The Visegrad 4 of Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland has been a tremendous success. Together we joined the EU and NATO bringing Central Europe back into relevance. Today, however, Central Europe is divided and the Visegrad 4 is less of an obvious choice. Without ditching the Visegrad 4, Slovakia needs to begin playing on more instruments such as the Slavkov, or Austerlitz, format of a loose cooperation agreement with Austria and the Czech Republic.
The celebrations this week are muted and subdued, partly due to the ongoing pandemic. 30 years ago, in February of 1991 and on the banks of Danube, the leaders of four countries in Central Europe (echoing another meeting of kings from the 14th century) joined forces to better integrate with the West.
The Visegrad 4 today is a shadow of its former self. It used to be a symbol of successful EU and NATO enlargement, as well as a systemic transition. It used to steer or co-shape some initiatives such as the Eastern Partnership and the enlargement agenda for the Balkans. Not anymore. It has a terrible image of troublemakers who love to throw spanners in the work of the European Council. Other grouping formations take the lead on various issues such as the Baltics and relations with Belarus and Russia. The Visegrad 4 is now known for its “niet” (no) policies to several important EU initiatives, such as the immigration package of 2016.
These days, at the European level, the Visegrad 4 is heard of mostly though rhetoric – Hungary and Poland benefit the most by claiming – less and less successfully – that their “cultural counterrevolution” in Europe is on behalf of the whole of Central Europe.
The patience is wearing thin in some parts of the quartet. Prague and Bratislava have noticed that the Visegrad 4 is considered in Poland and Hungary as a tool to further the influence of nationalistic, ultra-conservative, Eurosceptic of Budapest and Warsaw. Hungary has also flirted with alternatives to Western alliances – developing relations with Russia and China, from vaccines to nuclear power plants.
For Slovakia to be perceived through the lenses of the Visegrad 4 is both injustice and a burden. To be the smallest member does not mean to have less rights. In October 2020, the Hungarian Minister of Justice, Judith Varga, announced that a Christian-Democratic institute will be established under the auspices of the Visegrad 4. The Slovaks were livid at this usurpation of the Visegrad 4 brand to what was rightly considered in Bratislava as a propaganda tool against Brussels. It’s Budapest and Warsaw who have the rule of law problems; not us, both Slovaks and Czechs rightfully assume.
The current government understands it well. Its natural instinct is to go for a Scandinavian type of consensual politics. The murders of Jan Kuciak, a 27-year-old investigative journalist, and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, in February 2018 and the subsequent mass protests began the rejuvenation of the country. The face of this process was Zuzana Caputova. In her first act after being elected president, Caputova lit a candle at an unofficial memorial for Kuciak and Kusnirova. In her acceptance speech, Caputova said, “I am happy not just for the result, but mainly that it is possible not to succumb to populism, to tell the truth, to raise interest without aggressive vocabulary.” There could hardly be a starker contrast with statements of Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
It makes sense for Slovakia to draw a line and distinguish what kind of Visegrad 4 it is ready to accept: initiatives that bring societies together – yes; politically divisive tirades and Eurosceptic offensives – no. Slovakia should argue for a looser cooperation at the European level so long as its strategic priorities differ from those of Poland or Hungary.
In the 1990s, the Visegrad 4 developed extremely useful platforms and channels of communication and cooperation among public administration, local government officials, transborder communities and other civil society representatives, academia, arts and more – this is a lasting effect to this day, which is not connected to (the sometimes toxic) politics and politicians themselves. This is a true value of the Visegrad 4 today – church choirs, basketball teams, local theatres acquiring little funds from the International Visegrad Fund for common projects.
The Visegrad 4 is far from doomed. It has had ups and downs in the past before. Think of the Vladimír Meciar-era in Slovakia’s politics, which used to affect the dynamics within the Visegrad 4. Societies and political establishments can turn back, sometimes unexpectedly, from divisive confrontational politics. Objectively speaking, these countries are linked together: they are a special partner of Germany, they are exposed to the revisionist politics of Russia and China, steadfast allies of the US. The societies share a common mindset different from say, Austria to the west and Ukraine to the east. Do not put off the Visegrad 4 just yet, although be prepared for some “strategic pause” in regards to activist Visegrad 4 policies at the European level.