by insisting on being a party to the solution of Ukraine’s problems. The main lesson Russia should learn from this is that while building its relations with global powers, it should not forget about regional partners – including the Visegrad Group. This is all the more necessary because the Central and East European region has been playing an indisputably important role in Russia’s interests.
Today, much has been said and written about Russia’s supposed interest in the breakup of the Visegrad Group. This was how Vladimir Putin’s visit to Hungary in March 2015 was covered in the media. The rumours that Russia is happy to see discord within the Group is one of those clichés that Europe has never been able to get rid of in its perception of modern Russia.
The aim of this report is to trace the evolution of Russia’s policy towards the Visegrad Group states, to analyse the development of relations in the Russia– Visegrad Group–Ukraine triangle from the emergence of these three subjects to the present time, and to define possible ways of cooperation between them to put an end to the crisis.
The situation around Ukraine, as far as the Russia–Ukraine–Visegrad triangle is concerned, can be described as the most acute conflict of a global exposure in the post-socialist space, and one that has been triggered by a combination of internal and external factors. Not only has it caused severe economic and social damage to the region, but it has also put the slow-moving process of rebuilding relations between Russia and Ukraine, and between Russia and the Visegrad countries, back to square one, not to mention international relations at a higher level.
Ever since the Eastern Partnership became a priority in the eastern policy of the Visegrad Group countries, these countries have effectively been faced with the dilemma of how to reconcile their own national interests in developing cooperation in the post-Soviet space with the general line of the European Union. Some of them understood immediately that the programme was fraught with the potential for a conflict and, as a result, did not see it as a priority in building new relations with Russia and the former Soviet countries. Others, primarily Poland, continued to follow this course almost unconditionally.
In the series of post-bipolar conflicts that began with the war in Yugoslavia, this one is the most difficult to be settled because it directly involves the key players, Russia and the United States. In this situation, the lack of a third party’s potential may play a decisive role in further escalation.
The Ukrainian crisis brought these contradictions to the fore and led to further weakened regional cooperation. However, the main reason was not just the Ukrainian crisis, but the attitude to the anti- Russian policy of the European Union and NATO, and especially towards the sanctions.
Ever since the Eastern Partnership programme was launched, the Visegrad Group – especially Poland – has been the leading European Union advocate of bringing Ukraine closer to the Euro-Atlantic community. Perhaps the supporters of that idea had hoped that, if successful, the 2013 Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit would, first of all, boost the prestige and status of the region so that the countries would be set equally alongside core states of the EU. Secondly, an increase in funding for the Eastern Partnership (which previously amounted to a third of the budget of the Mediterranean Neighbourhood) was also highly desirable. Thirdly, the countries sought to speed up the Visegrad Group’s economic convergence.
This explains why the failure of the Vilnius Summit has come as a hard blow for the Visegrad Group, especially Poland. The setback over Ukraine destroyed the spotless image of the Visegrad diplomacy and tuned down regional politicians’ influence. Most importantly the practicability of increasing investments in the programme of bringing in former Soviet republics was questioned. These investments were distributed mainly through the Visegrad Group countries benefitting their general welfare. This explains the official statement about the need to increase scholarships, grants and boost student contacts and exchange programmes. At the time this statement was perceived as grossly inappropriate given the first hundred victims fallen during the Maidan protests.
As the Ukrainian crisis unfolded, Moscow, Washington and Brussels became more subjective towards crisis management. Thus the Visegrad Group countries exercised “field shuttle diplomacy” to a great extent as their last resort, in spite of the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski’s efforts to initiate meetings of the EU and NATO officials at various levels.
Some of the Western politicians who have learned to appreciate the advantages of a fair and balanced dialogue with Russia over nearly 25 years of successful business cooperation, have started to suggest that the bloody conflict in Ukraine had been sparkled by the inept but very persistent diplomatic efforts of the “European newbies” who tried to demonstrate their superior knowledge of its Eastern partners and Russia. Gradually, voices started to be heard among Western politicians blaming the short-sighted and extremely stubborn policy of Ukraine’s Visegrad and Baltic neighbours for the situation that eventually came to occur in the country, as these countries claimed to have greater knowledge of the post-Soviet space than their partners in the European Union. By signing the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union on the Eastern Partnership fifth anniversary the Visegrad Group also wanted to get back to Russia for historical injustices of the common past.
