In 1991, when the group was formed, the primary goal was Euro-Atlantic integration and cooperation with NATO. Twenty six years later, when these goals have been achieved, the Visegrad group is often referred to as “toxic brand” because the four countries are constantly showing that the original principle of partnership only exists on paper, not in real life.
THE CZECH REPUBLIC
The political climate of the Czech Republic began to change after 2015, and, on the eve of the October parliamentary elections, five parties stood the best chances to enter parliament: ANO; the Czech Social Democratic Party, Freedom and Direct Democracy, the party of the Czech-Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura; the liberal-conservative party TOP 09; and the Czech Pirate Party, a party whose main electorate is the younger information-era generation of Czechs.
From the very beginning, the obvious leader and winner was ANO of Andrej Babis, a Czech businessman and former minister of finance who was accused of abusing public funds when in office. The businessman is known for his anti-European stand. But Czech journalists are saying Babis changes his mind so often that they are unable to follow his thinking.
The liberal Czech media characterize Babis as a material person who only focuses on making money and deriving benefit from everything possible in the Czech Republic and from foreign subsidies.
“Andrej Babis is particular in being guided by money, whereas Orban and Kaczynski are guided by ideology. He is skeptical of sanctions against Russia because Czech companies are losing profits because of them,” says Katerina Safarikova, a journalist at the Czech weekly Respekt.
Economic analysts are writing about the golden age of the Czech economy – not because it is much on the rise but because it is not in such dire straits as that of Greece is.
They are also saying that wages remain the same even though prices have gone down.
Slovak experts emphasize that the illusion of being rich after joining the EU is gradually vanishing.
Slovakia has now the lowest election turnout among the EU member states. A somewhat positive sign is that radical parties do not win in Slovak elections.
Miroslav Vlachovsky, head of the EU Communication Strategy Unit, MFASR, has said very well about the fact that each of the countries thinks of its own monetary interests: “Slovakia does not reject cooperation within the Visegrad framework. The Visegrad group helped our economy very much in the 1990s. But you should always remember that Slovakia is in a totally different situation, by contrast with the other four member states, because we are part of the Eurozone. The Polish think about zlotys, the Czechs about korunas, the Hungarians about forints, and Slovakia about euros.”
For comparison, average wages in Slovakia are lower than in Germany, but pensions are at the same level as in Greece. Some people have been speaking lately about the so-called Slovak economic tiger, for the country gained easy access to global markets after entering the EU.
Slovak economic experts maintain that macroeconomic results are good in Slovakia now, and, compared to the other Visegrad group countries, it is the regional leader in terms of GDP and access to global markets, but the mini-level is not so high. And, although the level of unemployment has considerably fallen, wages are still not as high as the populace would like them to be. The Slovaks are even speaking of “unachieved expectations” after joining the EU.
According to the latest sociological surveys, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party would win 40 percent of the votes in the next Polish parliamentary elections in 2019. Another 40 percent can be shared by two opposition parties, Civic Platform and Modern (“Nowoczesna”), because the opposition is unable to unite for the sake of victory over PiS. It is very likely that the ruling party will emerge victorious again in the next parliamentary elections.
As is known, the Polish government already planned to introduce the European currency in 2011, but this idea remained unimplemented at the time. Poland’s minister of finance recently changed his mind about introducing the euro in his country – from “never” to “perhaps some day.”
Polish political analysts claim that this decision needs, above all, the grassroots’ support.
For example, Professor of Political Sciences Spasimir Domaradzki explains: “It is necessary that the populace support this decision. For instance, the Hungarian government does not want to introduce the euro, but the populace wants it, and the Czechs are also mulling over this idea. It even seems to me that there is a certain tendency towards reappraising the Visegrad group. The V4 is only an instrument of consolidation – and sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Everybody is saying now that Poland dominates in the group, but it is wrong. Today, the Visegrad Four is headed by the politicians who are skillfully playing on state interests. Orban has learned to play with the EU, but he is not a Talib like Kaczynski, and the Czechs have a very unpredictable president.”
