The geopolitical influence of Central and Eastern European nations has been on a steady ascent since the outbreak of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022. Notably, the V4 countries, or more accurately, the V3 – Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia – along with the Baltic states, have emerged as some of the most steadfast and prompt supporters of Ukraine in its legitimate defense against the aggressor. This was particularly evident in the initial stages of the conflict, during which the remainder of the so-called “collective West” was caught off guard and in a state of utmost disbelief. 

Shifting Configurations 

Recently, parliamentary elections in Slovakia and Poland unfolded against a backdrop of political and security instability in the immediate EU neighborhood. Preceding these elections, the power dynamics within the Visegrád Group exhibited two discernible configurations: the V3+1 and the V2+V2. In the former scenario, the trio of Czechia, Slovakia, and Poland stood in contrast to Hungary, while in the latter, it was Poland and Hungary on one side versus Slovakia and Czechia on the other. 

The clarification is quite explicit. In the V3+1 scenario, after Putin’s decision to “denazify and demilitarize” Ukraine through the initiation of the so-called “special military operation,” V4 countries, excluding Hungary under Orbán’s leadership, were resolute. They committed not only to delivering essential humanitarian aid to Ukraine but also to advocating for bilateral and multilateral actions on the EU and NATO levels. This included sending military hardware and facilitating its transport. Poland has stood out as the most proactive and vocal supporter of Kyiv within the EU, evident in its hosting of a significant number of refugees (on March 6, 2022, in a single day alone, a staggering 142 thousand individuals crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border), serving as a logistical hub for military equipment, and providing robust humanitarian aid. Additionally, Poland has readily offered sound diplomatic support for Ukraine on all international fora.

The V2+V2 scenario, conversely, revolves around the joint stance of Poland, governed by Jarosław Kaczyński’s PiS party, and Hungary, led by Orbán’s Fidesz party. This stance involved a shared defiance of the EU consensus, particularly on (dis-)respecting the rule of law and basic human rights. This defiance manifested itself in actions such as breaching the independence of the judiciary, seriously influencing and altering the media landscape, and imposing restrictions on the rights of women and minorities. 

Return and Diversion From Europe

Regarding the outcome of the parliamentary elections mentioned earlier, Poland, under the governance of the right-wing populist national-conservative Law and Justice party for the past eight years, experienced a significant shift characterized by chants like “return to Europe”, or “return of democracy.” The elections concluded with an unprecedented voter turnout of 74.4%, surpassing the first free elections in 1989 by 12%. In this electoral landscape, citizens opted for the Civic Coalition, led by the former European Council President and two-time prime minister Donald Tusk, to shape and ultimately form the upcoming government. While the Civic Coalition garnered fewer votes than the PiS – which maintains the status of being the single largest majority in the lower house of parliament known as “Sejm” – it is highly probable that they will not secure the majority required to establish the new government. Political tradition dictates that the winner is typically given the opportunity allowed to do so. But given the extremely slim chances, it appears that Donald Tusk and his recently acquired center-left, center-right coalition will take the lead.

Slovakia, on its part, embarked on a divergent trajectory. Rather than experiencing a “return to Europe,” populism, nationalism, and illiberalism took center stage in the politics of this country of 5.5 million. Until October of this year, a strong supporter of restoring the Ukrainian territories to their pre-2014 status and the first nation to relocate its entire squadron fleet of Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets, along with the S-300 air defense system, to safeguard Ukraine’s skies, is now on the brink of becoming an outlier in Europe. This shift is evident in its move from not endorsing sanctions packages against Russia to endorsing the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine, be it on a bilateral or multilateral level. Slovakia’s shift away from Europe, in contrast to Poland, may be attributed to the victory of the Smer-SD party, led by the three-time former prime minister Robert Fico. Their success in the elections was fueled by a persistently nationalistic and anti-immigration, Eurosceptic, anti-American, anti-Ukraine rhetoric, significantly buttressed by a nefarious Russian disinformation campaign, considered among the most robust within the EU. Formerly a proponent of positioning Slovakia as the “core of the EU,” Fico pledged during his campaign that there would be “not a single round of ammunition” provided to Ukraine.

Public Perception Matters

As per the Globsec Trends opinion poll regarding the perception of V4 countries on the question of “who is responsible for starting the war in Ukraine,” Slovakia exhibited a pronounced decline in public support for Ukraine. A notable 43% attributed the responsibility to Russia, while a striking 39% believed NATO/USA should be held accountable for the outbreak of the war. Following closely behind Slovakia, Hungary demonstrated comparable anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western, and pro-Russian sentiments, with 27% expressing the opinion that NATO/USA was to blame. Contrastingly, Poland and Czechia continue to resolutely assert that the responsibility lies solely with Russia, with an overwhelming 84% in Poland and 72% in Czechia holding this view. Similarly, Slovakia has witnessed a year-on-year decline in public support for NATO membership, dropping from 72% in 2022 to 58% in 2023. With these diminished figures, Slovakia aligns with Bulgaria and Hungary in perceiving the West as a potential threat. Moreover, there is a shared opinion that supplying weapons to Ukraine increases the risk of provoking Russia and potentially drawing the country closer to the conflict.

How this will impact the ongoing unity of the V4 and the broader unity of Central/Eastern Europe with the rest remains a pertinent question. Rest assured, changes in European and global socio-economic and political contexts have been quite a natural occurrence in the past. In general, the EU has demonstrated a positive track record in containing populist leaders such as Orbán or Fico. Shortly after declaring their intention to form the government, Fico’s Smer-SD and his ally-turned-associate Peter Pellegrini from the social-democratic party Hlas-SD (Voice) faced suspension by the Party of European Socialists, the left-wing political faction within the EU Parliament. In September of the previous year, the EU Parliament, invoking Article 7 of the TEU, condemned the “deliberate and systematic efforts of the Hungarian government” to undermine European values. Consequently, it declared that Hungary could no longer be considered a democracy but had shifted towards an “electoral autocracy.” Both Fico and Orbán are acutely aware that their countries are deeply integrated within the EU, and that any future economic stability of both nations heavily depends on the availability of EU cohesion funds. It falls upon EU institutions and its leaders to strategically employ the sticks and carrots, navigating critical foreign policy questions that involve unanimity voting, to cultivate trust with the “black sheep of Europe.”

Should any of the radical measures of the fourth Fico’s government materialize, the existing V3+1 configuration within the V4 group may no longer endure. Instead, a new reality of a permanent V2+V2 division might emerge, with Hungary and Slovakia eyeing the East, while Czechia and Poland embracing the West more firmly. This has the potential to temporarily disrupt the historical closeness of Central Europe. However, echoing the wisdom of Benjamin Disraeli, “finality is not the language of politics.” In other words, nothing in politics, especially in the realm of democracy, is permanent. Next year, the V4 countries will be commemorating 20 years of joining the EU club. Now is the opportune moment to assess past achievements and contemplate the future.

Note: The “Sejm” – Poland’s parliament consisting of 460 deputies – voted on Mr. Tusk’s new government, with 248 members in favor and 201 against, leading to his swearing in as the new Prime Minister on Wednesday, December 13, 2023. This information transpired subsequent to the initial writing of this article.

Written by Peter Janiš, Edited by Viktor Kharyton

Photo Credit: Flux