The V4 will never agree on Russia

Partners in illberalism: Vladimir Putin and Victor Orbán. [The Kremlin]

It would be hard to find a political issue that divides the Visegrád group more than their opinion of the Putin regime. EurActiv Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, and Budapest’s Political Capital, report.

While the relationship between NATO and the Russian Federation is tenser than it has ever been since the end of the Cold War, and the V4 decided to send 150 soldiers apiece to the Russian border, which constitutes NATO’s eastern flank, members of the group differ widely on their approach to the Kremlin.

Though the traditionally anti-Moscow Poland views President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical efforts as an existential threat to the Baltic states, the Slovakian and Hungarian leaderships are significantly more pro-Russian in this regard. The Hungarian government disguises its pro-Russian stance behind a mask of pragmatism.In the Czech Republic, conversely, President Miloš Zeman openly espouses pro-Russian views.

Although the Visegrád Group followed EU policy since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, and it supported the sanctions and stood up for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, important differences are noticeable between the policies followed by the four individual governments.

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In the following joint article, we will give an overview of the relations between the V4 and Russia and their opinion on the Ukrainian crisis.

Czechs fight against Russian propaganda

Russia´s relationships with western countries have been getting worse over the last few years. The Czech Republic is not an exception. The annexation of Crimea and continuing war in eastern Ukraine are the main reasons why the Czech government has supported EU sanctions since the beginning. Its stance is consistent in this regard.

However, one member of the executive branch opposes this stance. Czech President Miloš Zeman has repeatedly stated that sanctions against Moscow damage Czech agriculture and industry. Last year he even declared that “sanctions are an expression of helplessness”. Jaroslav Hanák, the president of the Confederation of Industry of the Czech Republic, has a similar opinion. “We have to take the initiative and propose lifting the sanctions against Russia, especially in the Visegrad Group,” he thinks.

Economic sanctions against Russia probably have had a negative impact on trade between Russia and the Czech Republic. In 2012, bilateral trade amounted to CZK 270 million (€10 million), but in 2015 it was only CZK 180 million (€6.6 million). On the other hand, only 1.9% of total Czech exports went to Russia in 2016. The interests of Czech entrepreneurs focused on Russian markets are understandable. Despite the efforts of Czech business and Zeman, the government´s stance has not changed and, according to many pundits, that is a good thing.

“In my opinion, the policy of our government is correct. However, it would be appropriate if this position would be stressed more loudly to the public,” said Michael Romancov, a political geographer from Charles University in Prague. “V4 countries have to be united in their stances against Russia. We have to oppose Russian policy, which is dangerous mainly for smaller states and states that are situated in the area of Russian – or former Soviet – influence,” he added.

Top 09 MEP Jaromír Štětina (EPP) is more sceptical. “Czech policy towards Russian aggression is too cautious. Pragmatism exceeds the protection of human rights and international law. Czech politicians should demand tougher sanctions,” he said. In his view, V4 countries should follow the example of Poland. “We should be aware of security threats and strengthen our cooperation with NATO. I would also like to see NATO troops in the Czech Republic,” he added.

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Disinformation strongly affects Czech society

However, the issue is not only Crimea, the Ukrainian war and sanctions. Recently, we have been able to observe increasingly serious efforts to fight disinformation and propaganda in the Czech Republic. According to opinion polls, many Czechs believe news that is unverified or unreliable, so the efforts of the Czech government have a purpose. For example, a survey undertaken by the STEM agency in June 2016 concludes that more than a half of Czech citizens are convinced that the United States is the cause of migration from Syria. A quarter believes so-called alternative media and disinformation websites and almost 40% of them think that Washington caused the Ukrainian crisis.

The Czech Ministry of Interior established a new Centre against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, which should, inter alia, focus on disinformation and propaganda in the Czech Republic. There is a similar project on the European level called East StratCom Task Force that was primarily created to fight against the Russian disinformation campaign. Jakub Kalenský, a Czech journalist, is a member of this force. According to Kalenský, the best way to fight foreign propaganda is the establishment of national centres as the Czech government did.

