More than just partners: What does Ukraine want from the Visegrad Group?

Ukrainians would like to see a more united Visegrad Four, but it seems that it is the Baltic Four who are standing up to this desire with more determination.

Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland


Since the late 1990s, Ukraine has attached great importance to its partnership and cooperation with the countries of the Visegrad Group (V4). Given geographic proximity, close historical and cultural links coupled with the common challenges of the post-Soviet political and economic transformations, it was only natural for independent Ukraine to seek close ties with its western neighbors – not only bilaterally, but also in sub-regional multilateral forums like the Visegrad Group+ and the Central European Initiative.

Over the last decade Ukraine’s politicians and publics have seen the V4 countries as role models of democratic reforms and friendly supporters of Ukraine’s European aspirations. Poland’s mediation efforts during the 2004 Orange Revolution and the Czech Republic’s support of the Ukrainian opposition in its struggle with Yanukovych’s increasingly anti-democratic regime were widely praised and welcomed actions.

Yet, the V4’s commitment to democracy promotion in Eastern Europe and unequivocal support of the EU’s Eastern enlargement gradually eroded and now is something that can no longer be readily taken for granted. The Euromaidan protests in Ukraine inspired little V4 interest, apart from Poland’s strong individual presence. Furthermore, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent aggression in Eastern Ukraine seriously challenged the unity and coherence of the V4 as an entity, and caused its member’s common interests and values to be questioned.

Once strongly united around the goal of EU and NATO accession, the four Central European countries – Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – demonstrate different, sometimes completely opposite, assessments and understandings of the war in Eastern Ukraine, and how best to deal with the largest security crisis in Europe since the Balkan wars.

The V4’s responses and the Ukrainian perception

Of the four members of the Visegrad Group, Hungary is certainly the odd one out. Budapest is facing increasing isolation within the EU due to continuous setbacks of their democratic standards, with Prime Minister Orbán openly questioning the value of democracy and praising alternative models of governance, such as the ones currently in place in Russia and China. 1 In Ukraine, PM Orbán is undoubtedly viewed as one of “Putin’s friends,” and in May 2014, in the midst of Moscow’s meddling in Eastern Ukraine, he called for the autonomy of Ukraine’s 150,000-strong Hungarian minority, and the federalization of the country.

This has provoked Ukrainian resentment and was perceived by many Ukrainian policy-makers as a stab in the back, orchestrated behind the scenes by Putin. One of the leaders of the governmental coalition to the Ukrainian Parliament, Serhiy Sobolev, called for a firm high-level response: “It is one thing when similar statements come from Jobbik party, which forms only 8% of parliament. This is the position of Jobbik party. But when it is put forward by the prime minister, whose party controls two-thirds of the votes, it is on a totally different level.” 2

The Czech President, Milos Zeman, has earned himself an equally poor reputation in Ukraine. In several public appearances, Zeman criticized the Euromaidan political protests, arguing that Ukraine should be a non-aligned country, suggesting that Kyiv should not have illusions about Crimea’s return to Ukraine. In a ruthless manner in November 2014, the Czech President called Europe’s economic support of Ukraine nonsense, which according to him did not take into account the country’s ongoing civil war.

Given that Zeman’s statements heavily resembled Russia’s official line on Ukraine, with some openly being endorsed on Twitter by Russian Member of Parliament, Alexey Pushkov, the level of public resentment in Ukraine was high. Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the statements “unacceptable” and asked the Czech Ambassador for an explanation. 3 Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of Crimean Tatars, took to social media reminding his followers that he spent three years in a prison because he protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Against this backdrop, Zeman’s calls to shelve the issue of Crimea looked cynical at best. Dzhemilev’s quote later reappeared on several posters and billboards in the streets of Prague.

Yet, the Czech Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, publicly distanced himself from the President’s stance on Ukraine and Ukrainian diplomats reiterated that it is the position of the Czech government that is taken as a reference point in the relations with Prague. 4 The government and especially the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Lubomir Zaoralek, seem to counterbalance Zeman’s team well by pledging support to Ukraine and not opposing (but also not actively promoting) sanctions against Russia.

