Conference report: What Next for Ukraine and the Visegrad Group: Reassessing Strained or Disinterested Relationships

April 17, 2018

Conference report "What Next for Ukraine and the Visegrad Group: Reassessing Strained or Disinterested Relationships" 

Venue and date: Central European University, Budapest, Nádor utca 15, 103 Tiered Room, March 28, 2018.  

On March 28 Center for European Neighbourhood Studies in cooperation with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung conducted a conference "What Next for Ukraine and the Visegrad Group: Reassessing Strained or Disinterested Relationships". Below are the minutes of the conference authored by Daniel Matok.

Jan Niklas Engels, Director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Budapest Office opened the event by welcoming all participants and argued that Ukraine is a hot topic of European politics at the moment. He introduced the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, and expressed his happiness about the cooperation between FES and CEU. Jan Niklas Engels also emphasized that there is a need for more international dialogue since it brings peaceful partnership.

In his opening remarks, Professor Péter Balázs, Director of CENS and former Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs explained that Ukraine and the Visegrad countries have a land connection into the heart of Europe. Professor Balázs told that the border between Ukraine and the V4 countries is of crucial importance since the external border of the European Union is located there, which has implications for the movement of peoples and commodities, and the customs union, therefore, it is very interesting to analyze the relations of these countries. Professor Balázs extended his introduction and also talked about the relationship of Hungary with Ukraine.

Péter Balázs referred to the program description of the event by citing that there is no established working platform between Ukraine and the V4 and noted that the Visegrad countries have no working platform with any other actor due to its loose structure. He continued by reasoning that the V4 is a club within the big society of the EU and the NATO and said that it is somewhat similar to the Benelux countries. Nonetheless, in the case of V4 several problems arise when heads of states hold meetings before the EU meetings. Péter Balázs talked about the history of the Visegrad countries and also explained why the organization has not been developed further. There was a perception that the V4 should not be a challenger to the EU, and after the successful accession of the 4 countries to the EU its importance declined. In sum, the V4 is an intergovernmental organization and there would be a need for more dialogue and agreement for further cooperation.

Péter Balázs continued by describing that today there is a special harmony between Hungary and Poland concerning the contestation of EU decisions. The Czech Republic has been in an election period and the Slovak government has been pro-European. Accordingly, the V4 is a very loose club of friends and the same could be said about its foreign relations. The Visegrad cooperation is very attractive for Austria, Romania and Slovenia but sometimes also for other countries. An example for this would be the instance when the GUAM group has approached Hungary earlier to engage in cooperation.

After the borders of Hungary were redrawn, the country has 7 neighbors which is unprecedented and created a new situation with many opportunities and chances. Interestingly, Ukraine has the shortest border with Hungary while being its largest neighbor at the same time. Traditionally there is a good relation and good perceptions between the two countries. According to Péter Balázs, this is also valid for the people-to-people contacts.  

Péter Balázs mentioned that problems at the moment have two sources. First, the Hungarian practice of granting citizenship to people outside the country while ignoring the legislation of neighboring countries has caused tensions. This proved problematic in Slovakia and Ukraine due to fears of secession and interference in domestic issues. Citizenship is mainly meant to be given to people with Hungarian ancestors but there should be an agreement between the concerned countries. Professor Balázs gave the example of Spain who only provided citizenship for certain individuals after consulting other involved actors. There is also a second thought on granting citizenship by the Hungarian government: increasing the number of votes for the government in power which is a form of actual political manipulation. In other words, short term political calculation is paired with the ideas of citizenship. In addition, business speculations are also present behind this, advertisements were present in Transcarpathia and companies specialized to provide help to get a Hungarian passport.

The second source of contemporary tensions concerns education. For the Hungarians living in Transcarpathia, it is important to receive education in their mother tongue and to use Ukrainian as well.  The biggest minority in Ukraine is the Russian community and they are always targeted by the considerations of the government while the Hungarian minority only makes up 0.2% of the whole population. When thinking about policies regarding minorities, the Hungarians should keep this in mind and understand the Ukrainian aspirations in this light. Péter Balázs described a similar case, when Hungarian textbooks could not be printed for a while in Ukraine. He talked to Petro Poroshenko, a foreign minister at the time, and this was an illustration how relations could be deescalated. During their negotiations Professor Balázs argued that 0.2% is not a threat to the Ukrainian identity. The current situation illustrates that Hungarian government is always increasing tensions while, Péter Balázs opined, decreasing conflicts would have been a much better solution.