Barbora Knappová from the Prague Security Studies Institute also confirms the presence of Russian hybrid threats. “The most common way is spreading disinformation on so-called alternative websites. However, Russia influences European public opinion in several ways. These include connections with political parties, even extremist ones, support of paramilitary groups or financial and economic tools,” she stressed.

As far as the Centre against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats is concerned, the Czech president strongly disagrees with it. He repeatedly stressed that no one has a monopoly on truth. He also expressed his doubts about the danger of cyber attacks a few weeks ago. According to him, “the claptraps about all sorts of cyber attacks are kind of a fashion”. Regardless of the president´s words, the Czech government takes these modern threats seriously.

Poland: Relations are cold but disinformation still works

Poland and Russia do not have the best relationship. While the shared, difficult history is certainly a factor, including but not limited to the Cold War period when Poland was a little more than a puppet state for Russia, there are also other factors. Given the hostility between Russia and the West in general, Poland is worried about Russian military exercises and build-up, but the actual bilateral relationship is not used to ease the tension.

As Piotr Buras, the director of the ECFR’s Warsaw Office, noted, “the current [bilateral] relations are on a very low, working level. They are kept this way due to the Russian policy towards Ukraine, as well as relations between Russia and the West, which Poland has little opportunity to change,” said Buras.

Poland has been clear in denouncing the annexation of Crimea by Russia as a violation of international law. Since then, it has led a strong campaign for sanctions against Russia on the international scene, including the European Union.

Other than that, the relationship is rather unfriendly at the moment and openly pro-Russian views have a hard time in making their way into the political mainstream. Nevertheless, that does not mean that Poland has been spared by various pro-Russian disinformation campaigns – far from it. “While due to our shared history it might have seemed that we would be more resistant to Russian disinformation, we are submitting to it. While Russia in Poland cannot use openly pro-Russian elements, it is skilled at exploiting weak spots,” Marta Kowalska, a research fellow at the Pułaski Foundation said.

The economic relationship is also affected by hard feelings between Poland and Russia. Russian gas, and to lesser extent oil, are still important elements of the Polish energy supply. Furthermore, Russia used to be an important export destination for many different branches of the Polish economy, especially for Polish agriculture. Given the current strained state of the relationship between Poland and Russia, the situation is changing. Poland is still the 12th most important trade partner for Russia, but both imports and exports have been falling every year, including the export of machinery from Poland, which is quite important from the perspective of Poland, not to mention the heavy hit taken by Polish agricultural exports in the wake of sanctions against Russia.

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Poland and Ukraine: struggling to find a common ground on difficult shared history

Polish-Ukrainian relations, despite Polish support for Kiev since the Maidan protests, including the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, have become more complicated since the change of government in Poland in 2015. Officially, the Polish government, as Prime Minister Beata Szydło has said, “considers free and independent Ukraine to be a guarantee of security for Poland” and to achieve that goal Warsaw wants to pursue bilateral projects and work together with Kiev. But the situation is not as clear as it would seem.

Poland and Ukraine can hardly find a common ground in conversations about difficult elements of shared history. Debate on current challenges is often burdened by the politics of memory. For example, Ukrainian nationalists insist on celebrating heroes who are considered criminals by the Polish side, while the Polish Sejm defines the actions of the Ukrainian resistance between 1943 and 1945 as ‘genocide’.

Russian disinformation targets tensions between Warsaw and Kiev

These factors leave Poland highly susceptible to Russian disinformation. As Kowalska told EURACTIV POLAND, “Moscow wants to further strain Polish-Ukrainian relations, so Russian disinformation keenly targets Polish-Ukrainian history.”

On the one hand, putting Russian actions aside, Łukasz Jasina of the Polish Institute of International Affairs noted that “after the Maidan revolution the Ukrainian approach to Poland has become more pragmatic: relations with Poland are worth as much as it is possible to gain from them. Hence the cool approach of Kiev to the present government [of Poland]: due to the tensions between Warsaw and Brussels, Ukraine is aware that Poland no longer can be as effective on their behalf in Brussels”. The growing sense of tension between Poland and Ukraine may continue to loom larger over the coming months, increasing the chance for diplomatic conflict. On the other hand, according to Kowalska, Russian-Polish relations will continue to be de facto frozen, as “there is no chance for improvement in the short-term”.

