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Europe

Ukraine puts Visegrad solidarity to the test

Central Europe is sharply divided on the crisis in Ukraine, while the EU is anxious to maintain unity. Several of the countries reject the very notion of Russia as a security threat. Rob Cameron reports from Prague.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrives in the Slovak capital Bratislava on Monday for talks with Central European colleagues expected to be dominated by the crisis in Ukraine.

Analysts say maintaining unity in the face of Russian aggression is one of the key challenges facing the European Union; but there are sharp divisions in Central Europe over how to face this challenge. Indeed several of the countries, most of which are heavily dependent on Russian energy, reject the very notion of Russia as a security threat.

A bend in the river

The leaders of three Central European states gathered on February 15, 1991, at the ancient Hungarian town of Visegrad, whose fourth-century castle stands guard over a strategic bend in the River Danube.

It was 10 days before the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary - newly freed from Moscow's orbit but with NATO and EU membership still a long way off - had decided to band together. Visegrad Castle was chosen as the spot where the kings of Hungary, Poland and Bohemia formed a similar alliance back in 1335.

The Visegrad Group survived long after its members fulfilled their common ambition of joining NATO (1999) and the European Union (2004). The alliance (which grew to four with the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, and sometimes includes Austria and Slovenia as 'Visegrad Plus') has frequently pursued and achieved common objectives, especially within the EU.

Serious crisis

But the crisis in Ukraine is putting the limits of that solidarity to the test. Some believe the fissures are so deep the Visegrad Group is increasingly redundant.

"It's clear that this is the most serious crisis for Visegrad since the years of Vladimir Meciar's government [in Slovakia] in the 1990s," said Martin Ehl, chief international editor for the Czech financial daily "Hospodarske noviny."

He believes if Steinmeier hopes to hear a common Visegrad position on Russia, he might be disappointed.

"I think in the present local political circumstances it is quite hard to imagine a common V4 position towards Russia," Ehl told DW. "The Polish position is very different, while the Czechs are - due to President Zeman's remarks - considered to be the most pro-Russian after the Hungarians. The Slovaks have a balanced view thanks to President Kiska's stance," he went on.

"But all politicians say that Visegrad is not in danger because of Russia," Ehl said.

'Deep concern' … at least on paper

On paper at least, the Visegrad Group talks the talk. In December, Visegrad foreign ministers met in Kyiv, releasing a joint statement which spoke of "deep concern" at the "violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity."

"The Visegrad countries believe that the recent military actions by Russia are not only in violation of international law, but also create a dangerous new reality in Europe. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are appalled to witness a military intervention in 21st century Europe akin to their own experiences in 1956, 1968 and 1981," the statement went on.

But in reality the group's leaders are poles apart when it comes to countering that violation. The Hungarian foreign minister may have been "appalled," but two months later, his prime minister, Viktor Orban, received Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Budapest with great pomp and ceremony.

Keep the gas flowing

Hungary, heavily dependent on Russian gas, has consistently criticized EU sanctions towards Russia, and opposes the proposed EU energy union that would see EU members forced to adopt greater transparency in their energy deals with non-EU countries. Some Czech and Slovak politicians have echoed Hungarian concerns.

Protesters in Budapest

Hungarians protested against Putin's visit to Budapest in February

On Ukraine, the Czech government broadly toes the NATO line on the presence of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine. But Czech President Milos Zeman says there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, and insists on describing the conflict as a "civil war."

On May 9 Zeman will head to Moscow to attend the victory parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war; the only head of state from a European Union country (with the exception of Cyprus) to do so. Also attending is Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, another staunch critic of EU sanctions against Moscow. Slovakia's president, Andrej Kiska, refuses to attend due to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Moscow … or Berlin?

Poland, meanwhile, is quietly proposing an alternative ceremony to be held in Berlin. Such an event, should it take place with high-level European participation, would steal the Russians' thunder and further infuriate Moscow.

It would be a mistake to overstate the importance of a Central European leader attending - or vetoing - a military ceremony. What matters is whether any of the EU 28 are ready to veto sanctions against Moscow; so far they are not.

But the Visegrad leaders' travel plans for early May do reveal genuine schisms in the region over how to deal with an increasingly belligerent Russia, as national interests, particularly over energy, take precedence over regional alliances.

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