Many analysts also note: although more than two million people have left Poland in search of a job, the country has a dynamic non-declining economy and the V4’s largest domestic consumer market of 40 million people (compare: 11 million in Hungary, 10 million in the Czech Republic, and 5 million in Slovakia).
According to the latest polls, the next elections in Hungary in the spring of 2018 will not change radically the political climate in the state – Viktor Orban’s party, Fidesz, is expected to go on ruling the country. The new and promising parties are unable to form a strong opposition because they do not want to join forces.
The second most popular party in Hungary is the pro-Russian populist Jobbik, or Movement for Hungary, which has often been accused of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
The No. 1 enemy of the ruling party is George Soros, a Hungarian-born US financier and investor, whom Premier Viktor Orban publicly accuses of hatching a secret plan to destabilize Hungary by supporting the small liberal forces that exist in the country.
The posters with the American philanthropist’s face, which you can come across on every corner in Budapest, convincingly demonstrate who the Hungarian leadership is trying to blame for all the problems.
Very many oppositional Hungarian media compare Orban’s regime with that of Erdogan.
For example, Peter Magyari, a 444.hu journalist, compares what is now going on in Hungary with the situation in Turkey 10 years ago.
In other words, it is neither dictatorship nor democracy.
The media are saying there are two ways for Orban: either to stop mass-scale propaganda in the country and keep abreast with the EU, as Slovakia has done, or to leave the country on the fringe in order to fulfill his own ambitions.
After accession to the EU and the advent of foreign investment, the Hungarian economy has considerably strengthened its positions. However, experts claim that it is not as successful as Polish or Czech now due to misdeeds of politicians.
CROSS POINTS AND JOINT PROJECTS
Among the few things on which the four countries’ views do not differ are the following: unwillingness of national governments to observe EU quotas for the distribution of migrants in Europe, blocking Nord Stream 2, and cooperation as part of Trimarium and Intermarium projects.
The latter projects are extremely topical for Poland because of new factors on the geopolitical map, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and a renewed desire to defend the national border. After the victory of Law and Justice in 2015, the ideas of Trimarium and Intermarium development began to be actively discussed by East European politicians. Yet these ideas are being poorly implemented due to never-ending disputes between the participating countries.
In particular, the Kaczynski-Orban conflict only hinders the not-so-high level of cooperation that really exists at least in the field of the infrastructure and road construction.
Blocking the Nord Stream 2 project could be another point of intersection and cooperation for the Visegrad countries.
But, unlike Poland and Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary are not taking a categorical stand on this project. The agreement on blocking the project was signed by other governments, and it is difficult for analysts to predict the position of the newly-elected government of the Czech Republic.
As the Czech economy depends very much on German partner companies and investors, this makes it impossible to cooperate within the framework of the Trimarium project which provides for no participation of Germany.
The Czech Republic will not in turn be lobbying this project because opposing Germany is extremely harmful to the domestic economy.
At the same time, any active blocking of Nord Stream 2 by the Visegrad group is impossible without an involvement of the American side.
Here is what Pawel Kowal, former Deputy Foreign Minister of Poland and member of the European Parliament, says about this:
“Firstly, I think we should also invite Ukraine into such projects as Trimarium. Secondly, to block Nord Stream 2, we must have a clear-cut strategy. We have none so far. We must explain to the European Commission why the Visegrad countries are against Nord Stream 2. But the European Commission is weak in the struggle against national governments. Even if Poland is against, it is not enough, and the other countries’ position is not as strong as that of Poland. We should win over the Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, to our side. Only then will it be possible to block the project.”
THE FUTURE OF THE VISEGRAD GROUP
It is quite obvious that the Visegrad group fully depends on the political and economic conditions in each of the member states that are guided by their national interests, depending on these situations.
On the whole, most analysts agree that the group will continue to exist, but there will be more and more misunderstandings now that the aspects that kept the countries together in the beginning have disappeared and the conflicts of different national interests have arisen.
To crown it all, the problems the EU is facing in the relationship with Eastern European countries and intestine strife in the countries they are watching only make Western Europe still more convinced that further enlargement of the EU in the near future is impossible – at least until a mechanism of smooth cooperation with the existing EU members is found.