Despite differences over Ukraine, V4 leaders stress the platform is not dead

Despite differences over Ukraine, V4 leaders stress the platform is not dead
Robert Fico, Donald Tusk, Petr Fiala and Viktor Orban at the V4 summit. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera, Robert Anderson in Prague February 28, 2024

The Prague summit of the Visegrad Group (V4) on February 27 could only paper over the chasm between the Central European premiers over Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Czechia’s rightwing premier Petr Fiala and Poland, now under centrist premier Donald Tusk, have been amongst Ukraine’s strongest backers, while Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Slovakia’s fourth-time premier Robert Fico have parroted Kremlin narratives on the war and spoken out against Russian sanctions and Western aid to Ukraine, even if they usually backed down at EU summits.

Both Hungary and Slovakia currently refuse to send military aid to Ukraine, though Bratislava permits commercial deals, while Budapest bans all shipments across the border.

This split has led analysts and journalists to describe the group as the V2+V2 rather than the V4, and to speculate whether it had a function anymore. Some, including political scientist Jiri Pehe, who is also one of the advisers to President Petr Pavel, openly stated the summit should be cancelled in response to Fico's pro-Kremlin speech. 

Czechia had resisted holding the V4 summit during its presidency of the group because of these divisions but finally agreed to it in the wake of the European Union summit before Christmas at which Orban caved in and dropped his veto on EU financial aid to Ukraine. In the past the V4 has usually met before EU summits to plan their tactics.

Fico created a stir before the V4 summit by using the two-year anniversary of the war to broadcast an extraordinary Facebook video in which he once again trotted out Kremlin myths that the war was the result of the West’s violation of its alleged promise not to expand Nato eastwards, and that the war "started with the rampage of Ukrainian neo-Nazis".

The Slovak premier also tried to whip up panic by claiming that “a number of Nato and EU member states are considering that they will send their troops to Ukraine on a bilateral basis”, even though it was clear any troops would only be taking part in specialist roles rather than fighting. He also hinted that there was a Western plot to remove him because of his opposition to aiding Ukraine.

This led Fiala to express his lack of enthusiasm before the summit. "I'm not saying that it is my greatest pleasure to meet here with colleagues with whom I disagree on a number of key issues. I mean the prime ministers of Hungary and Slovakia," Fiala said.

In the event Fiala and Tusk held a meeting before the summit that was longer than the summit itself. Afterwards the premiers tried to make the best of it they could.

"We don't even hide that there are significant differences between us. The V4 is a different institution than it was before the Russian aggression in Ukraine," Fiala said after the negotiations.

“There are differences between us which did not change and which are known publicly”, Fiala said at the press conference, before adding that “we also found out there are things we agree on and themes exist for which it makes sense for the format to go on”.

Fiala insisted there are enough points for V4 cooperation, particularly in the areas of agriculture, nuclear energy and “illegal migration”, which was echoed by the other leaders.  

“We all had similar dreams, and I hope not that much has not changed between us”, Tusk stated in reference to the role of Orban in the 1989 changes which brought down communist rule and the grip the Soviet Union had on the region.   

Although Tusk expressed hopes that “support for Ukraine” will be “more straightforward after our discussions”, adding “it would be better for Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia if V4 had more solidarity, but it is a bit more complicated now”.  

Tusk also pointed to the need to address agriculture and the EU’s Green Deal. “We also have to pay attention to our economies”, Tusk stated, adding that “help to Ukraine cannot cause loss to our agriculture”.

Fico  said  there is no military solution to the war, and supplying weapons will only mean that in another two years the conflict will be in exactly the same phase, only on both sides there will be tens of thousands more dead.

Orban stated that the “Russo-Ukrainian war redrew everything” and attempted to find common ground by saying that “Hungary does not want a common border with Russia anymore”, adding that “it was not a good historical experience”.

Both Fico and Orban highlighted the V4 cooperation format on issues dealing with “illegal migration” and nuclear energy.

“I experienced V4 meetings [in the past] when I felt like yawning”, and “I thank Tusk and Fiala for not giving me a chance to yawn”, said Fico.

He stressed that “we have a common view” against the dismantling of the veto rights of individual EU member states, and he also joined Orban in praising V4’s common stance on “illegal migration” and the development of nuclear energy.