Slovakia: Reluctant, but still in line with EU sanctions

Pro-Russian sentiment dating back to the second half of the 19th century is still able to sneak into modern politics in Slovakia, as its historical experience differs from that of its neighbours. During the Bratislava Summit on 16 September 2016, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico managed to spark an outcry with his assessment on the fulfilment of the Minsk II agreement. Reuters quoted Fico, who said, “Ukraine is doing less than Russia to meet Minsk deal.” At times, Fico questions the sanctions imposed by the EU. At the EU level, however, Slovakia is perfectly in line with the Union’s sanctions regime. President Andrej Kiska holds a different opinion on Russia than Fico. The attitudes of the two have been consistent since the annexation of Crimea.

Alexander Duleba of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA) notes that Slovak Prime Minister was able find a common interest with Kyiv in rejecting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, but at the same time he attended the WWII commemoration in Moscow. President Kiska is, on the contrary, frequently promoting common European decision-making and the need for maintaining the sanctions. Somewhere in the middle, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Miroslav Lajčák is trying to find a common ground, Duleba explained.

The expert stresses that Slovakia in reality enabled Ukraine to stop importing gas from Russia. “That shows Slovakia’s importance for the energy security of Ukraine and the act should be considered a clear support in the context of confrontation with Russia,” Duleba said.

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Public ambivalence

In March 2016, opinion polls made by Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) were featured in Diverging Voices, Converging Policies, a publication of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. One of the authors of the pan-Visegrad analysis, Grigorij Mesežnikov said: “We see the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as a test to our societies, our foreign policy and the politicians.”

Slovakia was at the time the sole V4 country in which the level of trust in Russians was higher than it was in America (33 % vs. 23%). “We can confirm that the Slovak public have traditionally had a relatively greater affinity towards Russia than any of their neighbours have. […] The Slovak public view is characterised by ambivalence and the prioritisation of its own pragmatically understood short-sighted interests over more value-based positions,” Grigorij Mesežnikov and Oľga Gyárfášová wrote.

One year later, opinion leaders advocating lifting the sanctions against Russia, such as the PM Fico, are turning increasingly vocal, Mesežnikov told EurActiv. If Russia decides to attack Ukraine once again, the public is more likely to side with Ukraine. Until then, the important thing is the viewpoint of opinion-forming politicians and the way the media addresses the conflict.

On the necessity of a new anti-propaganda unit

In Slovakia, like elsewhere in the V4 region, there are dozens of media outlets disseminating Russian propaganda. For more than three years, experts such as Jaroslav Naď of the Security Slovak Policy Institute (SSPI), have been pointing out that even the comment sections on news websites are riddled with paid opinions devised abroad, the payments possibly coming from Russian intelligence. Minister of Interior Robert Kaliňák finally acknowledged this fact two years later by saying that there are “information channels” trying to undermine Slovakia´s position in Euro-Atlantic structures.

EURACTIV Slovakia consulted with claim there is a need to set up a unit dealing with propaganda on a national level. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior, Michaela Paulenová, said that hybrid warfare is to be tackled in the forthcoming update of the Security Strategy. She didn’t disclose whether the ministry is considering the establishment of a specialized body such as in the Czech Republic.

Paulenová, however, suggested that “certain elements of the targeted Russian propaganda and resentment towards the EU and NATO in Slovakia” are addressed by the National Security and Analytical Centre (NBAC), which brought together representatives of major state security authorities. Mitigating risks posed by the dissemination of extremist propaganda in cyberspace, she explained, is further boosted by a project entitled EMICVEC (Effective Monitoring, Investigation and Countering of Violent Extremism in Cyberspace).

Hungary aims to be the ‘pillar’ of renewed EU-Russian relations

Since the start of the Ukrainian crisis Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán have met three times in two years. The latest meeting in the series took place on 2 February, 2017, when the Russian president visited Budapest. This is unparalleled among European leaders and the frequency of meetings indicates that the Hungarian government has a special attitude towards the Russian leadership.

