Part of the series ‘Visegrad Four: Cohesion and Divergence’

Written by Piotr Marcyznski

On the 19th of August, presidents of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic issued a joint statement supporting “the right of the people of Belarus to the free, fair and democratic presidential elections”. Moreover, leaders expressed their commitment to the political solution to the crisis, calling upon the European Council to facilitate dialogue between the authorities and protestors. The last point of the statement might be, however, the most relevant, as it created a political will to produce a joint Visegrád Four (V4) statement. Namely, it “calls on any foreign actors to refrain from actions that would undermine Belarus’ independence and sovereignty”. Under the pretense of endorsing Belarus’ right to self-govern, V4 is making a clear signal for Russia to back off.

This declaration is characteristic of the underlying suspicion over the Russian presence in the region that served as the initial impulse to create V4. The history of the organisation dates  back to February 1991 when the leaders of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia (partitioned in 1993) gathered in the Visegrad Castle in Hungary. The main goals of the Visegrad Group were “the elimination of the remnants of the Communist bloc in the region” and supporting each other on the path towards European integration. It is worth remembering that at the time of drafting the resolution, the Soviet military was still present in the region. From the onset, the Visegrad Group was held together by the shared geopolitical vision of the shift towards the West. 

Nowadays, the sense of purpose of V4 is certainly not as profound as in the 90s, simply because the organisation fulfilled the main tasks it was founded to achieve. All member countries managed to join NATO in 1999 (except for Slovakia who joined in 2004) and the EU in 2004, hence finalising the process of integration into the Western security structures. The only remaining rationale for the organisation’s existence is the continuous need to create a powerful voting bloc within the EU and the shared wariness of Russian presence in the region. Since the coherence (or lack thereof) of this voting bloc will be discussed henceforth, , I will continue with the perception of the Russian threat as a political force, as this is more relevant in the Belarussian case. 

While the joint statement manifests the shared fear over the expanding Russian influence, the following diplomatic showdown demonstrates the difference of opinion amongst members over the appropriate reaction to it. The controversy began with the PM of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, unilaterally inviting the leader of the Belarussian opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to participate in the V4 summit. The Prime Minister  of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babis, criticised the idea for contradicting the official EU policy towards Belarus. Unable to invite Tikhanovskaya to the summit, Morawiecki hosted the opposition leader in Warsaw. During her stay, Morawiecki donated the villa located in the capital to the Belarussian dissident organizations.

This diplomatic incident demonstrates the disagreement over methods of handling  protests in Belarus. Poland is willing to inflate its clout in the region by offering decisive support to the Belarussian opposition movement. On the other hand, the Czech Republic, with the covert support of Slovakia, wants to channel its support through the EU policy instruments to avoid provoking Russia. Here the discussion about protest resolution  overlaps with the disagreement over policy goals, with Poland – bordering with Russia- opting for a more confrontational foreign policy approach than the rest of the V4. 

Although the common perception of the looming Russian threat can still mobilise the coordinated political response of the V4, as shown by the joint statement on the matter, the area of understanding has its limitations. The general agreement in terms of geopolitical outlook leaves a lot of room for foreign policy disagreements.