The war in Ukraine triggered similar internal divisions in Slovakia. The leader of the center-left government, Robert Fico, threatened to block extensive EU sanctions on Russia due to national economic interests. 5 Slovakia is one of the few EU countries that is fully dependent on Russian gas imports, and at the same time greatly values the Russian export market for its industrial goods. Fico also echoed Zeman in his rejection of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations and his avoidance of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. 6 However, Fico’s presidential loss last year to pro-Ukrainian, Andrej Kiska, was perceived as the sign of a wider public disagreement with the Slovak government’s position on the Russia-Ukraine confrontation.

Poland is by far the only country of the V4 that demonstrates the most consistent support of Ukraine. Warsaw played a key role in introducing restrictive economic measures against Russia following the downing of the MH17, and is currently a leading actor within the EU that advocates for the deepening of the sanctions regime. Polish leaders argue that the EU and US should present a “new Marshall Plan” for Ukraine and on several occasions reiterated Warsaw’s readiness to provide military aid to Kyiv. Former Polish Foreign Minister, Radoslav Sikorski, together with his German and French counterparts, played a crucial role in brokering a deal between Ukraine’s ousted President Yanukovych and the opposition, which helped to stop violence against Euromaidan protestors. Yet even in the case of Poland, observers point to an expected difference in the level of international pro-Ukrainian activism to be performed by the current governmental tandem team of Kopacz-Schetyna in comparison to Tusk and Sikorski. 7

The Visegrad Group in a search of added value

The Visegrad Group’s varying positions on Ukraine and the internal divisions in some of the V4 countries caused by Russia’s belligerence, certainly preclude the effectiveness and credibility of the group as a united actor. In fact, the current discrepancies reflect a broader distribution of views within the EU, with Hungary matching up with Greece and Cyprus forming a pro-Russian wing, while Poland joins the Baltic countries on a strongly pro-Ukrainian line and the Czech Republic and Slovakia fall somewhere in between.

Yet it would be premature to dismiss the V4’s relevance altogether. Ukrainian officials argue that when it comes to Ukraine’s western neighbors, rhetoric and action should be kept apart, as even those V4 countries with the most “‘unfriendly” language did not turn their backs on Ukraine in practice.

Slovakia, for example, managed to maintain the reverse gas flow to Ukraine from the EU in spite of enormous pressure and lobbying from Gazprom, and halted gas imports from Hungary resumed in January. Both countries, together with Romania and Bulgaria, have announced their intention to build an Eastring pipeline that will improve the interconnectedness of their gas transport infrastructures and will connect them to Ukraine’s pipeline system. As of today, such gas flows coming from V4 territories have reduced Ukraine’s energy dependence on Russia by at least half, making it more difficult for Putin to play the “energy blackmailing card” as a part of his hybrid warfare strategy.

Ukraine holds that despite all the differences in declarations, a united stance of the Visegrad Group, as well as of the EU, is a high priority, as the alternative implies a number of weakened small countries easily divided and played against each other by the Kremlin. In December 2014, the V4 and Ukraine held a joint summit in Kyiv that resulted in a strong communiqué and several concrete initiatives. 8 The V4 countries pledged to create a special fund aimed at supporting Ukraine’s closer integration with the EU. 9 They also agreed to step up their efforts in helping Ukraine to implement the reforms stipulated by the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and to supervise the progress in specific sectors and areas: Slovakia will observe the energy policy field; Poland will share best practices in the area of public administration reform; the Czech Republic will take over the civil society sector, education and media; while Hungary will provide input in restructuring the economy and developing small and medium enterprise.

Furthermore, Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko signaled the willingness to participate in permanent cooperation and coordination mechanisms with V4 countries, effectively transforming the V4 into V5. 10 This last move can be interpreted as Kyiv’s attempt to revitalize the V4’s internal consensus, built around the common goal of Ukraine’s membership in the EU.

The Baltic Four: a growing alternative to the Visegrad Four?

The technical cooperation, infrastructural project implementation and cross-border economic activity have been at the heart of the V4’s activities in the past. There is no doubt that Ukraine needs the V4’s experience, expertise and best practices in a whole variety of fields in order to set out strongly on the reform path. These ideas are not new and have been floating around for more than 10 years since the V4’s accession to the EU.

In the current circumstances of the eroding post-Cold War security order in Europe due to Russia’s violations of the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, the Paris Charter and the breach of its own security guarantee that it gave to Ukraine under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, it is Ukraine’s survival that is at stake. Kyiv therefore requires efforts that go beyond technical cooperation; it needs high-level political coordination, including diplomatic and military support, something that the V4 is not able to currently deliver due to political cleavages within and between its members.

