• Slovakia seems resolutely embarked on a path that Hungary, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, has already taken. A path of isolationism. Worse still, the Slovak government is going down this path at an alarming speed.

    Robert Fico, the winner of last year’s parliamentary elections, promised a return to a sovereign form of foreign policy. This policy is already bearing its first unflattering fruits. The actions of his government, especially a pivot towards Russia, are weakening ties with the EU and NATO and undermining the country’s credibility.

    Fico’s statements on the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine, that the war began in 2014 with the “rampage of Ukrainian neo-Nazis”, sparked controversy as he clearly sided with the aggressor, Russia. This statement did not stop him from rushing to Paris for a conference on Ukraine initiated by President Macron. His actions point to a personal effort to improve his international image, which was damaged by the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Kuciak and his fiancée and corruption scandals involving his government, which forced him to resign as Prime Minister in 2018, ending his second stint in office.

    Despite differing stances on the war in Ukraine, the V4 Prime Ministers met in Prague. While the Czech government actively supports Ukraine with ammunition supplies and funding, Slovakia refuses to provide any military assistance. These differences were further highlighted when Polish PM Donald Tusk, Czech PM Petr Fiala and Czech President Petr Pavel convened for a meeting, while Robert Fico and Viktor Orbán met with former Czech President Miloš Zeman. Zeman is known for his sympathies for Russia, while Petr Pavel is a critic of the Kremlin and comes from NATO ranks. Despite the controversial meeting, Fico still pretends everything is fine and the V4 makes sense.

    The tables have turned since last week. The prestigious GLOBSEC Security Conference will take place in Prague, not Bratislava, for the first time in 18 years, due to constant criticism from the government. Part of the conference will take place directly at Prague Castle, the seat of President Petr Pavel. He will be hosting and welcoming foreign dignitaries, a role habitually reserved to Slovak constitutional officials.

    GLOBSEC has quickly realised that given current Slovak foreign policy, which clearly supports Russia, it has no chance of presenting a constructive stance on security threats from a Slovak perspective. The country is thus losing a well-established and well-known brand. And of course, it is losing respect. One could easily conceive GLOBSEC taking the Conference to Warsaw or one of the Baltic states next year.

    In addition to all this, last  Wednesday Prime Minister Fiala announced he was cancelling the meeting of the Czech and Slovak governments. This tradition has existed since 2012 and serves as a testament to the close bond between the two countries. Fiala justified his decision with the words: “We do not consider it appropriate to hold intergovernmental consultations with the government of the Slovak Republic in the coming weeks and months. In addition to differing views on foreign policy, the cancellation was also caused by the meeting of the Slovak Foreign Minister Jozef Blanár with Russia’s Lavrov in Turkey.

    There is no doubt that Fico’s government will survive even without GLOBSEC and without friendly talks with the Czech government. These decisions, which some consider merely symbolic, still carry considerable weight in politics, where symbols wield enormous power. However, it is Slovakia’s “sovereign” foreign policy that is leading the country to isolation. After twenty years in the EU and NATO, there is a fundamental change in the country’s political and security direction.

    Fico’s “sovereign” foreign policy raises questions about his motivation. It is hard to believe that his actions are just a manifestation of his admiration for Orbán, Putin or Russia.

    Fico badly needs time for his current and possibly future government to clear all those connected to his political party who have been accused and prosecuted of corruption. Fico needs time to clear his people, to cover his tracks and to subvert judicial authorities. That is why his first step was to abolish the Special Prosecutor’s Office, which dealt with such corruption cases linked to politicians.

    Fico is also undoubtedly helped by the propaganda and limited critical thinking among many Slovaks. About 51% of Slovaks believe that the war in Ukraine was caused by Ukraine or the West, compared to only 4% in Poland. Fico’s government intention to dismantle the anti-disinformation fund and weaken media literacy programs will only worsen this alarming situation.

    Slovakia is polarised and frustrated after the pandemic, the unabated war in Ukraine and economic uncertainty. The country is facing the outflow of the prestigious conference, and renowned antivirus company ESET is also re-evaluating its presence in the country. Most concerningly, young people and talented individuals are losing faith in the possibility of change and seeking opportunities abroad.

    Even the approaching presidential elections, in which Fico’s candidate, Peter Pellegrini, is likely to win, no longer evoke great emotions. After taking control of the presidential palace, Fico will have absolute control over the country and its international performance. The European Commission closely monitors potential limitations on press freedom, particularly concerning the government’s prepared influence over public broadcasting, and we should all do the same in efforts to make sure Slovakia doesn’t reach the same destination as Hungary.

