The Visegrad Group, also known as V4 — a cultural and political alliance of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — used to be seen as a prime example of how countries with an authoritarian past could be drawn into the liberal and democratic Western style of governance. The recent years, however, have shown that the anticipated transition into healthy and prospering democracies may be much harder to achieve and sustain going forward. Each of the V4 countries has different ideas of governance; of rule of law and the preservation and spread of liberal values; and of the future of the European Union (EU). Because of the found public support of the turn towards illiberalism in each of the V4 countries, the east-west divide will continue to threaten not only EU stability, but also the well-being of democracy of the entire continent.
Although each country is going through different developments, there are patterns that unite each of the V4 members. All of them have joined forces to form a block opposing the handling of the refugee crisis that has dominated the political discourse in Europe; all of them have experienced an upsurge of nationalism and resentment of supranationalism; and all of them have undermined the role of civil society and the protection of democratic principles, such as freedom of the press. The anti-EU sentiment stands out in particular: all V4 countries challenge Brussels and question their role inside of Europe, while enormously benefiting from the EU membership, receiving financial assistance through structural and cohesion funds.
Hungary, under the leadership of Viktor Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party, leads the V4 as a country with the heaviest turn away from political liberalism. Interestingly, despite the democratic backsliding, Orban remains to be one of the most popular politicians in Europe with wide support: latest polls give Fidesz around of 36%. Over the last decade, Fidesz has rewritten the rules of Hungarian democracy for their own advantage, altering the level playing field and modifying the constitution in the process. These structural changes make it significantly harder for the opposition to counter the ruling party and to represent a viable option for Hungarian voters. Moreover, Orban has centralized power into his own hands and has intensified his rhetoric against the media, nongovernmental organizations, and Brussels. The anti-EU campaign has prompted the EU to respond with sanctions, an unprecedented move that created ruptures and disunity in the EU parliament, while empowering the populist fraction of which Orban is a member. While it remains to be seen how far are Orban and Brussels willing to oppose each other, it is certain that such brinksmanship will have a lasting impact, further strengthening the east-west divide. The upcoming May elections to the European Parliament will provide an answer to how much power do the populists hold and if they will be able to act as a unified group confronting the EU establishment.
In Poland, it is the Law and Justice (PiS) party under leadership of Jaroslaw Kaczyński that has resorted to authoritarian practices. Engaging in court packing and in defying the law, the PiS has altered the judicial framework for their own benefit. Through this systematic process the PiS has seized control of the judicial institutions and has eliminated checks and balances to an extent which some describe as a “constitutional coup d’etat.” PiS’ populist campaign is founded on the notion that Polish sovereignty — the only ideal that can fulfill what Kaczyński describes as the “nation’s will” — is prioritized over Polish rule of law. The EU response to these practices has been limited: the sanctions procedures and opened infringement proceedings enacted by the European Commission has achieved little so far. While the situation is manageable for now, it is clear that the current Polish judicial system is not compatible with EU’s vision, which will be troublesome looking ahead.
While the Czech Republic has not experienced any structural changes to its political system, there are several alarming developments that raise concerns. The Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis has through his populist rhetoric and a myriad of empty promises completely shifted the political discourse, galvanizing wide and loyal domestic support. His political party called “ANO 2011” has shattered the political establishment that dominated the political scene since liberation in 1989. Babis is riding on a wave of nationalist sentiment which opposes immigration and which disapproves of the elites. Here lays the paradox: Babis himself is a product of the elites, who have helped him to create and manage his business empire worth billions of dollars. But the path to his wealth has been questionable, as he has been charged by the Czech police with illegally manipulating EU development subsidies. Since as a member of the parliament Babis holds political immunity, it remains to be seen if he will be prosecuted. But these corruption allegations, together with his campaign against the press and with his personalist political party, provide a negative outlook for the health of democracy in the Czech Republic. For the EU, Prague represents a reliable partner as of right now, but just like in other V4 countries, the anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise, which puts future of the partnership in doubt.
The smallest country of the V4, Slovakia, has experienced mixed developments over the last years. The country has been grappling with the murder of Ján Kuciak, a Slovakian investigative journalist, whose assassination in 2018 has sparked mass popular protests and a political crisis. The turmoil resulted in resignation of Prime Minister Fico and his entire cabinet. Fico, often compared to Orban, lead a government which was the epitomization of the Slovakian weak liberal democracy. On the other hand, in the March presidential elections, Slovakia elected lawyer Zuzana Caputova as president, who seems to be committed to progressive values and liberal reforms. This is a bright development for Central Europe, as it indicates how citizens do not always resort to populist and extremist leaders and instead find pro-EU and Western leaders appealing. For Bratislava, Caputova’s election represents an opportunity to continue on the road of adopting liberal democratic values, laid out by previous president Andrej Kiska.
While some may argue that as of right now all countries still support the EU and are committed to its cause, there are significant ruptures in the relationship that will not go away and will instead reinforce the west-east divide. The ani-EU sentiment is strong in all V4 countries, and it is grounded on loyal support which may increase in the future. Moreover, some could argue that the block does not hold much influence and that it operates in disunity, which weakens its credibility. While V4 members do all differ in many factors, such as religion, economic power, or military power; the block has united following the immigration crisis and has been willing to oppose Brussels with more severity than ever before. This, as it currently seems, will continue to threaten the internal stability of EU for years to come, especially as potential spillover effects may intensify the already tense partnerships.
Photo by: Szilard Koszticsak, EPA-EFE