On “no longer remembered” 22 December 2020, Nikolay Tochitsky, representative of Ukraine to the European Union (EU) and ambassador to Belgium, told at a press conference that the EU Eastern Partnership programme retains great potential and that the “trio” of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova can play a consolidating role.
The Eastern Partnership programme was activated in 2009. Out of six original countries mentioned here only three remained.
The Ukrainian diplomat then summarised that the three countries have already done enough in terms of economic and infrastructure projects to “attract” other countries in the programme. In the current context of war, it would seem better to forget the past successes.
In categorically unbalanced times, it is not good to say anything imperatively, but it is nevertheless prudent to consider – for example, the dramatically remaining three in the Eastern Partnership as a kind of existential complement-continuation of the “Visegrad Four” (V4; Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary).
Moreover, in the pre-war year 2021, the diversity of the consolidation of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova was perhaps not particularly visible to the naked eye, but it could be felt and noticed.
On 17 May, Aurelius Ciocoius, Interim Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Moldova, and David Zalkalian, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Georgia, visited Kiev at the invitation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba, to discuss Euro-integration issues.
On 24 June, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, in a joint publication in the portal Euractiv, stated that their countries expect the “trio” format of the EU Association to promote their countries’ co-operation with the EU on issues related to security and defence, as well as on the economic integration with Europe, as the three countries have taken a decisive step in favour of a European future with signing of an Association Agreement on 27 June 2014.
In Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, the provisions of the Agreement are being implemented consistently and the countries are complying with their commitments, despite facing various challenges. In the portal Euractiv, the Ministers said they wanted to send a signal that the Eastern Partnership needs a new impetus, as their countries are at an important crossroads and they expect their European partners and friends to continue to stand by Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova on the path towards Euro integration.
On the same day as the Euractiv text was published, the Head of diplomacy of the EU Joseph Borrell received the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine for the first time in Brussels as representatives of the EU association “trio”.
Already on 3 March of the current year, while the war in Ukraine was still raging, Kiev, followed by Georgia and Moldova, signed the EU accession application. Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz stated almost immediately that the membership of the trio in the Community was not an issue that should be raised now.
Despite the Chancellor’s scepticism, President of the European Commission (EC) Ursula Von Leyen visited Kiev on 8 April and handed over the accession questionnaire to President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, indicating that EU accession application of Kiev would be considered within weeks instead of years – a unique path, according to the EC President – and announcing the huge investments that will pave the way for accession of Ukraine.
Volodymyr Zelensky promised to complete the questionnaire within a week on behalf of his country. Kiev is turning into the locomotive of the “trio”. By the way, everything will happen only after the war is over.
In terms of money, in pre-war times, the EU raised 2.3 billion Euros for the countries participating in the Eastern Partnership, with the prospect of concentrating a further 17 billion Euros on projects, the list of which was approved in March 2020.
After the world saw first-hand in Bucha what Vladimir Putin’s ‘falcons’ were capable of, the President of Moldova Maia Sandu declared a national day of mourning on 3 April for the dead in Ukraine. Just a gesture of solidarity in the war zone, of course, but a nice symbolic gesture.
Going back to the traditional “Visegrad Four”, mentioned in the title and already mentioned in the text, it should be pointed out that the V4 is living not the best times.
Before that, it should be recalled that the organisation uniting the four Central European countries was set up by their then leaders (not just any leaders – Lech Wałęsa, Václav Havel and József Antall) on 15 February 1991 in the Hungarian city of Vyšegrad as part of a coordinated effort to integrate the four countries into the European structures, in a wide variety of different forms – from summits to permanent expert analytical centres.
The original concept of “Visegrad Group” announced that it would cooperate with other European regional organisations, such as the Benelux Group (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) or the Nordic Council of Scandinavian countries. At the time, Austria was considered for membership of the V4, followed by Slovenia.
The nature of the organisation’s activities has logically evolved over time, as all member countries have realised their ambition to integrate into Euro-Atlantic structures.
However, the current “bad times” are marked by dramatic realities due to the pro-Kremlin stance of the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban.
On 4 April, already anticipating that he would win the parliamentary elections the day before, Viktor Orban called the Hungarian billionaire philanthropist and founder of the Open Society Foundations, George Soros, Brussels bureaucrats, and the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky as his main opponents.
It is expressive, given the date of the statement, for which, for example, the President of Moldova, Maia Sandu, declared mourning on 3 April.
A meeting of V4 Ministers of Defence in Budapest in mid-March failed because the Ministers of Czech Republic and Poland simply refused to travel to the capital of Hungary.
The Czech Republic has been one of Kiev’s most important allies since the beginning of the war in Ukraine – it has supplied and is supplying arms to Ukraine, unlike many other EU and NATO members, which are actively in favour of supplying fighter jets and air defence systems to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
On 15 March, Prime Minister of Czech Republic Petr Fiala, together with his Polish and Slovenian counterparts Mateusz Morawiecki and Janez Janša, were the first European leaders since the outbreak of the war on 24 February to pay a solidarity visit to Kiev and to meet Volodymyr Zelensky, although they risked coming under the Russian shelling.