    Viktória Jančošeková Central and Eastern Europe EU-Russia Populism

    Viktória Jančošeková

    Slovakia and the Road to Isolationism


    14 Mar 2024

  • Writing in the Financial Times, France’s Minister of State for Europe Laurence Boone called for Europe to become a ‘global political power’. She’s right: we can’t defend ourselves from Russian aggression, secure our continent from state failure in the Middle East and North Africa, or protect the international trade on which our economy depends without acting jointly.

    But European countries directly threatened by Russia are sceptical of European defence integration because they aren’t sure France, Germany or Italy will back them up in a crisis.

    Together, we should have the means to defend our continent, even if the United States turns isolationist under a Trumpian president (or Trump himself), or is forced to commit the bulk of its forces in a conflict in Asia.

    If we include EU and NATO members, plus EU accession states, our continent has formidable capacity for exercising global power, including two nuclear deterrents,  five aircraft carriers, considerable advanced military technology, and with Ukraine, some of the most effective fighting forces on the planet.

    Common threat perception and political will are lacking however. Despite significant real French assistance to Ukraine including CAESAR howitzers, Macron has alarmed Central and Eastern Europe through his multiple fruitless telephone calls with Vladimir Putin, remarks stressing the importance of ‘not humiliating’ him, and, most crucially, his proposal for a European Political Community.

    This proposed Community is envisioned by Macron as a framework for both EU members and non-members to discuss and advance shared interests. Though Paris presents it as stepping stone to EU membership for Ukraine, the fact that it is open to the UK raises fears that it is intended as another version of an outer circle of membership, originally proposed by Mitterrand, to which France would have preferred to confine former Soviet satellites. It reinforces the sense, particularly strongly felt in Warsaw, that France, together with Germany, cannot be relied upon in a crisis.

    Until that fear is dispelled, the Nordics and East Europeans will prefer American boots on the ground to French attempts to build up European power.

    If France wants Europe to be a global power, it needs to convince Eastern Europeans it sees them as first class citizens of Europe, and that therefore European defence and foreign policy must make defence and deterrence against Russia its primary mission.

    Paris should drop its ‘European community’ half way house, and concentrate instead on reforming the EU so it can function efficiently in foreign affairs and defence with more than 30 members including Ukraine, and strengthening Europe’s military-industrial base so it can supply the materiel needed for high-intensity interstate conflict.

    Garvan Walshe Central and Eastern Europe Foreign Policy

    Garvan Walshe

    Europe as a Global Power? France Needs to Embrace Central and Eastern Europe First


    29 Aug 2022

  • By Anne Blanksma Çeta, Principal Social Impact Strategy, Glocalities

    While opinion polls announced a narrow race in the Hungarian parliamentary elections of 3 April, Fidesz enjoyed a decisive victory. How did Viktor Orbán achieve this? And what does it mean for Fidesz’s public support in the coming months, now that the EU has decided to activate the rule-of-law conditionality mechanism? A unique survey into the future of Europe in 10 EU countries (including Hungary) might provide some answers. The survey was conducted in December 2021, and then again in March 2022 to assess the impact of the war in Ukraine. These two surveys, commissioned by the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and executed by the global research agency Glocalities, drew about 5000 respondents each, and will be published in a comprehensive report soon.

    2018: Fidesz and the Values Coalition of Traditionalists and Achievers

    Electoral victories by Fidesz in the past decade can be explained by the values coalition which Viktor Orbán put together in the last decade. It unites Traditionalists (status quo conservatives) and Achievers (entrepreneurial networkers), who together form a values majority in Hungarian society. This electoral coalition has been consistently mobilised by Fidesz with constant values-based messages and campaigns, emphasising traditional family values, national pride, and religious values. In contrast to these positive (in the eyes of the Fidesz electorate) values stand the values Fidesz vigorously opposes in all its forms: hedonism (by implication, the LGBT community), globalism (Soros, Brussels) and liberal pluralism. All indications for the 2022 elections were that Fidesz would again run a campaign based on this playbook. The referendum on Child Protection, scheduled on the same day as the national election, was specifically designed to reinforce this values-based framing, which worked so well for Fidesz in the past. Then, Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, throwing Fidesz’s electoral strategy in a shambles. The united opposition quickly grasped the weakness of the Fidesz campaign exploiting values cleavages in Hungarian society, while a war on Hungary’s border requires a unifying message. The opposition decided to brand Orbán as the divisive, pro-Putin and anti-EU candidate, which needed to be beaten by a united opposition. So, how come that campaign failed?