How can we find the way out? The mechanisms of Russia-Visegrad interaction have not been formed yet, while trust in the potential of the Visegrad Group and the Baltic States to hold a dialogue with Ukraine within the framework of the Eastern Partnership without hurting Russian interests is practically undermined. The Visegrad countries missed the opportunity to take advantage of the favourable moment when Russia’s policies in the region changed at the beginning of the second decade of a new century and have not tried to harmonize their vision, including that of the Eastern Partnership. At the same time, Russian diplomacy was too sceptical about this regional entity, seeing it as a mere derivative of Western policy, and thus did not engage them in an independent dialogue.
Indeed, taking into account major ingredients, Visegrad diplomacy is a unique phenomenon. On the one hand, it is a combination of the foreign policies of four countries, or rather, an attempt to combine their interests. This is the most difficult level, because the national and political interests of the member countries often diverge. On the other hand, the Visegrad Group is an integral part of the European Union and NATO, whose line it must follow. It is increasingly difficult to show independence in such an association, because the implementation of national interests confronts hard frameworks set by the EU and NATO whose policies often differ from one another. We see a mirror situation to the 1990s: having failed to receive new incentives to development within the European Union, these countries are actively looking for them in the East, trying to outdo their rivals. Not surprisingly, they have been able to implement their interests in numerous areas, with Poland’s being mainly in Ukraine together with the United States; Hungary looking further East and focusing on the opportunities of working with Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and China; the Czech Republic seeking to forge links with Austria without disappearing entirely from the post-Soviet market; and Slovakia
being torn between Russia and the Czech Republic. The Ukrainian crisis brought these contradictions to the fore and led to further weakened regional cooperation. However, the main reason was not just the Ukrainian crisis, but the attitude to the anti-Russian policy of the European Union and NATO, and especially towards the sanctions.
But there are deeper levels: general public and ruling elite do not see eye to eye on many aspects; quite vivid interference of Western funds into the Central European countries’ political life through the institutions of civil societies, the organization of protest movements, etc.
As a result, throughout the Ukrainian crisis, the Visegrad Group showed Euro- Atlantic unanimity when adopting official documents but all the while demonstrated dissenting opinion. For example, Hungary is very much concerned that the 160,000-strong Hungarian diaspora living in Subcarpathia may be affected by the crisis. Not all political forces in these countries support the escalation of tensions in relations with Russia and the further “Balkanization” of the Ukrainian conflict. Rational citizens are not looking to fight from the barricades, but aspire for a peaceful settlement to the conflict through parties’ consensus. After a serious disagreement between Hungary and Poland, and the Czech Republic making moves on its own, the Visegrad Group countries are experiencing another period of mutual alienation. How long will it last? And how will the group mark its 25th anniversary in 2016?
Another question arises: Is the situation in the Russia–Visegrad Group all that hopeless? Should Russia, against the background of the Ukrainian crisis, take that regional union into account or continue to ignore it and pursue its relations with each country separately?
Several scenarios are possible, depending on which role this Central European community chooses to play. On the one hand, over the last 10–15 years the Visegrad Group has been content with the favourable development of economic relations with Russia. Strong contacts with Russia gave them extra leverage in negotiations with their Western partners. On the other hand, the Visegrad Group came into being with the knowledge, and even the support, of the United States. Here its place is unique in European politics, similar with the United Kingdom.
Clearly, the circumstances prevent the Visegrad Group from putting forward any initiatives in relations with Russia. However, it could again become a mediator in the regional politics, and Visegrad Europe could in the coming months become an effective forum for consultations and roundtables in search of a way out of the Ukrainian crisis, given the good will of its establishment and a reasonable approach to the situation. Hungary is already considering such an opportunity. Besides, the development of transcontinental cooperation coincides with the logic of both the Visegrad Group’s and Russia’s continental geopolitics and best suits them today.
