Analyst: Timing of “alternative” Visegrad Group not ideal

Bohuslav Sobotka, Robert Fico, Werner Faymann, photo: CTK

The prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria met Thursday at Slavkov Castle, near Brno, for a round of talks designed to strengthen ties between the three nations. However, concerns have been expressed in some geo-political circles that the grouping may be an attempt to create an alternative to the Visegrad Group, comprising the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. I spoke with Vít Beneš, research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, and began by asking him about the significance of the talks between Bohuslav Sobotka, Robert Fico and Werner Faymann.

Bohuslav Sobotka, Robert Fico, Werner Faymann, photo: CTK
“I understand the underlying logic of building-up ties – either bilateral ties between the Czech Republic and Austria, or building some kind of more regional ties incorporating Austria into the Central and Eastern European region. I also think that the drive towards warming up relations between the Czech Republic and Austria is very welcome. Because we are close neighbours and need to tackle some of the issues standing in the way of closer co-operation: energy, nuclear energy, transportation ties…”

There has been talk in some circles that the attempt, led by the Czech foreign ministry, to cement this bloc, could end up being an alternative or even rival to the Visegrad Group, and that Poland in particular has been disconcerted by the effort. To what degree do you believe such concerns are justified?

“You know, what could be problematic is the format. If it would have been a bilateral initiative designed to cement ties between the Czech Republic and Austria, nobody would have protested against that. Another alternative is by building closer ties via the ‘Visegrad Plus’. That was a meeting in December 2014 between the Visegrad four, plus Austria and Slovenia. So, from my point of view, the problem with this initiative is that it is both too big and too small at the same time. And at this time it could be seen as a competitor to the Visegrad four.”

And is there any validity to the point that relations between the Czech Republic and Poland have worsened in recent times, recently underscored by the so-called ‘rival’ Holocaust memorial events?

“Generally speaking, due to the Russian-Ukrainian war, tensions have developed between the members of the Visegrad four. It is not just the Czech Republic and Poland, it is also Poland and Hungary – to remind you, there is a Hungarian initiative to provide more autonomy for Hungarian-speaking regions in Ukraine. So the Ukrainian crisis has threatened the unity of the Visegrad four.”

Vít Beneš, photo: archive of the Institute of International Relations
The current talks will include talks over strengthening gas pipeline ties leading into Austria. Is that part of the geopolitical shift away from reliance on Russian gas?

“Because we have the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, any discussion on energy is inevitably a geopolitical issue. We must go back to the question of the timing of this initiative. I think it has been long in the making – a closer relationship between the Czech Republic and Austria is a long-term priority of this government and of the Czech Republic more generally. And it is worth pursuing this initiative. But the issue is the timing. That is the problem because these three countries are from time to time seen as being more open to Russian arguments, so to speak. We also have a president who is openly advocating the official position of the Kremlin. So the timing is not right for a regional initiative in the form of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria. It could have been possible to build closer ties through the forum of ‘Visegrad Plus’, and that would not have been seen as problematic. But if you are building a separate group of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria, then it is seen as problematic by Poland.”