    Distinctive values profile of Fidesz supporters, based on the 2018 global values survey which Glocalities conducts annually on its own initiative

    2022: Rebranding of Fidesz as the Party of Peace and Stability

    It was not only the opposition who grasped that the war changed the electoral context; so did Fidesz. They decided to change the elections from a battle of national conservatives versus liberal progressives into a battle of war and instability (the opposition) versus peace and stability (continued rule by Fidesz). The results of our polling data from March 2022 show how Fidesz was able to read (and shape) the public mood:

    • In a list of foreign threat perceptions, ‘Russian foreign policy’ went up from 10% to 29% in Hungary, which is high, but in a completely different league than threat perceptions in Poland (where the perceived threat of Russia climbed from 35% to 57%).
    • Hungary was the only one of the 10 countries polled where willingness to provide security guarantees to other EU countries fell considerably (while in most other EU countries it went up or stayed the same). On the statement ‘Hungary should provide military support and assistance to another EU country if that country is under attack, even if that attack does not threaten Hungary directly’, agreement went down from 51% to 38%, showing the extent and effectiveness of Russian intimidation on the Hungarian public.
    • On a list of EU policy concerns, ‘cost of living’ was increasing in Hungary the most out of all 10 countries polled, making it uncontestably the principal concern of Hungarians during the election campaign. This clearly made Hungarians more inclined to follow Orbán’s appeasing attitude towards Russia.
    • On a list of values that people aspire for in Europe, ‘safety’ and ‘peace’ strongly gained in popularity in Hungary since the war in Ukraine, while the commitment to values of ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’ went down. This demonstrates how the war in Ukraine resulted in a trade-off between the values of safety and peace, which Fidesz made central to their campaign, versus equality and human rights, on which Fidesz has a bad track record in public opinion.        

    This polling data explains how the campaign message of Orbán being the candidate for peace and stability in times of war resonated with the country’s public mood. Concerns about peace and stability trumped concerns about rule of law and inequality, which became less important in contrast. The results also show the considerable difference in public sentiment between Hungary and Poland regarding their risk assessment of Russia and the impact of this threat on public opinion. In Poland, high threat perceptions about Russia and high solidarity with the Ukrainian people translated in an emboldened public opinion against Russia and public pressure to offer more support to Ukraine. Conversely, in Hungary, the war intimidated Hungarians to stay out of this conflict for fear of the consequences, both in terms of security and rising energy costs.

    Threats and Opportunities Regarding Fidesz’s Future Public Support

    How should the EU assess Fidesz’s public support moving forwards, with an EU-Hungarian conflict over the rule-of-law mechanism? Again, the survey data provides several clues:

    • Fidesz’s current legitimacy lies in the party’s ability to offer peace and stability. Further increases in energy prices (gas sanctions?) and a military escalation of the Ukraine war which could be blamed on Brussels are both elements that could further strengthen public support for Fidesz.
    • At the same time, the EU enjoys high trust in Hungary (much higher than the government does, which is widely seen as corrupt). Stability trumps rights at this moment in time. The rule-of-law mechanism should therefore, much more clearly and consistently, be communicated as a way to stop high-level corruption of EU funds (a concern that consistently polls highly in Hungary).
    • At the same time, the EU should be very careful in its interpretation of the rule of law. Especially in the domains of values and morality (e.g., abortion, family values, gay rights), Hungarian society remains strongly conservative and aligned with the government. The EU Commission should therefore tread very carefully, aim to enforce the more institutional aspects of the rule of law, and avoid conflating the rule of law with more politicised issues that activate profound values cleavages in Hungarian society.
    • The war in Ukraine shows how national pride and pro-EU attitudes can very well co-exist. Ukrainian nationalists aspire to European integration to escape from Russia’s imperialist ambitions. Across Central Europe, national and European aspirations are closely intertwined. The EU should seek to promote and nurture this sentiment of pro-European patriotism in Central Europe, including in Hungary, where Orbán might find himself increasingly isolated among Visegrád countries.

    This is only a tiny fraction of the rich insights that our data-driven study on the future of Europe can offer to clarify a variety of topical EU issues. A full report is upcoming.  

    Anne Blanksma Çeta Central and Eastern Europe Democracy Elections Ukraine Values

    Anne Blanksma Çeta

    Understanding Fidesz’s Landslide Victory in Hungary: Some New Data


    08 Apr 2022

  • Peter Hefele Milan Nic Central and Eastern Europe Christian Democracy Democracy European Union

    Hungarian Parliamentary Elections: Democratic Backsliding or Democratic Revival?

    Live-streams - Multimedia

    07 Apr 2022

  • Popular sentiments are crucial in how societies respond to immigration.

    Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the volume of refugee migration into the EU stagnated. The bloc’s share in hosting the world’s refugees had been declining since the peak of the bloc’s asylum and border crisis of 2015-16.

    There was also a general view that the bloc was closing itself off. This perception was more due to political rhetoric than reality. While refugee immigration constituted only a small part of overall EU immigration figures, the numbers of non-EU workers, students and family members of existing migrants reached the total of more than 20 million residence permits at the end of the pre-pandemic year 2019.