Panel I: Ukraine-Hungary, Ukraine-Poland: Relations Strained and Tested

Margaryta Rymarenko, CEU Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations Alumna chaired the first panel discussion and started the talk by introducing the speakers.

Dmytro Tuzhanskyi, from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Ukraine, started the discussion by presenting the Ukrainian side of the Hungarian-Ukrainian relations. He thinks that relations are not just difficult now, but sees it as a crisis between a post-revolutionary Ukraine and Hungary. He continued by claiming that it is not simply a topic concerning Budapest and Kyiv, but also Brussels and Moscow too. He interestingly noted that 8 months ago no one could have imagined that Péter Szijjarto could become the most cited Hungarian in the Ukrainian media. Tuzhanskyi believes that today’s tensions are not the result of the adoption of the education law. He argued that it was only an excuse, and if it had not been for the education law, another cause could have been found. The real source of the tension is to be found in the asymmetric relations between Kyiv and Budapest. Tuzhasnkyi explained that in the first talk of Orban after getting re-elected in 2014 he mentioned Ukraine and emphasized the special role of Ukraine and afterwards all efforts from Budapest targeted double citizenship and autonomy. Nonetheless, Ukraine could not satisfy the new expectations of Budapest. According to the speaker, the problem is that in the post-revolutionary independent Ukraine it is difficult to discuss the question of double citizenship due to the annexation of Crimea and the currently ongoing war. At the same time in Ukraine they don’t understand the politics of Hungary. Newspapers still frequently present Jobbik as the most far-right party. The problem, as Tuzhanskyi reasoned, is that Budapest is still looking at Ukraine through the prism of Russian media and the Russian imperialist perspective. However, Hungary should look at Ukraine as an independent actor with its own interests and agency. The speaker closed his talk with an optimistic outlook as he saw a fatigue of conflict and the need for new dialogue where Transcarpathia could serve as a bridge.

Agnieszka Legucka, expert from the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) discussed the relations between Poland and Ukraine and called these as complex. According to Legucka, Poland and the V4 cooperation is important today as Poland grew more skeptical about the European Union and started to see the Visegrad cooperation, especially Hungary as an actor that can support dialogue about migration. She characterized the relations between Poland and Ukraine as the coldest and lowest since the fall of the Soviet Union. She stressed that Poland had good “PR” before 2015 but this has changed afterwards. Legucka called Ukraine a strategic partner of the times but thinks that historical issues were ignored. She said that Poland and Ukraine had good partnership, but this was only declarative. After the rise of PIS in Poland, the schizophrenia approach gained momentum – alongside with controversies with Ukraine Polish government understands that Ukraine is under attack and supports it against Russia. She gave the example when Poland provided credit for Ukraine. When talking about security, Poland supports Ukraine but the nationalistic narrative grew strong after 2015 which caused conflicts. Legucka mentioned the importance of history multiple times and claimed that nationalism also became more prominent in the case of Ukraine due to the aggression of Russia. She finished her talk by suggesting that Poles and Ukrainians should resolve tensions concerning historical conflicts and stressed that the interpretations of history are crucial when national identities are becoming more important.

Hennadiy Maksak, head of the board of the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”,depictedrelations between Poland and Ukraine as uncomfortable. He expanded on this subsequently and argued that Ukraine still considers Poland as a strategic partner and relations between the two countries are well institutionalized. According to him, this is manifested in various expert and civic projects, he also provided the example of the working group on historical issues and the intergovernmental groups. Maksak continued his talk by explaining that Ukrainians perceive historical remembrance differently than the Poles. In Ukraine people think that the bureaucratic level has to deal with history and it should not be discussed in the political arena. There were multiple meetings between high level political actors, but he sees these as signs of cooperation. Maksak shared his views on the future of relations: He expects no change and improvement due to domestic political features of the two countries. Although, he believes that the strategic cooperation could be continued and there has been a good dialogue between deputy ministers recently in Ukraine. Maksak hopes that this could be the beginning of new cooperation and remembered that the two countries are still strategic partners. Possibly, political change in Poland could be a source of improvements in the future.

Margaryta Rymarenko closed the panel discussion and invited the guests to participate which resulted in a lively Q and A session.

Panel II: Ukraine-Slovakia, Ukraine-Czech Republic. Potential Undiscovered.

Łukasz Janulewicz, researcher at CEU Center for European Neighborhood Studies, acted as a chair of the second panel discussion and mentioned the split in the V4. He touched upon the main topics that concerned the relations of the three countries and gave the example of Slovakia, which provided gas for Ukraine and Czech Republic as a popular destination for Ukrainian workers. After introducing the speakers, he gave the floor to the experts.

