V4’s Geopolitical Solidarity and its Limitations
By Piotr Marczyński
On the 19th of August, the presidents of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic issued a joint statement supporting “the right of the people of Belarus to free, fair and democratic presidential elections”. Moreover, the heads of state expressed their commitment to the political solution to the crisis, calling upon the European Council to facilitate dialogue between Belarusian authorities and protestors. The last point of the statement might be, however, the most relevant, as it showcased a political will to produce a joint Visegrád Four (V4) statement. Namely, it “calls on any foreign actors to refrain from actions that would undermine Belarus’ independence and sovereignty”. Under the pretence of endorsing Belarus’ right to self-govern, V4 is sending a clear signal to Russia to back off.
This declaration exposes the underlying suspicion over the Russian presence in the region which served as the bedrock for the creation of V4. The history of the organization dates back to February 1991 when the leaders of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia (partitioned in 1993) gathered in the Visegrad Castle in Hungary. The main goals of the Visegrad Group were “the elimination of the remnants of the Communist bloc in the region” and supporting each other on the path towards European integration. It is worth remembering that at the time of drafting the resolution, the Soviet military was still present in the region. From the onset, the Visegrad Group was held together by the shared geopolitical vision of a shift towards the West.
Nowadays, the sense of purpose of V4 is certainly not as profound as it was in the 90s, simply because the organization fulfilled the main tasks it was founded to achieve. All member countries managed to join NATO in 1999 (except for Slovakia who joined in 2004) and the EU in 2004, hence finalizing the process of integration into Western security structures. The only remaining rationale for the organization’s existence is the continuous need to create a powerful voting bloc within the EU and the shared wariness of Russian presence in the region. Since the coherence (or lack thereof) of this voting bloc will be discussed henceforth, I will continue with the perception of the Russian threat as a political force, as this is more relevant in the Belarussian case.
While the joint statement manifests the shared fear over expanding Russian influence, the following diplomatic showdown demonstrates the difference of opinion amongst members over the appropriate reaction to it. The controversy began with the PM of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, unilaterally inviting Belarussian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to participate in the V4 summit. The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babis, criticized the idea for contradicting the official EU policy towards Belarus. Unable to invite Tikhanovskaya to the summit, Morawiecki hosted the opposition leader in Warsaw. During her stay, PM Morawiecki offered to donate a villa located in Warsaw’s Praga district to house Belarussian dissident organizations.
This diplomatic incident demonstrates the disagreement over how to handle protests in Belarus. Poland is willing to inflate its clout in the region by offering decisive support to the Belarusian opposition movement. On the other hand, the Czech Republic, with the covert support of Slovakia, wants to channel its support through EU policy instruments to avoid provoking Russia. Here the discussion about protest resolution overlaps with the disagreement over policy goals, with Poland - bordering Russia- opting for a more confrontational foreign policy approach than the rest of the V4.
Although the common perception of the looming Russian threat can still mobilise the coordinated political response of the V4, as shown by the joint statement on the matter, the area of understanding has its limitations. The general agreement in terms of geopolitical outlook leaves a lot of room for foreign policy disagreements.