    The Kremlin’s assault against Ukraine has changed the perception of the EU as an insular entity, however incorrect that perception was.

    Ukraine’s desperate are now running for safety into the EU in the hundreds of thousands, creating the most intensive forced flight in human history when measured by the number of people crossing international borders in one month. The use of cars, buses and trains is making this flight possible, and so are the eastern members’ open borders.

    On 4 March 2022, the EU’s interior ministers voted to grant all Ukrainian refugees temporary protection in the bloc, providing a ‘blank check’ to an unlimited number of Ukrainians who might arrive in the EU before 4 March 2023. One’s presence in Ukraine on 24 February and having been displaced by conflict are the only conditions for the EU to provide legal protection.

    Absorption capacity, meaning the ability of a society to accept and accommodate people from another society, appears to have ballooned beyond all imagination. Whether Ukrainians will become well integrated in all the member states they are entering, remains to be seen.

    Absorption capacity and war

    In peacetime, the prospect of admitting 3.7 million people within a month would have caused unimaginable political conflicts between the EU’s members.

    Sentiments obviously play a decisive role in determining a society’s absorption capacity. War is turning out to evoke the strongest of sentiments.

    Before the war broke out, the EU’s eastern frontline states were often characterised in West European countries as inherently xenophobic. This characterisation was incorrect, but at least partly understandable due to the far-right rhetoric of a couple of the region’s leaders, as well as several members’ refusal to participate in the mandatory relocation scheme of 2015-17. This portrayal now seems out of time and out of touch.

    When Russian tanks began rolling into the previously unconquered areas of Ukraine, the Central and East Europeans’ response was instant, automatic and instinctive. ‘I want to help the victims of Russian aggression’ was a thought that galvanised the collective psyche without having to be communicated.

    The fact that Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Czechia and others are currently falling over themselves to welcome, accommodate, and assist refugees is impossible to miss. So is the abrupt transformation in rhetoric by the governments in question.

    How can we explain this change?

    Identification with the victims plays a major role. A comparison with the Syrian conflict can help us grasp this phenomenon. The Syrian conflict that began in 2011 was difficult to understand for the average European. Due to the conflict’s complexity and length, and due to the involvement of so many internal and external actors, it was difficult for Europeans, east Europeans including, to clearly identify the victims and develop compassion with them. In Ukraine, it is beyond doubt who the aggressor and the victim are. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees did not start arriving from Turkey until 2015, four years into the war. Ukrainian refugees started fleeing their country on the day that Russian rockets started landing.

    Also essential are the Central and East Europeans’ historical instincts. At different points in the twentieth century, people on today’s eastern flank of the EU, from Finland in the north to Romania in the south, became acquainted with Soviet tanks. With the important exception of defeating the Nazis in 1944-45, these tanks broke lives and crushed hopes. For four decades, these eastern countries were colonies of sorts of the Soviet Union, a Marxist-Leninist empire.

    So, when on 24 February Russian tanks began rolling into the previously unconquered areas of Ukraine, the Central and East Europeans’ response was instant, automatic and instinctive. ‘I want to help the victims of Russian aggression’ was a thought that galvanised the collective psyche without having to be communicated.

    Many Central and East Europeans also realise that in Putin’s messianic war, Ukraine represents freedom, prosperity and democracy and thus, Western civilisation. This is despite the many failings that Ukraine displayed as a state, including wide-spread corruption and cronyism. Along with feelings of helplessness and rage, Central and East Europeans are rationally acting in their own self-interest as they open their homes to Ukrainian families. They realise that Putin’s army poses a direct threat to the West and to their way of life.

    The fact that the vast majority of refugees are women and children also helps. Nobody could claim that a man is less worthy of protection than a woman is, and asylum law certainly contains no such clause. Still, it seems a trait of the human mind that people are readier to assist a mother with children than a man. The fact that most Ukrainian men are at home fighting the enemy only adds to the generally shared admiration of Ukraine and its people.

    Familiarity cannot be dismissed as a factor, either. Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians shared the same state with Ukrainians until 1990, the Soviet Union. Ukrainians have been the dominant immigrant group in Poland, Slovakia, and Czechia since the fall of communism began in 1989. The opening of visa-free access in 2017 only sped up the process of mutual familiarisation. Ukrainians have been among the fastest growing immigrant groups, not only in Central and Eastern Europe, but across the EU, for many years now. They tend to assimilate easily and are known to be hard workers. Linguistic, religious, and cultural proximity with the EU’s eastern flank is part of the equation.

    These factors are not exclusive to the EU’s eastern members and, with the exception of historical instincts, are present across the whole bloc. They are contributing to the steep increase in the EU’s absorption capacity, resulting in private homes being opened, public institutions mobilising their resources, and tens of thousands of volunteers helping on all possible fronts.

