The Visegrád Four: Disunity In Central Europe – Analysis


By Robert Beck

(FPRI) — When the Russian army rolled into Ukraine in late February of 2022, it was clear that the invasion would create serious political and security repercussions for countries across the region. In addition to the immediate threat to Ukraine’s independence, leaders in the West worried, rightly so, about the potential for Russian aggression against other allies in Central and Eastern Europe, including several North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) frontline states.

While Western fears of expanded Russian military adventure have yet to be realized, the Kremlin’s “special military operation” against its western Slavic neighbor has created other unforeseen consequences in the center of Europe. Chief among these reverberations is growing disunity in the Visegrád 4 (V4) group comprising Poland, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, and Hungary. Because of starkly divergent views on how to respond to Moscow’s revanchist policies, substantive collaboration among the V4 states is now at an historic low.

Three Decades of Visegrád

The group’s founding declaration, signed in February of 1991 in Visegrád, Hungary, by the presidents of the then Czechoslovak Federal Republic, Poland, and Hungary, explicitly called for these states to collectively jettison their totalitarian past and obligatory obeisance to the Kremlin. Thus, in the early 1990s the group embarked on joint efforts to “return to Europe” as future members of both the European Union (EU) and NATO. 

One of the founders of the group, Czechoslovak President Václav Havel, planted the seeds for the V4 in a speech to the Polish Sejm on January 25, 1990, in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 revolutions that toppled communist governments throughout the former Warsaw Pact region. In his remarks, Havel proclaimed

We have an opportunity to transform Central Europe from what has been a mainly historical and spiritual phenomenon into a political phenomenon. We have an opportunity to take this wreath of European states—so recently colonized by the Soviet Union and now attempting to build a relationship with the nations of the Soviet Union based on equality—and fashion it into a special body. Then we can approach the richer nations of Western Europe, not as poor failures or helpless, recently amnestied prisoners, but as countries that can make a genuine contribution.

Emerging from the poisonous social, economic, moral, and political detritus of forty years of communist rule, the group expanded to four with the birth of the Slovak Republic in 1993. Despite fits and starts caused by sometimes contrastive politics, the V4 successfully collaborated during the 1990s to achieve the core raison d’etre of its founding fathers, membership in both NATO in 1999 (the Slovak Republic joined in 2004), and the EU in 2004. The irony, therefore, is particularly poignant that this Central European coalition of states, founded on a desire to collectively break with their Moscow-centric politics of the post World War-II era, now finds itself fraying at the seams over opposing views on Russia.

Common Ground in Defiance of the European Union

Since joining NATO and the EU, the Visegrád countries frequently found common ground in resistance to mandates from Brussels. In response to the European migrant crisis of 2015, the V4 manifest strong opposition to the EU’s common immigration policy, channeling the ethnocentric, often xenophobic rhetoric espoused at the time by many of the regions’ leading politicians. Furthermore, during 2010–2020, the group found common ground in their seeming disdain for many of the EU’s rule of law norms, particularly regarding judicial independence, freedom of the press, support to the LGBTQ community, and respect for the rights of political opponents. Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS), Hungary’s Fidesz, Slovakia’s Smer, and the Czech Republic’s ANO party all actively opposed well-established EU rule of law standards, resulting in the denial of massive funding by Brussels to both Warsaw and Budapest in 2022. 

During the same decade, two of the four Visegrád members were on generally good terms with Moscow, with only Warsaw holding a consistently strident, anti-Russian view. Bratislava, under an earlier administration of the current populist prime minister, Robert Fico, broadly pursued a middle course between Moscow and Brussels. Nevertheless, Fico’s populist rule from 2012 to 2018 ended with massive anti-government street demonstrations as a result of the murder of a young journalist and his partner, who were investigating corruption at the highest level of the prime minister’s party.

In Prague, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, by and large, maintained positive working relations with the Kremlin while the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, unapologetically pandered to Moscow, even when presented with incontrovertible evidence of Russian military intelligence involvement in the 2014 sabotage of an arms depot in Vrbe’tice. Despite the overwhelming evidence of Russian malfeasance in the case, Zeman sided with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence services. 