Dušan Fischer, an expert from the Slovak Foreign Policy Association,started his talk by arguing thatthe largest obstacle in the relations between Slovakia and Ukraine is Russian factor. He first talked about the relations in the context of the V4. Slovakia always claimed that the Visegrad cooperation is important. However, Mr. Fischer believed that Slovaks talk about close cooperation in their rhetoric but don’t act accordingly in reality. Subsequently, he discussed a new Slovak national security strategy and emphasized that Ukraine is mentioned more often than any other country.  

When considering energy policies, Slovakia is expected to provide gas for Ukraine in the future too. Energy security, the fight against disinformation are both important fields of cooperation between the two countries. The speaker cited Ivan Miklos saying that Ukraine has no other option than heading towards NATO and the European Union after 2014. Fischer gave an optimistic forecast and sees opportunities for further cooperation while referring to Rusins (Ruthenians) in the eastern part of Slovakia. Fischer also quickly described the domestic political situation and claimed that the Slovakian government is not united at the moment. The president is pro-Ukrainian in his views, but the speaker of the parliament is pro-Russian. The former Prime Minister Fico was more pragmatic and looked at what society thinks about Ukraine. When discussing public perceptions, he said that Slovaks are mostly pro-Ukrainian but the situation with Fico who failed to criticize Russia for the annexation of Crimea was misleading. He finalized his talk by noting that the Euro-Atlantic integration is not the last step, but only the first one to be made.

Maryna Vorotnyuk, researcher at CEU Center for European Neighborhood Studies (CENS)characterized the relationship between Ukraine and Slovakia aspuzzling: two countries have no history of conflicts, however there is some historical indifference due to the lack of interaction. There is no consistent interest and knowledge between them and relations seem to be sporadic. Slovakia and Ukraine could best be called as unknown neighbors. Dr. Vorotnyuk continued her talk by discussing the most important topic on the bilateral agenda: energy policies. Ukraine does not import Russian gas anymore - since 2014 Slovakia has supplied gas to Ukraine in reverse mode. Apparently energy security has put the two countries in the same boat, meaning that their interests became alike. Both oppose the construction of the North stream gas pipeline by Russia. Slovakia’s support for the ratification of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement and visa-free regime could be mentioned as other important issues which should not be underestimated. Slovakia has kept the topic of visa-free regime on the EU agenda during its Presidency of the Council of the EU in the 2nd half of 2016 and despite ‘Ukraine fatigue’ it managed to push forward this issue. Andrej Kiska, the president of Slovakia since 2014 and who is known for his pro-Ukrainian stance, personally traveled to the border of Slovakia and Ukraine for symbolical ceremony to celebrate the success of the project with his Ukrainian counterpart.

Maryna Vorotnyuk also provided conceptual underpinning of the relations between Slovakia and Ukraine. Misconceptions exist in between the two countries and societies don’t know each other well enough. There has been a popular perception that everything behind the Carpathians is Russia, and it still has to be overcome. Bratislava naturally gravitates towards other neighbors and connections to its eastern neighbor are scarce. On the other side, Ukrainian establishment has a tradition of perceiving Slovakia as a small unimportant neighbor. Accordingly, Ukraine overlooked an important opportunity for cooperation since Slovakia started to subscribe itself to the ‘core’ of Europe. Ukraine refers to the V4 relatively frequently, regarding democratic transition and the example was noted of Petro Poroshenko referring to Slovakia as model of post-communist transition in his Annual Address to the Parliament. Maryna Vorotnyuk added that the political actors should go further than rhetoric because no consistent actions have been taken yet.

The Slovak political scene is split on their views about Russia, according to the speaker, sometimes attitude to Ukraine is not an issue in its own right, but a reflection of a wider debate about strategic coordinates of the state. She continued the discussion of this topic by reasoning that it’s a value based debate, about where Slovakia belongs to. Where is the strategic anchor of the state? Does Slovakia belong to the core of Europe or something else? Is Slovakia part of the East or West? Where does Ukraine fit in this collective imaginary? These are all questions that divide the society at the moment. Slovakia is known for its pro-Russian sentiment which originates in Panslavism. In addition, Slovak nationalism is pro-Russian historically as Russia acted as a natural ally against the Habsburgs in times of the Monarchy. Maryna Vorotnyuk cited a poll which was made by the Institute for public affairs in 2015 and it showed that Slovaks have the least trust in Hungarians, Americans and Ukrainians. Which is interesting since Slovaks have no tension or connection with the latter two countries. She argued that this is due to the lack of information and media consumption from Russian sources that shed a negative light on Ukraine. Dr. Vorotnyuk finished her talk by noting that it remains to be seen whether the pro-European pathos can bring the two countries together.