    The triggering of temporary protection allowed the EU to immediately respond to the influx, without the immediate need to debate intra-EU distribution. But given the mass of newcomers, problems with their reception and integration will, no doubt, occur at local, national, and European levels. The fact that some female Ukrainian refugees have already fallen victim to crime and abuse may be only a harbinger of things to come.  

    It is too early to draw conclusions on the implications of the Ukrainian influx for the EU immigration and asylum policy. What is clear is that the compassion of Europeans as well their self-interest in helping Ukraine to defeat Putin’s army has multiplied Europe’s absorption capacity to levels not seen for decades.

    Vít Novotný Central and Eastern Europe EU Member States Migration Ukraine

    Vít Novotný

    Ukrainian Refugees and the EU’s Absorption Capacity

    Blog - Ukraine

    06 Apr 2022

  • The new German government, a coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals, is now fully operational. Soon. it will become apparent where they plan to take the country and in what way they aim to shape the EU.

    One element in this domain of particular importance is the stance that the new leadership in Berlin will take regarding relations with the Visegrád Group (V4), which brings together Germany’s Central European neighbours. From immigration to the rule of law, from climate policy to relations with Russia, Berlin’s stance will be of fundamental strategic importance for developments in those countries and their attitude towards EU initiatives.

    Germany had been a driving force in the integration of V4 countries into the EU and NATO because it wanted to create a stable and prosperous neighbourhood. To this day, Germany remains the most important political and trade partner of Visegrád countries.

    Angela Merkel was at the helm of Germany during nearly the entire presence of the V4 on the European scene. In recent years, V4 action has been negatively affected by the lack of solidarity during the migrant crisis and by the attacks on the rule of law in Poland and Hungary. The increasingly authoritarian trend of these two countries has led to deteriorating bilateral relations with Germany.

    The former Chancellor was sharply criticised and labelled as a liberal by her then-party colleague Viktor Orbán because of her open attitude towards migrants (“Willkommenskultur”). The Polish government opted for historical revisionism and demands reparations for damages incurred during the Second World War; Berlin believes the issue to be closed. Despite this, Angela Merkel maintained a benevolent and patient approach towards both countries and the Visegrád Group as a whole. Her feelings for the region stemmed partly from a shared past given her East German upbringing, but above all from her ambition not to push the V4 countries to the edge of the Union.

    Areas of Common Interest are Disappearing

    Merkel’s successor Olaf Scholz, coming from West Germany, lacks the same knowledge of and proximity to the region. Moreover, he and his party don’t have any relevant party allies in the V4 countries. Slovakia is the exception, where HLAS (S&D) and SMER are leaders of the opposition. In other V4 countries, socialists have disappeared or merged with growing parties.

    Scholz’s visit to Warsaw, immediately after those to Paris and Brussels, revived the conflicting views concerning the future of the EU and the controversial Nord Stream 2 (NS2) project. Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders give ample reason to postpone or even stall the NS2 project, which will make Europe even more dependent on Russia for its energy security. Berlin is under pressure from the United States and Central European countries, who are expecting Scholz take a tougher approach towards Russia than his predecessor.

    The absence of green parties within the Visegrád Group countries and their pro-nuclear policies also give little hope for deeper cooperation with the new German government. Justifiable concerns of an overly drastic green transition are present in V4 nations, and may hinder relations with Germany.

    Clashes in the V4

    Although they agree on migration, on other political matters, the V4 is far from being a monolithic block. Positions of individual V4 countries regarding European topics often vary depending on their national interests or electoral considerations. This can be seen in Slovakia and Czechia, with both countries stating they would take their own approach to issues of rule of law compliance. Both countries are distancing themselves from Hungary and Poland, who are engaging in a dispute with the EU over ongoing violations of rule of law principles. The new German government is adamant on linking the disbursement of EU funds with guarantees for judicial independence and the rule of law.

    Eventually, the V4 may become more of a V2+2. Divisions within the V4 have existed in the past and will continue. The Hungarian Foreign Minister giving support to the President of Kazakhstan for the deadly use of weapons against demonstrators, or Viktor Orbán’s trip to Moscow during mounting tension on the Russian-Ukrainian border clearly show structural divergences among V4 countries in their Eastern policy. The same applies to their position towards China. While Slovakia and Czechia are deepening their political and trade relations with Taiwan, Hungary still seeks to attract investment from China.

    No Common Future for Visegrád?

    Different priorities and dynamics in the V4 countries suggest that the future of relations will depend on the ability to positively engage Germany. If Viktor Orbán sees Hungary’s future closer to Moscow or Beijing, the three remaining countries are likely to emphasise the importance of the EU and transatlantic cooperation. V4 countries should remember Germany’s crucial role not only for the region, but also for the future of Europe.

