Russia, Ukraine and the Visegrad: Time to get real

The Ukrainian crisis exposed insecurities in the Visegrad. Not only due to ambivalence in foreign policy, but because it has highlighted similarities in domestic issues that led to Ukraine’s unraveling. Unless there is a correction in institutional behavior and a renewal of citizens’ trust, the golden age of Central Europe may be over. It is also time to realize that our policy towards Ukraine and Russia should not be driven by our own insecurity but by the reality on the ground.

Photo: The National Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945

Twenty-five years after the democratic overhaul the Visegrad countries seem helplessly divided on Russia, its role in Ukraine and its potential imperialistic plans. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and obvious support of the pro-Russian insurgency in Eastern Ukraine have sounded security bells in the Baltics and Poland. In their view, a new cold war is already heating up.

In the Visegrad, Poland was alone in its alarmist position – 78% of Poles believe that Ukrainian crisis poses a threat to their country’s security, and 69% think that imposing tougher economic sanctions on Russia is the answer. Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary first opposed, but then reluctantly agreed with Western policy makers that sectoral Russian sanctions were the best way to address the Ukrainian crisis. However they do not share the Polish public’s worry that Ukraine poses a threat. This is because there is no appetite for direct engagement or desire to pay the bill for their big neighbor`s transition. Their risk-averse behavior, amidst economic hardship, is also stemming from their calculations on how sanctions and Russian counter-steps might hurt their fragile economic growth.

One of the differences lies in their understanding of the Ukrainian crisis. While Poland sees the Russian threat behind the crisis, other Visegrad countries – particularly Hungary – see the political turbulence either through their own local prism (i.e. the treatment of the Hungarian minority) or through pragmatic interests.

All V4 countries have their own issues when it comes to Russia. Poland is one of their biggest exporters and Hungary has worked hard to become a Southern gas and energy hub. Slovakia whose public is unaware that their nation is existentially connected to the Ukrainian gas route, desires a lower gas bill and a new round of potential Russian counter-sanctions could have implicit costs to the Slovak economy. The Czech Republic are undergoing their “post-Havel syndrome” in foreign policy, and without a globally appealing personality their usual pragmatism will be ever more apparent.

Ukraine and Visegrad: Have we done our homework?

There is one factor of the Ukrainian crisis that hasn’t been talked about: our own insecurity. This is at least partly stemming from our failure to do our homework. The region’s dependence on Russia energy is well known, but that some countries are dependent in other ways, like on Russian weapons munition may sound shocking.

The Visegrad countries used to be at the bottom of NATO rankings when it came to military spending. Central Europe has taken the security NATO ensures for granted, expecting someone else to pick up the bill. Poland’s former Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, framed it best in a leaked conversation, when he said that the region’s reliance on the American military was founded on a sense of ‘false security’.

Our insecurity could be easier to grasp when domestic factors enabling the Ukrainian crisis are taken into account: unprecedented inequality (as well as growing poverty), a broken central authority and traditional institutions due to overwhelming rent seeking and political corruption.

The global economic crisis has not led to dramatic income inequality in the Visegrad countries, although Hungary has been lagging behind in per capita GDP. In this regard the region is incomparable to Ukraine although the 25-year “hang-over” is becoming a stronger political factor.

Central Europe has enthusiastically jumped on the euro-Atlantic integration train. The enthusiasm paired with high expectations among citizens fueled hope that the actual integration was enough to catch up economically and socially to the rest of Western Europe. ‘The EU accession process was artificially imposing discipline on the ruling elites in these countries, all of which advocated a change from post-communism to liberal democracy because they wanted to join the EU,’ according to Stefan Lehne from Carnegie Europe. ‘Temporarily, this led to a modicum of good governance and a reform momentum, but once accession was achieved, a heritage of decades of dictatorship returned to the fore’.

The global economic crisis, the euro-crisis and sluggish growth have basically finished off such dreams. Many were expecting that the EU – beyond contributing to mitigating costs – do the job for them. Hence Brussels is now serving as the best scapegoat for local woes. Hungary serves as a prime example, as Prime Minister Orban has politically exploited anti-EU sentiment to cement his power.  So instead of looking at our own responsibilities, bashing the EU has become popular.

Our, real or perceived, vulnerability goes back to the erosion of trust in our institutions, who are serving individual (politician) or business (oligarchic) interests before those of the citizens or the nation. ‘Political influence over independent institutions is a systemic corruption risk in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia,’ warns a Transparency International study. ‘The low efficiency in disbursing EU funds is exacerbated primarily by instability in the public administration, which is caused by the politicization of public officials,’ states another analysis. Rent seeking or avoiding taxes is not as endemic as in Ukraine but this pattern, to serve individual interest first and others only after, is firmly there.