Ondřej Zacha, Czech expert from the Strategic Policy Institute- STRATPOL, Bratislava, portrayed the relationship of the Czech Republic and Ukraine as having big historical potential, but there is a lack of interest and unprofessionalism in the Czech foreign policy He emphasized during his talk several times, that unfortunately the potential cannot be capitalized on since there is no political interest. Subsequently, he characterized the Czech foreign policy as lacking leading ideas. Earlier, it has focused on the “Return to Europe”. Nonetheless, after the successful EU accession of 2004 no further directions have been identified. Furthermore, he also explained that value based foreign policy has been criticized but no legitimate option has been offered instead. Economic diplomacy gained more dominance but it had no ideological background. The big split between the president and the government also has an influence on the foreign policy of the Czech Republic. There has been a direct vote for the president since 2013 in the country and many people rally behind the foreign policy of the president which causes conflicts as declarations coming from him differ from views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ondřej Zacha continued by discussing general positions towards Ukraine and Russia. He noted that Ukraine cannot be discussed without talking about Russia and identified four groups within the Czech Republic based on their attitudes toward Russia.

1st group, sees Russia as a threat, and want improved relations with Ukraine and they favor more cooperation and assistance. However, this is a minority and opposition position and mainly concern liberal right-wing parties. This group has no apparent political power at present.

2nd group: Members of this group believe that the Czech Republic is too small to make a difference and feel that they need to cooperate with the EU. At the same time, they point to the dangers of pro-Kremlin diffusion. A certain part of the last government voiced this but this opinion has disappeared. This group exhibits a pro-Ukrainian view accordingly.

3rd group. This group is the biggest in its size and could be called as pragmatists. Proponents of this view think that Russia is to blame for the war but also emphasize corruption and rising nationalism in Ukraine. They believe that sanctions against Russia are too hard and think that this harms bilateral relations and Czech Republic should better focus on its economic ties. It is frequently claimed that Russia is a bigger market than Ukraine and this position is also supported by ANO. Nonetheless, the share of trade is marginal with Russia and therefore losses were tiny in reality.

4th group: Members of this group could be called friends of Russia. Milos Zeman is the voice of this side and the pro-Russian position. They believe that there is no Russian involvement in Ukraine and claim that the EU has attacked Russia with the economic sanctions. This is a minor group in the Czech society; however, they are vocal and harm the relations with Ukraine.

Zacha closed his speech by asking: What is the Czech policy going to be? He clarified that the strong pro-Kremlin position of Zeman is forcing ANO to be friendlier toward Ukraine and contradict what Zeman said. An example of this was when Zeman declared that the issue of Crimea is irreversible. In turn, the Czech government had to react to this and correct this. Although, he did not close with optimistic expectations because Zeman has been reelected and he can continue his pro-Russian rhetoric while parties that are Russia-friendly also will participate in politics.

Olexia Basarab, expert at the Strategic and Security Studies Group (Ukraine),highlighted theinterconnection between cases of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. She also agreed with earlier speakers of the panel that Russia always needs to be considered when discussing the international relations of the region. She warned in her talk that the Czech Republic became a base for Russia associated disinformation which is more dangerous when dissecting that Slovakia is consuming Czech media. Even though Slovaks had no interaction with Ukraine they get a certain image thanks to the media flows. The newly created myths are already discussed in the public discourse as disinformation gets diffused.

Olexia Besarab shared that Ukraine is watching the Czech Republic with caution, as a space to track Russian influence in the V4 countries. However, recent events also make them nervous. There was a possibility to cooperate with the communists or the party of Okamura, nonetheless the Communists are known for their support for Russia and trips to Crimea. The general picture is getting more optimistic, according to Basarab, as Babis showed pro-European attitude, e.g. expelled Russian diplomats. About the future of the relations it can be said that there are hopes based on the US to support Ukraine in the energy sector. One of this project involves Czech companies too, hopefully this kind of involvement will foster more cooperation between the countries. The speaker expressed her strong hope for pragmatism in the coming period.

After the talk of Olexia Basarab, Łukasz Janulewicz has thanked the everyone for their participation at the event and gave way for questions from the audience. Q and A session followed afterwards.