“This is not a relationship based on mutual trust. Viktor Orbán was one of the most anti-Russian politicians in Europe between 1988 and 2009, which Moscow has not forgotten” – said Russia expert András Rácz, a professor at Pázmány Péter Catholic University. Viktor Orbán’s longstanding anti-Russian stance evaporated right after he briefly met Vladimir Putin in 2009. However, what happened during the discussion has been a mystery ever since. Rácz believes Russian-Hungarian relations form an asymmetric system based on occasional interests in the frames of which the Hungarian government’s goal is to secure cheap energy to aid its re-election, while the Russian side’s purpose is to advance the abolishment of the sanctions.

Pragmatism based on Hungary’s energy dependence on Russia has always been a decisive factor in defining incumbent Hungarian governments’ Moscow-strategy, and one of the most important building blocks of current Hungarian-Russian relations is the partially top secret Paks project planned to be financed from a loan from Russia. However, the long-term gas contracts allow for low energy prices, which aided Orbán is securing another term in 2014. “I would not consider Hungary a part of the Russian sphere of influence, but certainly an entity Moscow poured resources into, and for this Putin expects something in return,” said György Deák András, a senior research fellow at the World Economy Institute.

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Relativizing the Russian geopolitical aggression

Budapest mainly differs from the more hard line Poland and the Baltic states in that it does not see the continuity of the threat posed by Russia in relation to the crisis in Ukraine. During his joint press conference with Putin, Viktor Orbán went as far as praising the achievements of Hungarian-Russian bilateral economic ties in the face of the “strongly anti-Russian sentiment in the Western part of the continent” and what he considers to be “fashionable anti-Russian politics”.

With regards to the crisis in Ukraine, Orbán only emphasised the importance of implementing the Minsk Treaty, by which he practically relativized the Russian aggression and at the same time made the official Hungarian stance supporting Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and European integration look frivolous. “The Hungarian government’s stance repeatedly emphasising Minsk II. It’s music to the Kremlin’s ears. Russia is not featured in the agreement as a concerned party in any way and neither does the issue of Crimea. Consequently, the Minsk Treaty cannot be the basis of a future wide-reaching settlement for Ukraine,” said Russia expert Biró Sz. Zoltán.

The Orbán government defined Hungary’s role as one of the “pillars” of restarting EU-Russia relations by constantly arguing for lifting sanctions, which led Russian propaganda channel Sputnik to call Hungary the “battering ram” of the Kremlin. Fidesz claims sanctions have caused a serious loss in the volume of exports to Hungary. “The sanctions policy does not only influence the performance of Russian economy, but also that of former Soviet republics closely tied to Russia, which has quite strong effects on Hungary. The total loss amounts to USD 6.7 billion due to the decline in the volume of goods and services exported,” Deputy State Secretary for Eastern Opening Zsolt Csutora tols Political Capital. The minister admitted that his number is not based on the real data from 2013, but on a sanctionless 2014-2016 scenario. Zoltán Sz. Bíró believes the goal of the government echoing this completely unrealistic number is to create a reason for criticising the sanctions policy.

Following the Russian pattern

The now regular Russian-Hungarian leadership summits’ significance in non-economic matters is underlined by the fact that Viktor Orbán himself referred to the success of the Russian illiberal model in 2014, and it seems like he follows the Russian example when he moves again free media and civil society organisations “attempting to overthrow the government” or the ones labelled as “foreign agents”. Moreover, the Hungarian government’s rhetoric does not touch upon the existence of the information war that is accepted as a part of official Russian hybrid warfare, which is the opposite of the practice in the region, even though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s background institution admitted that the Russian propaganda machine uses Hungary as a tool in its attack against Western values and the EU.

Increasing political influence is also indicated by the fact that the Russian thread is not explored or investigated properly in cases threatening Hungarian or regional national security that involve Russian secret services’ influencing attempts. For example, in the case of the far-right paramilitary organisation holding joint drills with “Russian diplomats,” the Russian connection has not been investigated appropriately and it is unlikely this will happen due to close Hungarian-Russian relations.

This situation has materialised in a society where 32% of Hungarian respondents to a survey said Hungary should be part of the West, and Eastern-oriented respondents were barely visible (6%). The relative majority (50%) would place our nation between the West and the East – at least in geopolitical and cultural terms.