The Ukrainian expert community seems similarly skeptical about the V4’s potential to become a driving force in defending Ukrainian interests in international forums. In June 2014, the Institute of World Policy conducted an opinion poll among Ukrainian experts asking them to evaluate each EU member state’s individual support of Ukraine. Of the 28 EU members, Poland scored the highest, followed by Lithuania and Sweden. The other three countries, which made up Ukraine’s top six EU “allies”, were Latvia, the UK and Estonia.

Among V4 countries, the Czech Republic was ranked the 7th, Slovakia 9th, while Hungary appeared as 19th. 11 Another expert survey performed by the same institute revealed that the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite, was considered the top international lobbyist for Ukraine in 2014 due to her active involvement in countering the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign. 12

It seems that the vacuum created by a lack of political cooperation among the V4 countries regarding Ukraine is increasingly getting filled by the activities of the B4, or Baltic Four. Indeed, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia appear to have a united stance on the need for tough sanctions against Russia and follow a consistent policy line of extensive diplomatic and financial support of Ukraine. Even on the controversial issue of arms supplies for Kyiv, the positions of the B4 seem to converge, while the members of the V4 find themselves far apart.

Poland and Lithuania took a lead in creating a joint Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian brigade that can serve as an important stepping-stone for the modernization of Ukraine’s armed forces. While Latvia, in its capacity as holder of the EU Presidency, is actively implementing the creation of an EU-wide Russian speaking broadcast channel to counterbalance the heavyweight presence of Moscow-dominated media outlets.

The four Baltic countries have also raised strong voices in favor of stepping up NATO’s military capabilities and training exercises on their soil, which is currently being implemented as an outcome of NATO’s Summit in Wales. It remains to be seen as to what extent this growing Baltic coalition will supplement or supersede the Visegrad Group in pursuing the ambitious EU and NATO policy actions in Ukraine.

Notes:

  1. András Rácz, “From pragmatism to bear hug: Hungary´s Russia policy on the eve of the Ukraine crisis”, V4revue, December 29, 2014, accessed April 07, 2015. 
  2.  “Соболев: Парламент даст свою оценку заявленим Орбана” (Sobolev: Parliament will respond to Orban’s statements), May 13, 2014, accessed April 07, 2015. 
  3.  “До МЗС України було запрошено Посла Чеської Республіки в Україні Івана Почухa” (Ukraine’s MFA called Czech Ambassador Ivan Pocuch), November 20, 2014, accessed April 07, 2015. 
  4.  “Щодо висловлювань Президента ЧР Мілоша Земана” (Regarding the expressions of Czech President Milos Zeman), January 05, 2015, accessed April 07, 2015.
  5.  Jan Lopatka and Martin Santa, “Slovakia nurtures special ties to Russia, despite EU sanctions”, Reuters, May 22, 2014, accessed April 07, 2015. 
  6.  Benjamin Cunningham, “Fico balks at Ukraine NATO membership”, The Slovak Spectator, December 8, 2014, accessed April 16, 2015, ; “Slovakia doesn’t condemn Russian invasion of Crimea”, Prague Post, March 10, 2014, accessed April 16, 2015. 
  7.  Annabelle Chapman, “Goodbye to Poland’s Hawks”, Foreign Affairs, October 3, 2014, ccessed April 07, 2015. 
  8.  Joint Statement of the Visegrad Group and Ukraine, December 16, 2014, accessed April 07, 2015. 
  9.  “Заступник Голови Верховної Ради України Оксана Сироїд у вівторок зустрілася з міністрами закордонних справ держав Вишеградської четвірки” (Deputy Head of Ukraine’s Parliament, Oksana Syroid, met on Tuesday with the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the Visegrad Four), December 16, 2014, accessed April 07, 2015. 
  10.  “President of Ukraine has held a meeting with the Visegrad Group delegation”, December 16, 2014, accessed April 07, 2015. 
  11.  “Who is Our Friend in the EU?“, Institute of World Policy, June 20, 2014, accessed April 07, 2015. 
  12.  “Top-10 Ukraine’s Promoters in the World 2014”, Institute of World Policy, January 30, 2015. 
Iulian Romanyshyn

Iulian Romanyshyn

is a Visiting Researcher at the Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and a PhD candidate in political science at IMT Institute for Advanced Studies Lucca.