Visegrad differences will always exist, but V4 is much stronger than critics make out

The NATO 2014 Summit in Wales and the sanctions against Russia, the disparities in approach from different countries, has raised eyebrows from various commentators. How do you see this from the perspective of Visegrad and Russia? Has much has changed in the last 15-20 years?

I don’t see that many things changing, actually. If you get too close to a development, it always appears to be big. But if you step back, you see that these are basically the same disagreements that have been present there since the very beginning. The Wales summit demonstrated that in case of real need, all the four Visegrad countries basically agree.

We’ve always supported NATO’s position, all four Visegrad countries agreed to contribute, to a varying extent of course, because the countries are different.

But this is not the first time that there have been disagreements over Russia. Much has always depended on the composition of the national governments, the actual status of domestic politics, which always has the priority; each and every politician plays for the domestic audience as the number one priority. And this is what Visegrad politicians have also been doing. They play on the domestic playground, and foreign policy is the “butler” of domestic politics.

If there is strong outside element, it is motivation, such as a NATO summit where big NATO powers contribute. Over Russia we may be divided, but over NATO we aren’t. And if the two happen to be in conflict, politically, then we go for the NATO position, and this is a good thing. We haven’t seen a single Visegrad effort to block anything in Wales.

So the NATO summit has made me very optimistic. Had there been any single mentioning of any blocking effort in Wales, it would have been a problem. And taking into account the disagreements over the EU measures, I’m very glad that these disagreements were limited, and remain limited to EU matters. And finally, there was no Visegrad veto. It was the Finns who stepped in, not Visegrad. So it’s not that bad.

Earlier in the year, in an interview for Visegrad Insight, Judy Dempsey was demanding that Visegrad had a coherent, common foreign policy.

But this is not the purpose of Visegrad at all. And this is what many people do not understand. Visegrad was never intended to settle intra-Visegrad debates. Intra-Visegrad differences have always been there, are always there, and will always be there; and you could name a number of bilateral disputes between the Visegrad countries.

Visegrad is intended, and will remain so, to promote those interests which are common, in all four countries; such as demanding the basic security of Europe and energy diversification; Visegrad countries agree and cooperate according to their best.

But this cooperation has only existed since 2008.

True. But now it’s functioning. Yes, we needed an external shock. In Hungary we have a saying that you always buy the raincoat after the rain; first you have to have rain in order for you to go out and buy a raincoat. We got the rain!

Demanding Visegrad to have a unified foreign policy? Visegrad is not designed for that. And it’s good that it remain as it is. Should we also have a unified foreign ministry? If not, then we need further institutionalization, and if we further institutionalize, then the questions arise of who delegates and where the institutes are; we don’t really need these debates.

Does Poland’s different position in the V4 – recently demonstrated in the clash between prime ministers at GLOBSEC – resemble an elephant in the room?

The expression “an elephant in the room” could be used for such circumstances that hadn’t been present earlier. Suddenly, there is an elephant in the room, but people just tend to ignore it. The other three Visegrad countries are happy about the presence of Poland. In issues of common interest, such as differences in security and energy security, it is great that we have a middle-sized European power advocating the same agenda. The elephant in the room in questions of security is useful.

Of course, Poland pursues its own national agenda, as Polish politicians also play for the Polish domestic audience. This is how the system works. Many people are disappointed with Visegrad simply because they have wrong expectations.

This is absolutely true, and any success of Visegrad in terms of promotion and building the brand raises these expectations further. What do you see as the next step based on the current V4 conflicts? What sort of “raincoat” are you looking for right now when the rain is coming down?

The structure will not change. Cooperation is not designed to settle intra-Visegrad debates or differences. At this point, I wouldn’t look for a new “raincoat” just a better one than we have now – a bit bigger. In my understanding, further institutionalization is unadvisable, because it would open too many boxes of too many Pandora’s.

If you want to develop cooperation, and I hope that the national governments do, the way forward is increase national contributions to the International Visegrad Fund; because this is the foreign policy tool we have. Keep up the principle of equality and respect the different financial powers of the different V4 countries, in order to maintain the equality of the organization that gives legitimacy to the whole thing. And the more money we have in the common Visegrad budget, in the Fund’s budget the more we are able to do; and in terms of foreign policy, focusing on the Eastern Partnership.

Romania, in particular, as well as other countries, has recently been pushing for increased cooperation, and even joining Visegrad. What does Visegrad want to achieve with this?

I would be opposed to any enlargement of Visegrad for many reasons. The biggest advantage we have in Visegrad is the levels of administration. I often call it Visegrad socialization. It has simply become part of the socialization of the political culture of our foreign policy elites to consult each other. And we’ve been doing this for twenty years. And anyone who joins simply wouldn’t have this.

This gives Visegrad such an advantage that very few European countries have. The Nordics have it, because they’ve been socialized in such a way, the Baltics have it, and the German-France relationship exists, but you can’t enlarge a socialization overnight. However, the Visegrad+ is the perfect format for cooperating with non-Visegrad partners, as decision-making remains intact regarding the financial capabilities of Visegrad, while further cooperation with non-Visegrad partners is still possible.

Do you envisage the possibility of the International Visegrad Fund developing V4-Russia programs?

This goes back to the fact that because we have different assessments of Russia, I don’t think we could agree on the content of Visegrad-Russia program, except perhaps some academic cooperation. Another factor is that financial resources are limited. We have a limited amount of money which we distribute now basically focusing on the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkans. If we add a third priority, because of the limited amount of money, less money will remain for the other two.

I don’t see the readiness in the Visegrad budget to grant more money for cooperating with Russia. But I would like to use the existing mechanisms in order to get, not Russia as a state, but some Russians involved a bit more. Very few Russians apply for Visegrad scholarships. I don’t think there has even been any Visegrad small grant applications, even though they would have been eligible.

Why don’t we have more ordinary Russian students coming? The mechanism is there. This would be a small opening and I think all the Visegrad countries would agree. But we need to advertise the possibility in Russia a bit more. No one knows about the possibility. But I wouldn’t be in favor of Russian quota. It should be competitive. If Russian students don’t submit a competitive application, they don’t get the grant.

Will the Visegrad Group remain important to all the political leaders in our countries?

I think the individual dynamics may be different. Most of our political leaders come from more domestic politics. This is where Visegrad socialization of the administration matters. Donald Tusk could learn Visegrad because his administration is Polish. We have very different types of politicians, but from 1998 onward I can’t recall a single political leader competent in Visegrad issues, that have been against Visegrad.

Andras Racz is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs. He is an expert in the foreign policy and domestic affairs of Belarus, Russia-Central-Europe relations, and the Eastern Partnership.

Wojciech Przybylski (@wprzybylski)is the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and Res Publica Nowa.

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