This is not about Central Europe only: ‘Europeans feel (a) threat to their national identities is greater than (a) threat to physical security (Russia) topped by inadequate European institution,’ warns Jan Techau of Carnegie Europe. Another scholar sounding the alarm for the US democracy. Political polarization, dissipating citizens’ participation due to disappearing middle class and degeneration of institutions may sound familiar to Ukrainians as well.  Europe’s political instincts are more inclined toward personalities than to institutions. Nothing shows this better than the campaign against Federica Mogherini for the EU Foreign Policy Chief that argued that a strong personality was needed when there was a strong leader in the Kremlin. This argument disregards how our institutions should work – with rules and regulations, consensus, parliamentary mathematics and policies and procedures – while expressing a lack of trust in the European External Action Service. The West’s strength in the cold war was its economy, institutions and due diligence – and let’s not forget about Ronald Regan’s trust but verify!

Russia`s Hug

The weakness of our institutions make the region vulnerable to Russia`s potential meddling.  The Visegrad should stay wary of what the Russians (secret services) do well: divide and rule. For instance Moscow sees Hungary and its policy priorities toward its ethnic minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, as a weak link. Budapest was accused by the pro-Kremlin media of selling tanks to Kyiv and now Russian media have began fomenting pro-autonomy forces in the Trans-Carpathian. However, many in the Visegrad look to Budapest (not to Russia) suspiciously because of Hungary`s democratic deficit.

But both Russian ambitions and the weakness of our institutions shouldn’t be underestimated. ‘Don’t bark if you have no bite‘ said a security analyst in Warsaw, commenting on the post-Crimea annexation hysteria. Russia should be judged in its own context, instead of by our fear.  The fear is also caused by the fact that Moscow developed tools that were previously considered to be the Western domain, but they were developed for its own neighborhood – not necessarily beyond it. Russia has copied and pasted Western examples in its soft power projection: coming up with its own integration project, the Eurasian Economic Union; creating its own NGOs, civic projects and Russian level pensions (see Crimea or Eastern Ukraine as those are higher compare to Ukraine`s) as a counter-narrative to European living standards; developing its own international media; and effectively utilizing social media.

It has also built effective institutions that the Europeans have no serious match for in the Eastern neighborhood when it comes for influence: the Orthodox Church; banks, who are collecting and analyzing key pieces of financial information as well as having the capital available for political projects (European banks have commercial interests in the region); and the secret services, who are actively recruiting law enforcement in Eastern Europe, while increasing their activities in Central Europe as well.

At the same time Russia`s own domestic issues, like its failure to re-structure and reform its economy, are looming so large that opposition leader Navalny is worried about potential disintegration, and the former commander of the Donbas Rebels, Igor Strelkov is worried about a war in Russia. In Ukraine Russia has pulled out the guns and this is a sign of its own insecurity.  With so much insecurity involved in the Ukraine, the crisis can only get worse.

Up Next for the Visegrad: Getting realistic?

Future developments in the Visegrad will depend on whether the Ukrainian crisis will prompt ruling elites to make corrections in foreign policy and domestic policy tackling government corruption and rebuilding traditional, citizen-oriented institutions. Other tasks include boosting regional interconnectivity and furthering regional linkages and strategic coordination. The Ukrainian crisis could serve as an opportunity for the Visegrad to increase their security cooperation.

The factual fragmentation in Europe between citizens and policymakers should give the impetus needed to boost regional ties.  It’s more likely however that Poland will “go Baltic” when it comes to security as the “rest” appear to be weak links when it comes to Russia, while NATO is likely to shore up Poland, Romania and the Baltics, further aiding the on-going devolution and regional military cooperation. At the same time Poland will continue to strengthen the Visegrad when it comes to regional development, energy, business and trade.

According to former security officers from Czech Republic and Slovakia the EU uses information from the media, while Vladimir Putin, as an ex-KGB officer, works with information from intelligence sources. Western agencies have the technology to intercept all kinds of information, but intelligence must be interpreted in the right context. The Visegrad`s intelligence is lagging behind Russia`s, while the media` wild guessing games about Putin`s intentions are clearly no sign of strength.  To change the pattern the Visegrad needs to talk less and work more to address the reality in Ukraine instead of believing that we are right. Otherwise the region increasingly risks look like Austria – not by living standards but by serving Putin`s interests.

Earlier version of this article was presented at the conference “Engagement or Containment: EU-Russia Relations in Turbulent Times and the Role of Central Europe” organized by the Center for EU Enlargement Studies, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary on September 25, 2014.  

Balázs Jarábik

Balázs Jarábik

is an associate fellow at the Central European Policy Institute and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment.