What the V4 is not unified in: the relationship with Russia
The Prague summit of the leaders of the Visegrad countries on 15 February and the meeting of the European Council on the 18-19 put the coordinated stance of the V4-group into the spotlight again. However, there are barely any other topics besides the migrant crisis that the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia can agree on. The differences are especially sharp regarding their relationship with Russia. The 17 February visit of Viktor Orbán to Moscow directed the attention of both the domestic and international public onto this topic.
Political Capital’s previously written, and now published, study entitled: „Diverging Voices, Converging Policies: The Visegrad States’ Reactions to the Russia-Ukraine Conflict” analyses the response of Visegrad countries to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. Besides the analysts of Political Capital, Ada Ámon, Andás Deák, and Botond Feledy also contributed to the book.
Even though all V4 countries mainly followed the common union policy since the outbreak of the Ukraine-Russia conflict (voted for the sanctions, stood up for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, granted a certain level of support to Ukraine), some major differences are noticeable between the policies followed by the individual governments.
The most international attention was given to the Orbán-regime, which is considered as a model by many. The Ukraine-Russia conflict put an end to the feasibility of Orbán’s shuttlecock policy, based on which he had tried to balance Hungary’s responsibilities towards the EU and NATO and gestures toward Russia aimed at strengthening the countries’ relationship.
The Hungarian-Russian relationship is determined by three key areas. The first is pragmatism that can be considered as being dictated by energetic dependence, which is followed by all Hungarian governments and focuses on economic considerations (mainly ones related to the energy sector) instead of values and ideology. This is one of the reasons for Hungarian parties often going against their own previous stances on Russia after being elected. (See the Southern Stream, which was supported by Ferenc Gyurcsány’s government, opposed by Fidesz in opposition, turning into one of its advocates after gaining power. There is also a considerable similarity between the reactions of the Gyurcsány-cabinet to the Russian-Georgian war and the Orbán-administration’s reaction to the annexation of Crimea. Neither Gyurcsány nor Orbán rushed the decision to criticise the actions of the Kremlin, they only did after a common European stance was agreed on.)
Not all actions can be categorised as pragmatism. The Paks II. project, which is surrounded by secrecy, cannot even be defended using rational arguments (see the part of the study on the topic). It seems like Orbán Viktor’s government is getting more and more dependent on the Kremlin politically as well, besides pragmatism. Although the exact reason and extent of this cannot be measured by outside observers, there are many factors that increase the cabinet’s dependence on the Kremlin. These include the Russian loan promised for the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Plant, the now-symbolic Eastern Opening policy of the government, and the utility cost cuts that lead to a need for cheap consumer energy prices. Several signs point to the Hungarian government putting itself in a situation where they are overly reliant on Russia (e.g.: lobbying to end sanctions against Russia, propagating cooperation with Russia without any prerequisites, silence about Russia’s role in the migrant crisis, bilateral meeting without any actual goals and results that mostly hurt Hungary).
The third area is the undergoing construction of an illiberal Hungarian state, which follows the Russian example without a doubt. This is emphasised by the voting system tailored to the needs of Fidesz, the tougher and tougher control of the media, relationships based on personal dependence created to replace independent institutions, systemic corruption serving the needs of those in power, the investigations of NGOs by authorities, suggestions about the introduction of a law on „foreign agents” similar to the Russian legislation, and the ideology on which this is based. All this seriously worsens the assessment of Hungary within its own system of alliances, and strengthens the feeling in the West that the country is drifting toward the Russian sphere of influence more and more.