Dalibor ROHAC: The Europe after Visegrad

The Europe after Visegrad

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Dalibor ROHAC

Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies European political and economic trends. He is concurrently a research associate at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels and a fellow at Anglo-American University in Prague.

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The inevitable split of the Visegrad Group does not discredit Central Europe. A rejection of the often disingenuous and pro-Russian ‘conservatism’ of Orban’s party is, in fact, a necessary precondition for the rest of the region to assert itself as a serious, constructive player – writes Dalibor ROHAC

.The tension over Russia and Ukraine always existed within the Visegrad Group, but the war brought it to the surface in a blatant, visible form. For Poland in particular, Russia represents an existential threat that must be contained and deterred.

Hungary’s policy of appeasement and accommodation, as well as its long-standing undercutting of Ukraine driven by deep-seated revanchist and revisionist motives, are utterly incompatible with the view in Warsaw, but also in Prague and Bratislava.

Moreover, the Hungarian side has shown no willingness to correct its course, sticking instead with an effectively pro-Putin interpretation of events and sabotaging the EU’s collective efforts to help Ukraine. That is why returning to the relations as they were until now seems unlikely, given, for example, Hungary’s initial attitude toward the EU’s embargo on Russian oil exports or, more recently, the spat between the speaker of the Hungarian parliament, Laszlo Kover, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

At the same time, there is little hope for a change in Hungarian politics from within. In part because of Hungary’s gerrymandered electoral system and in part because of genuine widespread support for Orban, Fidesz’s electoral mandate remains very strong. Moreover, Orban’s 2022 campaign was explicit about his intention to distance Hungary from the conflict and to shield the Hungarian population from any costly measures that other European countries might adopt to help Ukraine – a set of propositions which continue to resonate among the Hungarian public, that harbours less sympathy for the Ukrainian cause and has far less fear of Russian aggression than citizens of other states in the region.

If the war is brought to an unexpectedly rapid end – through a Minsk II-like agreement forced on Ukraine by Western powers, for example – there will be efforts in Budapest to repair relations with ideologically like-minded neighbours and to put the war in the rear-view mirror. However, barring utter defeat of Russia creates a risk that any ‘peace’ settlement will only be short-lived and that the threat of Russia will continue to loom large in Central and Eastern Europe, making the current gap between Hungary and Poland unbridgeable. That raises the question of whether Central Europe can present a unified front to the rest of Europe and act as an effective, conservatively minded force within the EU.

There are different flavours of conservative thought across Central Europe – from the more traditional, fusionist one dominating in the Czech Republic to the distinctly Catholic version prevailing in Poland and Slovakia. Yet, it is worth stressing the conservatism of Viktor Orban is inauthentic and remains limited to high-profile culture war questions like gender ideology or immigration.

Orban, after all, started his political career as a young liberal. From 1998 to 2002, he led a distinctly pro-European government. It was only during his time in opposition (2002-2010) that he reinvented himself, not really as a conservative but rather as a nationalist: suspicious of free markets, economic integration with the West, immigration, and ‘Brussels.’ His efforts in office after 2010 were focused on consolidating power both through constitutional reforms that weakened checks and balances and also through economic changes that developed an economy-wide network of patronage with Orban at the top – hardly an example of conservative economic policymaking.

Most importantly, however, his tenure was characterized by consistent outreach to Russia and China under the aegis of ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy, effectively questioning Hungary’s place as part of Western alliances.

The inevitable split of the Visegrad Group does not discredit Central Europe. A rejection of the often disingenuous and pro-Russian ‘conservatism’ of Orban’s party is, in fact, a necessary precondition for the rest of the region to assert itself as a serious, constructive player.

Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic States have already established themselves as clear leaders on the matter of war in Ukraine and equally enjoy the backing of the United Kingdom and the United States, in addition to the Nordic countries. Without these countries, it is hard to imagine the response that the EU has secured thus far – inadequate as it may seem – or the continual support of EU institutions for Ukraine’s EU membership, in spite of scepticism coming from Berlin and Paris.

With this, Central Europe is playing the role of a significant actor on the side of Ukraine. It is no longer a region being played, but a player. On a separate pole remain the capitals of Western Europe, including Paris and Berlin. Their perception of Russia is driven primarily by the complacency and a mistakenly optimistic historic outlook still dominating in the West.

To many in Western Europe, Russian aggression appears as an incomprehensible aberration from the peaceful status quo, which will surely reassert itself sooner or later by the weight of positive-sum logic and reason. Hungary aside, Eastern Europeans understand well that Russian commitment to empire and willingness to resort to atavistic instruments of foreign policy is a defining trait of successive regimes in the Kremlin.

Western European complacency, in turn, is linked to the fact that neither Germany nor France perceives themselves as vulnerable to Russian aggression, unlike their neighbours to the East. Ultimately, there are well-organized special interests at the highest echelons of French and German politics which have been cultivated for years and which maintain a keen desire to return to business-as-usual.

.We need to find a way of managing the differences in a constructive way within the EU, which would allow Europe to play some of its productive roles, while also ensuring the security of Central and Eastern Europe. It is exceedingly obvious that Central and Eastern Europeans will continue to rely primarily on security guarantees provided by the transatlantic alliance, particularly by the United States – not on the chimaera of a European defence peddled by France. However, European integration does entail significant benefits that are not made any less important by the divergence between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe, which is why it is critical to seek a genuine European modus vivendi within the EU’s confines.

Dalibor Rohac

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