Russia hardens Visegrad divisions in the Trump-area

These days the Visegrad Four cannot escape the tectonic shifts reshaping the post-war world order. US President Donald Trump has stirred up the delicate issue of Russia within the V4, where Hungary particularly feels emboldened to push for sanctions that have been imposed on Moscow to be lifted.

Wikimedia Commons, Author: The Presidential Press and Information Office

Relations with Russia have been a key sticking point among Visegrad countries.  Generally, while Slovakia and Hungary were seen as more open to stronger ties, partly because of their massive energy dependency on Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic were more worried about strengthening and belligerent power in their neighborhood. So far, however, they have all adhered to the EU sanctions, even if their political rhetoric expressed disdain towards them.

“It is a big deal that the Visegrad Four has been able to put up a united front in the face of the migration crisis, but Russia is an example of the opposite, where V4 cooperation isn’t working,” a senior EU official, not wanting to be named because he lacks the authorization to speak, tells the V4Revue.

Moscow has used its European allies to deepen existing divisions among EU member states and simply weaken the union – whether it be energy dependency or sanctions. And the V4 has not been immune to these divisive efforts – Russia has also further deepened the divisions among the four countries, although “Visegrad,” as a concept means little to them.

“Hungary has always tried to walk a separate track and push boundaries, Slovakia is extremely dependent on Russian energy, the Czech Republic walks a fine line and Poland is paranoid,” sums up the EU official.

He then quips: “It is a small miracle that there was even an agreement on the sanctions against Russia.”

Divided we are

“In the eyes of Kremlin officials, the V4, as a group, does not mean much,” another EU official, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells the V4Revue. “They can use two out of the four – Hungary and Slovakia – to weaken EU cohesion. But the V4 itself is not a target,” he explains, then adding that Russia does not wish to belong to Europe, something he says some German politicians, who try to accommodate Moscow, still don’t understand. The Kremlin’s aim is actually to regain influence in Europe.

An example of that Kremlin divide and rule policy was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest. It was his third meeting with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in three years, and Putin’s first trip to an EU member state since Donald Trump’s inauguration. Following the visit the Hungarian leader criticized EU sanctions against Russia during a joint February 2nd press conference in Budapest. 1

“The western part of [Europe] has manifested a very anti-Russian stance and policies — this is the difficult environment where we’re left defending our policies,” he said.

Both leaders feel emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, who bonded with Orbán over his reputation as the “black sheep” of the political world in their first phone call. 2

Propaganda battles

However, the mood is changing among Visegrad diplomats and EU officials in Brussels.

The Visegrad countries have not escaped Russia’s sizeable efforts to influence political discourse, and through the use of fake news websites and the proliferation of propaganda, the nation has driven in wedges that have divided Europe ever deeper.

It is estimated that Russia allocates at least 1.4 billion US dollars for international propaganda alone. 3

And Europe is ill-equipped to counter the pro-Kremlin propaganda that exploits fears and phobias, while constructing variant narratives that undermine the authority of the mainstream news media.

In September 2015, the EU set up a small task force of 11 people called the East StratCom team to monitor Russian propaganda and to help deliver the EU’s positive message. But the team has no budget of its own, which makes rallying the support for independent media in targeted countries difficult.

Officials in Brussels tasked with monitoring Russian propaganda say the Kremlin’s broad message targeting V4 countries attempts to frame Russia as the real defender of “traditional, Christian European values” against the “deformed, liberal values” of the EU and the West. Officials, unauthorized to speak on the record tell the V4Revue that the Russian propaganda targets issues like gay rights and pro-refugee sentiments.

The officials also say that even the presence of Orbán and Czech President Milos Zeman – both serving as great mouthpieces for Russian anti-EU rhetoric – has not slowed the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts.

Russia has even developed a strategy for Poland, long harboring strong anti-Kremlin sentiment. The Kremlin has taken to exploiting old historical grievances between the Poles and Lithuanians and the Poles and Ukrainians, focusing on controversial issues that create more division. “These are aimed to divide and weaken,” one official says.

Russian propaganda’s effectiveness is difficult to quantify. According to a recent GLOBSEC Trends report, Russia’s interference mostly affects the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, as Poland remains suspicious of anything coming from Moscow. 4

Balazs Jarabik, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells the V4Revue that the regional leaders that support Moscow do not necessarily do it to win favors with Russia, but out of conviction.

“Those who are seen as pro-Russian, like Zeman, Orbán and Fico [the Slovak Prime Minister] are speaking out against the EU just as much. So this equally about the EU,” he explains.

But the propaganda does help reinforce their messages. “These websites have delivered results; fake news has changed how people think about the elite,” says Jarabik, adding, that the Russians are especially skilled at exploiting weak spots.

Being at war

Some members of the European Parliament would like to see the task force turned into an agency, and create counter propaganda-centers in all member states. But political will is lacking. Some member states see it as an interference in independent media, and are reluctant to sanction Russian outlets, one EU official said.

Only the Czech Republic has set up a center with a 20-person staff to counter Russian propaganda; 5 it has already been attacked by the country’s Russian-friendly president, Milos Zeman. “We do not need censorship, we do not need an idea police,” he has said. 6

Recently Jaromir Stetina, a member of the Czech center-right MEP, told members of European Parliament that the EU was at war with Russia. “There are no bombs, tanks or missiles, but we are at war; this is a hybrid war, and disinformation is a part of this hybrid warfare,” he said, adding that Russia’s goal was to destroy the union.