Further south along the Danube, Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán and his Fidesz party used the 2015 migrant crisis to strengthen the regime’s control over the courts, education, and the press, in the process following Putin’s autocratic playbook to the letter. Along the way, much like in Slovakia and Poland, Fidesz clamped down on the LGBTQ community and “otherized” immigrants and non-Hungarians as part of populist efforts to “cleanse” society. Furthermore, Orbán made a strategic choice to tie Hungary’s energy security to Moscow. 

War Highlights Strategic Differences

The Kremlin’s attempted blitzkrieg on Kyiv in 2022 sent political shockwaves, as well as millions of Ukrainian refugees, westward. This provided ample impetus for a more cohesive Central European stance. Much to Brussels’ chagrin and Moscow’s delight, the conflict has instead escalated tensions within the group. 

Warsaw, Prague, and Bratislava all shouldered significant financial and social burdens in their respective embrace of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the conflict. In fact, the three countries have been among the leaders, along with Germany, the Baltic states, and Scandinavian countries, in the amount of bilateral aid to Kyiv, including the costs of supporting refugees. Noticeably absent from the list of nations sacrificing for the benefit of Ukraine is Hungary, where, as of September 2023, fewer refugees had settled than in Montenegro.

When considering V4 military aid to Ukraine, the chasm between Hungary and the rest is even much deeper than on the humanitarian side. According to statistics from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, between January 24, 2022, and October 31, 2023, Poland (3 billion Euros), the Czech Republic (1.1 billion Euros), and Slovakia (700 million Euros) provided critical military support to Kyiv. Conversely, Hungary did not make the list of top thirty-one donors.  

As the war progressed, populist and pro-Kremlin forces throughout the region used the conflagration to sow discord within the V4 states. These internal political struggles played out in recent elections in all four member countries. 

Recent Elections Deepen Fissures

The first post-invasion polls in the region occurred in April 2022 in Hungary where the incumbent Fidesz party cruised to an impressive victory, cementing Orbán’s fourth term as prime minister. Critical to Orbán’s campaign was his stance on the war, painting Fidesz as the “peace” party and refusing Hungarian military support to Kyiv. Orbán went so far as to mock Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky in his victory speech. In effect, Hungary chose cheap energy from Russia—at the time of the elections Russia was providing 90 percent of Hungary’s gas and 65 percent or its oil—over solidarity with his V4, NATO, and the EU colleagues.

This was a key juncture for the Visegrád group, as Hungary’s position vis-a-vis Moscow grievously compromised its ties with Warsaw, despite the two countries’ shared disdain for EU preaching on rule of law issues. For Poland, who had been sounding the alarm bells about potential Russian revanchism, Orbán’s pro-Russian leanings were unacceptable. Warsaw viewed Russian aggression as a fundamental threat, much more dangerous than meddlesome Brussels bureaucrats. Fidesz’s resounding electoral victory in the wake of Putin’s military gambit in Ukraine spawned a deep political fissure in relations between Warsaw and Budapest, a break that has yet to heal and that continues to cast a dark shadow over wider V4 activity. 

Prior to the eruption of hostilities in Ukraine, the Czechs had already started to leave behind a turbulent, populist era with the electoral defeat in October 2021 of its long-serving prime minister, Andrej Babiš. The new prime minister, Petr Fiala, was a moderate, much more skeptical than his predecessor of Moscow’s intentions in the region and decidedly pro-European in his views on many other policy issues, to include rule of law concerns that had previously caused tension between Prague and the EU. 

The Czech Republic solidified its return to the center in early 2023 with the election of former general Petr Pavel to the country’s presidency, replacing the aforementioned Russophile, Miloš Zeman, after ten years of Moscow-centric rhetoric emanating from the presidential palace at Hradčany. The significance of this election can not be overstated as Pavel’s opponent in the ballot was none other than Babiš, who campaigned, much like Orbán in Hungary, on a platform of a negotiated settlement in Ukraine. Near the end of the campaign, Babiš went so far as to implicitly question the Czech commitment to NATO, stating in an interview in January of 2023, “I want peace, I don’t want war. And in no case would I send our children and the children of our women to war.”

In the end, Pavel won decisively over Babiš in the presidential runoff at the end of January 2023, firmly placing the Czech Republic alongside Poland as staunch defenders of EU and NATO support to Kyiv, at the same time widening the strategic fault lines with Budapest.