    The new German administration should continue Chancellor Merkel’s protective, empathetic diplomacy towards the V4. Germany must respect the cultural diversities and different historical experiences of former Soviet-sphere countries regarding issues such as a new asylum system or various cultural and ethical concepts. However, when it comes to respecting the “rules of the game”, to democratic standards and the rule of law, Germany must defend those principles. This must be clear of any historical or neighbourly sentiment, but also of economic calculations. Only a clear stand will serve to benefit all countries, as well as the European Union itself.

    Viktória Jančošeková Central and Eastern Europe Germany Leadership

    Viktória Jančošeková

    What Next for the Visegrád 4 in the Post-Merkel era?


    09 Feb 2022

  • Mikuláš Dzurinda Balkans Central and Eastern Europe

    Video Vital Questions with Janez Janša and Mikuláš Dzurinda

    Multimedia - Other News - Other videos

    19 Oct 2021

  • The Deputy Permanent Representative of the Republic of Slovenia to the EU is today’s surprise guest at #TheWeekIn7! She answered questions on the priorities of the Slovene presidency of the European Council, the #Fitfor55 package, green and digital transition, and the economic recovery in Europe under the new Covid variants.

    Roland Freudenstein Central and Eastern Europe

    The Week in 7 Questions with Tamara Weingerl-Požar

    Multimedia - Other videos

    23 Jul 2021

  • 1. Do you think that the Vrbětice incident will weaken Central Europe´s sympathy for Russia? Can it be a turning point in the perception of Russia as a real threat to national security in the region?

    James Lamond, Director of the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, United States: Over the last several years, we have learned that it is both difficult and dangerous to make political predictions, and this instance is no different.  

    On the one hand, the Vrbětice incident is part of a series of violations of international norms and aggressive behaviour from Russia in recent years. This series of events has included: the use of chemical weapons on NATO soil; the invasion and occupation of large portions of neighbouring countries; an assassination in a Berlin park; an unparalleled cyber-hacking campaign; the likely use of directed-energy weapons to attack US diplomats; and interference in democratic processes around the world to encourage and support anti-democratic, pro-Russian, and pro-authoritarian political forces. This is only part of the list of malign activity abroad, which is paired with oppression at home, most notably with the recent poisoning, detention, and abusive treatment of Alexei Navalny. After each incident or revelation, there is a feeling that something must be done and something must change, but things quickly return to a familiar and destructive pattern.  

    However, this moment does feel different. Neighbours in Central Europe were quick to express support and act in unison. Brussels increasingly feels frustrated with Moscow, particularly following Josep Borrell’s visit to Moscow earlier this year. And there is a new administration in Washington that is keen on countering Moscow’s malign activities. This new broader international environment, combined with revelations about how drastically Russia has been willing to violate the sovereignty of CEE countries in NATO and the EU, might just be a recipe for change.  

    Grigorij Mesežnikov, President of the Institute for Public Affairs, Slovakia: Russia has been behaving like an enemy of the West for years. It is trying to dismantle the West and its integration groupings (EU and NATO) from within. It interferes with the integrity of political processes, including elections, in the countries of the democratic West, which we in Central Europe belong to, and takes active measures on their territory. Members of the Russian secret services conducted both successful and unsuccessful attempts to assassinate persons that the Kremlin saw as opponents, endangering the lives of EU citizens in Great Britain, Germany, Bulgaria, and as is now evident, in Czechia too. The propaganda machinery of the Kremlin regime creates a hostile attitude among the Russian people towards EU and NATO countries, and when Russian spies or killers make mistakes and blow their cover themselves, the level of hatred against NATO and the EU in Moscow increases. The Vrbětice case is no exception. This is neither the first nor the only case to confirm that Russia is threatening the security of democratic states. It is important that the governments of Central European countries should respond appropriately given the circumstances – that means promptly, vigilantly, and principally. Thanks to their decisive steps, even those citizens who have so far had illusions about Russia’s “friendly” intentions could correct their views. The citizens of Central Europe should realise that thanks to the interplay of favourable circumstances in the 1990s – successful internal reforms, the readiness of Western countries to open the doors of integration groupings to the peoples of Central Europe, and the then-weakness of imperial forces in the Kremlin – Central European countries were able to successfully return to Europe after the fall of communist regimes. Today, everything must be done to preserve these gains and to sustain them for as long as possible.

    Željana Zovko, MEP, EPP Group, and Vice-Chair on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament, Croatia: The involvement of Russian secret services in the explosions in Vrbětice is a severe violation of Czech sovereignty and was rightfully condemned at all levels across the European Union. The joint statement of the Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Group and the strong messages of other leaders in the region and beyond, including the EU High Representative, and the conclusions of the European Summit in May, all show the wide support for Czechia and the clear opposition to illegal Russian activities on the territory of EU Member States.