Markéta Pekarová Adamová, Speaker of the Lower House of the Czech Parliament, emphasized in an interview with the TV portal currentime.tv that her country will take in as many Ukrainian refugees as necessary (about 300,000 have already arrived), and is convinced that Vladimir Putin should be called nothing less than a war criminal.
Poland has become one of the leaders, if not the main leader, of European support for Ukraine. Having previously quarrelled with Brussels in unison with Hungary, it has now become one of the most important transport hubs for both humanitarian and all forms of aid, including military, to Ukraine, has hosted around a couple of million Ukrainians, and has been Kiev’s principle advocate on European integration and sanctions against Moscow.
The Prime Minister of Poland has bluntly called Russia a totalitarian-fascist state and has called for a radical tightening of the sanctions – a ban on the import of all energy sources, the confiscation of the assets of all Russian business oligarchs and banks in Europe.
The global initiative “#StandUpForUkraine”, launched on 25 March by the EC and the Government of Canada, which has raised 9.1 billion Euros for Ukrainian refugees, symbolically ended in Warsaw on 10 April.
Logically that the tour of US President Joe Biden in Europe on 24-26 March, following the NATO and G7 meetings in Brussels, ended in Warsaw, not in Paris or Berlin.
President of Poland Andrzej Duda said in an interview to TVN24 on 28 March that he found it difficult to understand Viktor Orban’s position on the Russian aggression against Ukraine in the backdrop of crimes against humanity by the Russian army, the deaths of thousands of peaceful people, and the attacks on residential areas. It is also difficult to understand because such a policy will be very costly for Hungary.
Although Hungary has not blocked any of the current (five) EU sanctions imposed on Moscow, and has taken in over 200,000 Ukrainian refugees, Budapest’s cavalier and blunt refusal to allow supplies of arms to Ukraine through its territory and its scepticism about sanctions as such is nevertheless seen by many in the “Visegrad Group” as repugnant.
Hungary proclaims that it will not support sanctions imposed on Russian gas, oil and nuclear energy, as this is a ‘red line’ which it will not cross. On 7 April, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary Péter Szijjártó, as if out of the blue, welcomed the fact that his country had received its first consignment of the Russian fuel for the Paks nuclear power plant on the eve of its arrival, however by air, as the war in Ukraine makes it impossible to transport it by rail.
There have been critical moments in the life of the V4 before (though, of course, not on the tragic scale of the present). “A strong Poland in the EU means a strong V4, because Central Europe means a dream that has finally come true”, as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland Radosław Sikorski told the Polish Parliament in 2013.
In autumn 2014, Marcin Kędzierski of the Jagiellonian Club, a think-tank associated with Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, made the following remark on his blog: “The ‘Visegrad Four’ has neither a present nor a past, because it is not recognized in any EU document”.
Of course, not everything is simple in the post-Soviet version of the forming V4.
Just before the war, on 21 February, the editor-in-chief of the online portal Censor. NET Yuri Butusov reported on the first time a military contingent of about two thousand Russians was put on alert in the pro-Russian enclave of Transnistria as a demonstration of threat of Moscow to Odessa of Ukraine from the Moldovan side too.
On 6 April, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not rule out the possibility of using Russian troops in Transnistria to support the operations of the Russian army in the south of Ukraine, and that the airport of the Transnistrian capital Tiraspol may be prepared to receive Russian warplanes.
It must have been depressingly difficult for the President of Moldova Maia Sandu, to state publicly in an interview with Radio Europa Liberă on 1 April that her country would strive to maintain neutrality and would not impose sanctions on Moscow with the entire democratic world: “Can we or can we not leave the country today without natural gas and electricity? No, we cannot, for the sake of our own people and for the sake of the 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, including 50,000 children.”
However, despite the geo-political-military bombshell of Transnistria “targeting” her country’s territory, the President dared to state on 17 March that Moldova is demanding Moscow to withdraw its forces from Transnistria and to dispose the explosives accumulated there.
According to the former Moldovan deputy minister for reintegration and a political scientist Vladislav Kulminski, the main task of the three countries remaining in the Eastern Partnership is not to remain in the so-called ‘grey zone’ between the democratic world and the already didactic Russia. This can only happen if their fate is negotiated by the big geopolitical players (which Moscow is particularly keen on – A.S.).
Once there, they will no longer be able to decide their own destiny, in other words, they will have to live under limited sovereignty (ideally – A.S.). Staying in the “grey zone” also means living in a situation of permanent instability, under the threat of constant shocks.
To say it simply, the “new Visegrad” is now more than ever dramatically confronted with the challenge of breaking out of its “grey zone” status. It is also clear that it is easier to try to break free together.