Many Western Europeans ask: Why antagonize Moscow, thereby sacrificing comfort and relatively cheap natural gas, by defending second-class Europeans? But the answer is that, together, the V4 countries have 64 million inhabitants, which puts them in the same ranks as some of the most populous states in Europe — such as the UK, France, and Italy (all with populations in the sixties) — and seventeen million short of Germany’s 81 million. Similarly, the combined economies of the V4 nations constitute the fifth largest economy in Europe and the twelfth largest in the world.
By Paweł Piotr Styrna | February 7, 2017
Prime ministers of V4 nations: Robert Fico (Slovakia), Beata Szydlo (Poland), Bohuslav Sobotka (Czech Republic), and Viktor Orban (Hungary)
Central and Eastern Europe are currently stuck in a very unenviable position — one could say “between a rock and a hard place” — which, sadly, happens to be a recurrent theme in its history.
To the east, Putin’s post-Soviet Russia is on a revisionist, neo-imperial rampage enabled by Obama’s appeasement and weakness. Ukraine and Georgia have already been invaded and deprived of territories, while the Balts and the Poles feel increasingly threatened. Western European nations are unwilling to support their eastern brethren. Why antagonize Moscow, thereby sacrificing comfort and relatively cheap natural gas, by defending second-class Europeans?
What is more, Berlin and Brussels have been attacking the conservative governments in Warsaw and Budapest. The EU project itself is stalled and adrift, weakened by the Eurozone debt crisis and rejected by British voters in the “Brexit” referendum (although perhaps that’s better than an overbearing continental super-state that anti-nation-state Euro-bureaucrats hoped to turn it into).
In addition, Western Europe is flooded by droves of Middle Eastern Muslim refugees and experiencing a wave of radical Islamist terrorism and rape sprees, a bullet which the Central Europeans have so far managed to dodge. In other words, whether one looks eastward or westward from Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest, one sees plenty of fires burning. Strengthening the bonds of the Visegrád Group — an informal alliance consisting of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary — is probably the best option for these countries.
The Visegrád Group (often abbreviated as V4) was originally established in a small Hungarian castle town in early 1991, as soon as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary regained their independence from the imploding Soviet Union. In 1993, following the “divorce” between the Czechs and the Slovaks, the Visegrád Triangle became a quadruple alliance (hence — V4). The group’s presidency, like that of the EU, rotates annually (every July); this summer Poland assumed the V4 presidency from the Czech Republic. The group was an attempt to deepen multilateral cooperation on numerous issues in this part of the Intermarium — the lands between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas — and to accelerate hoped-for integration into the EU and NATO (all V4 states are now members of both).
The V3/V4 countries were also the founding members (in 1992) of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), which expanded to include much of the Intermarium during the 1990s. Since member-states that join the EU automatically leave CEFTA, the latter currently includes only former Yugoslavia (excluding Slovenia and Croatia), Albania, and Moldova.
Somewhat paradoxically, the desire of the former Soviet-occupied “captive nations” to finally reunite with the West (in the form of the EU and NATO) weakened the motivation to turn the V4 into a full-fledged alliance. In theory, Central Europeans hoped to enter the EU as a bloc. In practice, the Czechs, who were the most advanced in terms of reforms, wanted to enter the union as quickly as possible, without the remaining V4 nations slowing them down. As in the interwar period, the nations of the Intermarium frequently pursued divergent policy objectives, while losing sight of common interests. Tensions were exacerbated by strained relations between Hungary and Slovakia: 10 percent of Slovakia’s population — over half-a-million people inhabiting the border region — are ethnically Magyars. Nevertheless, after the terrible experiences of communist and Nazi occupations, the V4 nations have learned from history and their relations are much better than between the two world wars. Russian aggression against Ukraine has recently breathed a greater sense of common purpose into the group’s member nations.
Together, the V4 countries have 64 million inhabitants, which puts them in the same ranks as some of the most populous states in Europe — such as the UK, France, and Italy (all with populations in the sixties) — and seventeen million short of Germany’s 81 million. Similarly, the combined economies of the V4 nations constitute the fifth largest economy in Europe and the twelfth largest in the world.
Militarily the V4 is relatively weak, certainly much weaker than Russia. However, the V4 countries certainly have a combined manpower and economic potential to support much stronger armed forces. Increasing jingoism by Moscow prompted the V4 to establish the Visegrád Battlegroup within the EU under Polish leadership in 2011. So far, the Polish-Czech-Slovak-Hungarian battlegroup numbers approximately 2,500 – 3,000 troops, but it can become the nucleus of a larger collaborative mutual defense effort.
Thus, the V4 has significant potential and can become a force to be reckoned with in Europe. Other former “captive nations” are interested in closer cooperation with the V4, and with Poland in particular. Even some Austrians are interested. During the 2016 Austrian presidential election, the nationalist-populist Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, floated the idea of his country’s joining the V4. The leaders of the V4 have not commented on this, but Hofer’s concept of a “union within the Union” certainly appeals to many in Central Europe.
Given the current problems plaguing the EU and NATO, the V4 can become a magnet for neighboring nations seeking a more viable alternative to the former and a complement to the latter. If there is one thing to learn from the history of Central and Eastern Europe, it is that discord and fragmentation in the vast geopolitical space between Germany, Russia, and the Islamic world — the greater Intermarium — create a power vacuum that is very tempting to outside interlopers. However, if the nations of the Intermarium work together, they can be a veritable powerhouse, thereby helping to preserve stability in Europe.
Paweł Styrna is a Ph.D student in Russian history at a DC area university. He holds two MA degrees, one in modern European and Russian history (University of Illinois at Chicago) and another in statecraft international affairs (Institute of World Politics in Washington DC). Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.