    However, the Vrbětice incident should not be singled out as a turning point in the European perception of Russia. It is rather part of a series of events that have increased general distrust in the EU towards Russia, such as the poisoning and jailing of Alexei Navalny, the Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian border, and the clear message of Minister Lavrov calling the EU “an unreliable partner” during the visit of HRVP Borrell to Moscow. These events have led to an accumulated frustration among European Member States that highlights the need for a united position towards Russia

    2. The Vrbětice incident has not only disrupted the security of Czechia, but also of the entire EU and NATO. Do you think the solidarity of some EU member states that expelled Russian diplomats and the statements of the EU High Representative and NATO Secretary General are sufficient responses?

    James Lamond: The solidarity shown by NATO, the EU, and other member states was an important signal sent to Moscow. Prague is also seen as a regional hub for Russian intelligence, so the expulsions there, combined with the five other Central and Eastern European neighbours, will likely have an impact on Moscow’s capabilities in the region. But the broader issue is that the transatlantic approach to Russia is often responsive in nature: Russia does something and then the US, the EU, NATO, and other member states react. The transatlantic community needs to take control of the relationship and start to define it along its terms, rather than Putin’s.  

    An instructive template to consider is when in October 2018, US, British, Canadian, and Dutch authorities jointly and publicly revealed a widespread hacking campaign against the West and international institutions, accusing Russia. This case was notable for two reasons. First, the western countries exposed the scheme, revealing the details of Russia’s malign activity to the world. Rather than providing a quick summary, they held press conferences and presented detailed evidence of how the Russian suspects committed these crimes. They displayed the fake passports, vehicle license plates, and airport taxi receipts used, revealing the tactics of the Russian operation. This established the narrative about the crimes and put Putin on the defensive, rather than the other way around. Second, American and European allies presented a clear, united front. The indictments were announced in a carefully orchestrated manner, clearly communicating that this was a coordinated response among allies to Russia’s malign activity.

    Grigorij Mesežnikov: Verbal expressions of solidarity with Czechia by the EU and NATO leadership, responding to the country becoming the target of sabotage and de facto terrorist Russian activities on its territory, can be considered sufficient. However, I expected the allied countries to be more active in expelling Russian diplomats. This time, Slovakia behaved the most solidly, expelling three Russian spies operating under diplomatic cover. Slovakia is a country with special, fraternal relations with Czechia, a partner in the former Czechoslovakia. Also, in this case, the well-known Czech-Slovak solidarity and reciprocity showed itself. Due to domestic political discrepancies, however, Czech diplomacy was apparently unable to convey to its allies in a clear and comprehensible manner what reaction to the Vrbětice case it expected from them. If Czech diplomacy had done so, perhaps the reaction of other EU and NATO countries to Russia’s subversive actions would be more robust.

    Željana Zovko: Although the decisions of Czech and other European authorities to expel Russian diplomats were a direct response to the attack on Czech national security, in the long run, these measures will not alter Russia’s attitude towards the EU. After the recent escalations in EU-Russia tensions, EU leaders tasked HRVP Borrell and the Commission in the May Council Summit to prepare a report on the EU’s strategy towards Russia. The Member States concluded that the EU needs to review its policies and create a united and determined position to counter future security threats and to withstand attempts to divide us.

    The European Union should invest in its strategic autonomy and a deterrence strategy to defend EU Member States against possible aggression of third countries. We must deliver on our commitments for collective defence made within the frameworks of the EU and NATO. We also need to contain disinformation campaigns and hybrid threats aimed at causing destabilisation and division in the EU and in its immediate neighbourhood. At the same time, the EU should conduct a strategic dialogue with Russia to de-escalate current tensions and to work on an improved mutual understanding and increased transparency.

    3. In his recent report on the state of Russia, President Putin said that no one should cross the red line in relation to Russia. Where does the West’s red line lie vis-a-vis Russia? Can we expect it to be set on the occasion of the upcoming Biden – Putin summit?

    James Lamond: Vladimir Lenin is commonly quoted as saying, “You probe with bayonets: if you encounter mush, you push. If you encounter steel, you withdraw.” Vladimir Putin appears to have taken this lesson to heart, which is why over the last few years he has continued to push against the West in new ways. This is also why it is somewhat ironic for him to issue his own warnings about ill-defined red lines.  