Meanwhile, following Robert Fico’s precipitous fall in 2018, Slovakia’s political landscape was mired in uncertainty for five years under successive governments led by Prime Ministers Peter Pellegrini, Igor Matovič, Eduard Heger, and caretaker Ludovit Odor. Under the last two, from April 2021 until the fall of 2023, Slovakia pursued a strong pro-European policy, particularly following Moscow’s 2022 assault on Ukraine. Slovakia’s head of state, Zuzana Čaputová, emphasized Bratislava’s early support for Ukraine during a May 2022 visit to Kyiv. In a further sign of Slovak resistance to Russian aggression, Čaputová returned to Kyiv in a high profile joint visit with Czech President Pavel in April 2023. 

Bratislava’s unquestioned fealty to EU policy on Ukraine was not to last, however, as Robert Fico and his SMER party back regained power in early elections in September 2023. Fico ran on a decidedly illiberal, anti-war platform, in many ways mirroring his political soulmate in Budapest, Viktor Orbán. 

Since returning to the prime minister’s chair, Fico has kept Brussels guessing on Slovak intentions vis-a-vis EU support to Kyiv with mixed signals regarding the war. On January 20, 2024, Fico stated that Ukraine must give up territory to Russia to end the war, at the same time stressing his opposition to Ukraine’s membership in NATO. He also claimed on January 23, 2024, that “there was no war in Kyiv and life was totally normal.” Only a day later, however, during a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart in Uzhhorod, near the Ukraine/Slovakia border, Fico reversed course, promising Slovakia’s continued support for Kyiv.

To the north of the High Tatry, the mountain range separating Slovakia from Poland, elections held in October 2023 ushered in a seismic change in Polish politics with the ascension to power of the former opposition parties to the long-serving, populist, conservative PiS government. The new centrist government, led by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, immediately began a program of “de-PiS-ification” of the country’s media, courts, and economy in an effort to return the country to normative congruence with EU standards. In the process, the new Polish leadership put on ice the previous Warsaw-Budapest bromance in opposition to Brussels’ rule of law demands.

What Tusk’s new regime did not change, however, was the country’s staunch opposition to the Russian assault against Ukraine. Despite viscerally antithetical views on many policy areas, both the previous PiS government and Tusk’s newly-elected coalition agree on the existential threat posed by Moscow’s revanchist gambit in Ukraine. 

Bleak Future

As 2024 began, strategic differences reduced the Visegrád 4 to effectively a V2 +2, with only Warsaw and Prague still unequivocally committed to the Ukrainian cause. While Fico continues to wax hot and cold in support of Kyiv, Orbán persists as Europe’s most prominent opponent to EU policy on the war. His continued obstructionist stance, however, has come at the expense of any remaining V4 leadership solidarity. Underlining the political rupture in the group, on February 1, 2024, Tusk admonished Orbán for playing “games” with EU financial aid to Ukraine, adding that Brussels “does not have Ukraine fatigue, it has Orbán fatigue.”

Equally indicative of the pall the war has cast over the group, in a November 2023 television interview, Martin Dvořák, the Czech minister of European affairs, stated that “it is clear that the V4 is not a politically homogenous group” and that it “doesn’t have the strength nor ambition to even participate in negotiations on peace in Gaza or Ukraine.” He added that “the V4 brand is now toxic in Europe.” Those are damning sentiments coming from a key official in the country that currently holds the rotating presidency of the Visegrád group.

While the second half of 2023 saw some V4 accord in opposition to EU policy on the import of Ukrainian grain, the strategic underpinnings of the group have been severely weakened by Putin’s aggression. Consequently, absent a dramatic political U-turn by Orbán regarding the catastrophic war to his east, the deterioration of quadrilateral cooperation in the center of Europe will remain for the foreseeable future a pernicious consequence of the Kremlin’s military adventure in Ukraine.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

  • About the author: Robert “Bob” Beck served overseas for nearly 30 years, as a member of the US foreign policy community, in embassies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. He has a BA in Soviet and Eastern European Studies from the University of Maryland and an MA in International Relations from Boston University.
  • Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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