Slavkov Triangle threatens to isolate Hungary from its European allies

March 20, 2015

The Prime Ministers of Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia meet in Slavkov on 29 January 2015. / Source: Czech Government (vlada.cz)

Translation of an article by Péter Fehér “Polish, Hungarian, two bad friends?” (“Lengyel, magyar két rossz barát?”) published in weekly print Heti Válasz on March 12. 2015 pp. 24-26.

For the first time in years, no participants from Warsaw will attend the March 15th official ceremony due to the worsening Polish-Hungarian relations following Budapest’s cozying-up to Moscow. Meanwhile our country is risking international isolation as Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia brought about a new alliance that could challenge the V4 setup.

“The Slavkov Triangle is no challenge to the Visegrad Group” stated the official document issued at the meeting that took place in the Southern Moravian town of Slavkov, formerly known as Austerlitz, in the end of January. The statement was signed by Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka, as well as by the Austrian Chancellor, Werner Faymann, and the Slovakian prime minister, Robert Fico. Even if the document emphasized  that the new conglomerate has not been formed as a counterpart to the Visegrad 4 (of which Hungary is a member) it betrays such a level of cooperation (in areas of infrastructure development, traffic, energy safety, and joint consultations prior to EU summits) as to suggest that if this plan is executed, the Visegrad Cooperation will become an empty structure. In addition, as opposed to the V4, the “Triangle” will appear in an institutionalized framework on the European political scene, as it will be held together with the help of a deputy-ministerial level coordinating workgroup.

End of a relationship?

The establishment of the Slavkov Triangle is a direct consequence of the worsening Polish-Hungarian relationship. The intention of the first Orbán-government to enhance relations with Poland was received in a polite yet restrained way. The reason of this was that Polish diplomacy was trying to define itself at the time as a middle-power orienting its relations towards the Weimar Three cooperation with Germany and France. The fact that Viktor Orbán’s first trip abroad after his 2010 election victory was to Warsaw did little to change the direction, as by then Warsaw was trying to achieve an even deeper EU integration strategy than the current one during the reorganization of the union. In a 2011 speech delivered in Berlin, Radoslaw Sikorski Polish minister of foreign affairs backed a German plan to federalize the EU.  According to his plans, EU member states would only hold a minimally necessary amount of autonomy, similarly to states in the US. This went contrary to Hungarian plans, which were aiming to crack down on Brussels’s centralization policy preferring a Central European cooperation instead. Warsaw saw its middle-power plans confirmed when popular anger dethroned Victor Yanukovich in Ukraine as the former president insisted on pro-Kremlin politics in Ukraine instead of supporting the country’s European integration. The Weimar Three did everything to pilot Kyiv’s ship back to Brussels’ waters, as well as to consolidate the political situation in the country.

The circumstances opened a new front between Warsaw and Budapest, as according to Polish newspapers Hungary sat back and watched events unfold, instead of lining up behind Poland to solve the Ukrainian crisis. Hungarian-Polish relations further worsened when at the same time as the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the destabilization of Eastern Ukraine, Budapest started to bring up the question of autonomy for the Hungarians of Subcarpathia. As Viktor Orbán put it last Spring: Ukraine cannot be stable and democratic if it does not grant autonomy to minorities, including Hungarians. Donald Tusk, then the prime minister of Poland, reacted to this by describing Orbán’s remarks as “unfortunate”, and as something that is able to give the impression that he supports pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

For the traditionally anti-Russian Poles, the February visit of Vladimir Putin to Budapest meant an end of the road, divergence only being escalated by Orbán’s words contemplating the successful illiberal state model characteristic of countries east of the region. As a result of the Polish-Hungarian conflict, a mass representation of Polish supporters cannot be expected to attend Fidesz rallies any time soon. “We will not travel to Budapest, as it would create an opportunity at home for attacks against the Gazeta Polska clubs. Had we appeared in the Hungarian capital again, this would have created an opportunity for our opponents to interpret this as an act of support for Putin, and a sign that we identify with Kremlin politics,” Ryszard Kapuscinski, the executive of Gazeta Polska Club Network, told Heti Válasz. So far, Kapuscinski brought a number of Polish demonstrators to Budapest regularly.

In his statement Kapuscinski referred to inner contradictions of the anti-Hungarian Polish standpoint, as Polish governing party Civil Platform agreed with Putin five years ago to supply Poland with ten million cubic meters of Russian natural gas through 2037.

A pro-Russian alliance

The conflict between Budapest and Warsaw and the souring of a thousand-year relationship made Prague and Bratislava unconfident regarding the future of the V4 cooperation. Prague was first to take steps, as deputy minister of foreign affairs Petr Drulák was the person drafting the Slavkov agreement. Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka was received in Vienna with open arms during his June 2014 visit, where he outlined the new plans of Prague. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann returned the courtesy visit a few weeks later, after which Sobotka offered Slovakia an opportunity to join. All three countries were motivated by a swift regional cooperation as well as an opportunity to get cheap Russian gas.

From the countries of the Triangle, Austria has the best relations with Russia. Vienna committed itself to the construction of a Russian pipeline bypassing Ukraine, and postponed the introduction of sanctions against Russia, in addition to making gestures towards Putin. The most visible of such actions was when, in June of last year, during Putin’s visit to Vienna, the two parties signed an agreement to construct the Austrian section of the South Stream pipeline.  In the course of the past year, Slovakian and Czech prime ministers continuously criticized EU sanctions against Moscow, calling them ineffective and harmful to the EU. Both politicians view sanctions as unsuitable for reaching their objective as the Kreml will not give up destabilizing Eastern Ukraine, and is only making Putin more determined.

The Czechoslovakians are coming!

Consequently a pro-Russian alliance has been established, but Hungary has been left out of this as well, because as Dariusz Kalan, chief analyst of the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs remarked, the participation of Orbán was heavily opposed by Chancellor Faymann due to the Hungarian economic policy’s devastating effect on Austrian companies and banks. The EU is more forgiving towards the pro-Russian mainline of the Triangle than with Hungary. The main reason for this is that the Triangle’s politics towards Brussels are much friendlier. Upon the halt of the South Stream project, politicians in Vienna and Bratislava were clever enough to keep their voices down, why Budapest was loudly blowing the war horns. This was the case even if Austrian interests were heavily damaged, as they have the largest gas distribution facility in all of Western Europe, and even if Slovakia is 100% dependent on Russian gas supplies.

But the real danger is heading towards Hungary just now. Even if the main body text does not, a supplementing document does open the opportunity for expansion to other countries, primarily Croatia and Slovenia. According to the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs, with this, Prague’s influence in the Western Balkans region could increase as that this is already handled by the Czech as a geopolitically and strategically important sphere of influence. After the First World War, the young Czechoslovakian state wanted to draw the borders in a way that would create a Western corridor to the Serbian-Croatian-Slovenian state, thus blocking Hungary from Austria.

Prague’s recent plans are, in effect, reviving the century-old designs, and this is not at all unrealistic today. Heinz Fischer Austrian, Ivo Josipovic Croatian and Borut Pahor Slovenian presidents agreed while meeting in Vienna last year to hold annual conferences, primarily dealing with resolving the uncertain political issues of the Balkans. At that meeting, Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz did not rule out the possibility of this “Southern Triangle” eventually replacing the Visegrad cooperation. With such a move, Hungary would be entirely excluded from regional decision making, especially given the Romanians recent interest in joining in the conference. Their new secret service chief is the same Eduard Hellvig, who earlier opined in an internet post that, in the wake of an imminent Russian threat, the EU should not tolerate Budapest’s attempts to desert the camp any longer.