    During the Cold War, there were red lines that guided espionage activities between the two sides, and each knew where they stood. The problem for relations with Russia today is that these red lines no longer exist, or at least no one knows where they are. A key goal of a Biden administration approach to Russia should be re-establishing where those red lines are and making clear the contours of the relationship. The upcoming summit between Presidents Biden and Putin will be the most significant opportunity to send a clear message that the Kremlin’s trajectory over the last few years is unacceptable. Coming directly from the G7 summit, meetings with European Union leadership and the 14 June NATO leaders’ summit will all provide the symbolic message of transatlantic unity. Hopefully, the substance will match the symbolism and Biden will be able to present a clear and united message to Putin.  

    Grigorij Mesežnikov: That cannot be called anything but impudence – Russia invades neighbouring states, annexes and occupies their territories, supports separatist rebellions in these states, shoots down foreign civilian planes and shamefully denies it, interferes in elections in Western countries, organises coup attempts, murders emigrees which the Kremlin considers its enemies, uses banned chemical warfare agents against them, organises hacker attacks against the critical infrastructure of Western states, supports a lunatic dictator in Belarus who oppresses the people of that country; and Vladimir Putin has the audacity to teach the world about his own red lines. Russia has crossed all conceivable and unimaginable red lines in international politics, and is currently the aggressor and enemy of the West. The West must not be subject to Kremlin tricks, and should show no softness to Russian aggression, in any of its manifestations. You cannot meaningfully cooperate with the enemy; you can only coexist in a vigilant way, keeping the ability to respond harshly. The red line is our weakness, we must not allow it here.

    Željana Zovko: The development of red lines should be a part of the reflection process on a European Russia policy. We cannot accept threats to the sovereignty of European Member States, not via military pressure, nor via direct or indirect interferences in democratic and political processes. The EU should stand firm to guarantee the security of our neighbouring states and condemn any violation of their territorial integrity.

    Meanwhile, the EU should not refuse to communicate with Russia and must preserve dialogue with the Kremlin and Russian society. Diplomatic channels are a means to minimise divergence and build constructive strategic relations.

    Our Russia policy would be most effective if it were based on coordinated actions with likeminded states. The transatlantic relationship will play a key role in this regard. European strategic autonomy that is compatible with NATO programmes will enhance the transatlantic ability to safeguard a rules-based international order. The new US administration has shown its willingness to improve the alignment of its foreign policy with the European Union, including in relation to Russia. The upcoming Biden-Putin Summit offers an opportunity in this regard to assess where the new US administration stands towards Russia and what we can expect from future transatlantic coordination.

    Viktória Jančošeková Central and Eastern Europe EU-Russia NATO

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    03 Jun 2021

  • Slovak Foreign and European Affairs Minister Ivan Korcok! He and Roland Freudenstein went through relevant issues for his country and the region such as the Covid-19 vaccination in Slovakia, Russia’s influence and actions in Central Europe, the current situation of the Visegrad 4, or the Conference on the Future of Europe.

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  • Our president was the surprise guest of this week! He commented on issues such as the Sputnik vaccine crisis in Slovakia, Russia’s terrorism in Czechia in 2014, the Visegrad 4 vis a vis Moscow, or the Conference on the #FutureofEurope.

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  • The communist/Soviet heritage is a significant part of the historical and cultural heritage in Eastern Europe. It has shaped the unique landscape of many cities and has a significant impact on the social, cultural and political way of life of millions of Europeans. After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact Organization, as well as the Soviet Union, the problem of alternative use, preservation and interpretation of this heritage for future generations of Europeans arose. The articles in this publication analyses various discourses of socio-cultural perception of the communist/Soviet heritage and the prospects for its use and interpretation. Authors explore the problematic issues of the communist historical and cultural heritage in Eastern Europe. And the practice of using, preserving and interpreting the communist / Soviet heritage.

    The text is available in English and Belarusian.

    Central and Eastern Europe Values

    Communist/Soviet Historical and Cultural Heritage of Eastern Europe in the 21st Century


    19 Dec 2022

  • Re-Evaluating Cooperation Between China and Central and Eastern European Countries

    In 2012 the ‘16+1’ initiative was officially launched with the aim of formalising a cooperation mechanism between Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and China. The goal of the partnership is to promote cooperation in infrastructure projects, trade, investment, and tourism, which would be beneficial to both sides. The launch came about in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent economic downturn in Europe, which brought rising unemployment in a number of EU countries and put severe strains on national budgets. China saw this as an opportunity to step up and engage with both EU and non-EU countries in order to increase its presence and open up additional export avenues. In 2019 Greece officially joined the initiative, which has since been dubbed the ‘17+1’. China’s efforts were strategic as this framework set the scene for Beijing to expand its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) onto European soil. In essence, the 17+1 mechanism should be seen as an effective conduit between CEE countries and BRI projects.

    Central and Eastern Europe China Foreign Policy

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    27 Apr 2021