That alarmism is reconfirmed in background discussions.

“Over the last more than 20 years, we have based our policy on Russia’s role as a potential strategic partner. But in the last few years, starting with Georgia in 2008, we’ve begun to see Russia more as a strategic problem,” a senior diplomat from a Visegrad country said in a meeting with journalists.

“Our democratic societies have been unable to define and implement actions that would counter the Russian influence,” he added.

Another V4 diplomat hit a more conciliatory tone, arguing that the EU cannot alienate Moscow: “Russia is here to stay,” he said.

Some are drawing up fatal scenarios, in which the existence of the V4 could be at stake.

Milan Nic, head of the Europe program at the Globsec Policy Institute warned recently that this is part of a wider trend. “Czech and Slovak diplomats have been quietly distancing their countries from the “illiberal Budapest-Warsaw axis,” and Orbán’s hijacking of the Visegrad discourse,” he wrote. 7

This could impact foreign policy as well.

And some warn, it could go even further.

“The characteristic differences with relations to Russia have become stiffer,” Daniel Bartha, director of the Budapest-based Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy, told the V4Revue.  “There is serious debate in the Czech Republic about the existence of the V4 that could push the organization away from Russia. If Hungary insists on close ties with Moscow, it could lead to the disintegration of the V4,” he explains.

As an example, Bartha references the time two years ago, when Orbán neglected to consult with other V4 countries before Putin’s visit, which earned him a rebuff from his Polish friend, Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who was dismayed by Orbán’s close ties with the Russian leader. Bartha also doubts there was any warning to the V4 ahead of Putin’s visit this month as well.

“This could eventually push Poland towards an alliance with the Baltics, and Romania, which are more concerned about Moscow’s policies,” he says.

According to Bartha, if Hungary decides to break with the mainstream EU, withdrawing support for EU sanctions, the scenario is plausible, although diplomats in Brussels still think this unlikely to happen.

But Trump’s presidency could be crucial here. As Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto recently said in an interview: 8

“If there is a positive turn in Russia-US relations, the countries in Europe that have signaled the need for steps forward with Russia-European Union relations, will be much louder and brave. Others will join this side too, if they feel there is no American pressure regarding European sanctions.”

The EU sanctions are up for renewal at the end of July, and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said this is not the time to change the sanctions regime.

The last time EU leaders discussed Russia relations last October, it was Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who was the most vocal in his opposition of lifting sanctions against Russia because the nation was bombing Syrian civilians.

However, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has already declared 2017 “the year of revolt” against the “old European liberal elite,” and he could decide to start by pushing for the EU sanctions to be lifted. Especially if he sees Russian-friendly populists getting strong support from voters across Europe this year, including the Czech Republic.

The outcome of this year’s German elections might also have an impact on how strong the bonds between V4 countries remain, as some may feel more safe drawing closer to Germany. If Angela Merkel stays on, she would certainly act as an anchor. The Social Democratic candidate Martin Schulz has said that sanctions against Russia should only be lifted if the nation adheres to the Minks Agreement, but other leading Social Democrats have voiced their support for a partial lifting of sanctions. 9

A deal between Trump and Putin, seen possibly as a “new Yalta” across Central and Eastern Europe, could even further distance Poland from Hungary. This might push Slovakia and the Czech Republic towards Germany. In 2017, bilateral relations are likely to get stronger at the expense of supranational cooperation, and the V4 will be no exception to this geopolitical trend.

Notes:

  1. “Orban joins Putin in attack on Russia sanctions,” February 3, 2017, http://on.ft.com/2l2ddYD  (accessed February 7, 2017).
  2. “Donald Trump a Fehér Házba invotálta Orbán Viktort,” November 26, 2016, http://bit.ly/2m6xGMw (accessed February 9, 2017).
  3. “Challenging America: How Russia, China, and Other Countries Use Public Diplomacy to Compete with the U.S.” June 21, 2012, http://bit.ly/2lARdXL (accessed February 8, 2017).
  4. “Central Europe under the fire of propaganda: Public opinion poll analysis in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia,” September 7, 2016, http://bit.ly/2ctytT3 (accessed February 8, 2017).
  5. “Czech Republic claims propaganda war by Russia and sets up counter-effort,” October 21, 2016, http://bit.ly/2dtUwrV (accessed February 8, 2017).
  6. “Czech ‘hybrid threats’ center under fire from country’s own president,” http://reut.rs/2lgFlJW (accessed February 18, 2017).
  7. “Milan Nic: Cracks Appearing,” The Berlin Policy Journal, January 10, 2017, http://bit.ly/2lGaCH5 (accessed February 9, 2017).
  8. “Az amerikai–orosz közeledésről tárgyal majd Szijjártó Putyinnal,” Inforadio, January 27, 2017, http://bit.ly/2lp8y3I (accessed February 8, 2017).
  9. “Germany’s Schulz calls Trump ‘un-American’, warns against lifting Russia sanctions,” Reuters, January 31, 2017, http://reut.rs/2kAYPqB  (accessed February 17, 2017).
Eszter Zalán

Eszter Zalán

Eszter Zalan is a reporter at the Brussels-based EUobserver.