Therefore, the dialogue between Russia and the Visegrad Group is worth maintaining and developing. Such a dialogue would allow them to work together in search of ways to stabilize Ukraine and strengthen the situation in the region that today is at the crossroads of Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian integration. The Visegrad Group should be interested in this because it would have a chance, first, to fix the blunders made in implementing the Eastern Partnership. Secondly, the Visegrad Group would become the main ground in the Central Europe for the dialogue between Russia, Europe and the United States on the other. And in the future it could possibly play a new Central European role in international politics.
Although the situation is changing rapidly, it is possible to make some forecasts and recommendations concerning the further development of relations in the Russia–Ukraine–Visegrad triangle.
In the short term, the situation within the Visegrad Group itself attracts a number of questions. Poland and the remaining Visegrad countries may differ even further in their approach towards Ukraine. Other countries – notably the Czech Republic – would try to go Southwest towards Austria and Slovenia, thus restoring the outlines of Austria-Hungary, from whose shadow the United States has been trying to pull Europe for a quarter of a century. Here Hungary and Slovakia would certainly back The Czech Republic. The three Visegrad Group countries would be irritated by attempts to force them to move closer to Ukraine because they have repeatedly barred Kiev’s admission, realizing that another big member that sides with Poland could bring the group down. Perhaps the shifting political inclination of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia towards the Southwest will lead Poland to strengthen its military contacts in the Vilnius–Warsaw–Kiev triangle. The aim of creating a joint military group was already declared two years ago and has been implemented during the current crisis. Besides, these are more equal partners who have been close historically, unlike Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which are more similar in various characteristics to each other. Such a delimitation would simultaneously encourage greater regionalization of Ukraine itself, making federalization all the more inevitable forcing its northern regions to determine their stance on the matter. Here much would depend on Belarus.
Russia needs to understand which scenario best suits its geopolitical interests. Then Moscow has to choose partners or at least temporary allies in Central and Eastern Europe.
In midterm, it’s possible to revive four countries’ sound relations because Hungarian–Polish mutual attraction is centuries old. Thus, the Visegrad Group may restore itself in a more robust form due to a deeper interaction with the neighbouring regions of adjacent countries. Here it is worth taking a closer look at Carpathian Europe. In any case, Russia has to be ready now and clarify its official opinion of Central and Eastern Europe. Moscow may build up its authority in the region if it gives the Visegrad Group an opportunity to regain its status, if only as a venue for negotiations on the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis. Meanwhile, this would make up, albeit belatedly for the mistakes of the European Union and the Visegrad Group in ignoring Russia’s interests in Ukraine.
Long term relations between Russia and the Visegrad Group countries will be determined not only by the effectiveness of bilateral relations, but also in cooperation to resolve the multitude of issues surrounding Ukraine. Given that the crisis has already descended into military confrontation, there is little hope for voluntary reconciliation between the east and west of the country. Ukraine needs mediators, and these mediators could feasibly be its immediate neighbours – Russia and the Visegrad Group countries. Russia’s priority is to avoid confrontation between countries under any circumstances. Use-of-brute-force scenario coming true, Ukraine can no longer be a buffer. Reconciliation between Eastern and Western Ukraine is unlikely, as are negotiations with the Visegrad Group in the absence of its immediate supervisors, Germany and the United States. In that case, the Visegrad Group may be given a say in European politics, using its knowledge of the region and helping the parties to find a regionally acceptable solution. Unfortunately, the USA is pursuing quite a rigid policy in the region which constitutes an obstacle. One example is the sanctions against the Hungarian government. By the same token, given the deteriorating political situation and the threat of irrevocably destabilizing Ukraine, its immediate neighbours will begin to understand more clearly the real roles and potential of powers, states and unions in the Ukrainian scenario, and will start to act more decisively and in unison. Russia still has some time to focus on its own development – on mobilizing all internal resources and capabilities. It will allow Russia offer other countries a continental alternative of future development to the Atlantic one. This will present a precious opportunity to stabilize not only Ukraine but Europe in general with a special emphasis on mending Russia-Visegrad relations.