IDM Short Insights 24: Will the upcoming elections change the Visegrad Group?

Two out of four Visegrad countries (V4) will hold parliamentary elections later this year. How may the elections in autumn change the power balance in the V4 and its standing in EU? How does the recent decision of Poland and Hungary to ban grain imports from Ukraine fit into our scenario building? Regardless of what scenario proves to be true, we should not expect that the format will cease to exist. Even though is true that it will operate in survival mode until all V4 countries are governed by parties sharing a common ideological line.

Two out of four Visegrad countries – also called the V4 – will hold parliamentary elections later this year. The snap elections in Slovakia are scheduled for 30 September 2023, and the parliamentary election in Poland will happen sometime between 15 October and 5 November 2023 

The outcomes of these elections can potentially shift the dynamics of cooperation within the grouping, the balance of power among partners, and the group’s standing in Europe. It is important to watch them as, although formerly dynamic, V4 cooperation has nowadays plunged to new lows. The V4 is now divided on at least two issues. 

The first one is Russia’s aggression against Ukraine that led to a severing of ties between V4 countries. It is difficult to grasp how a relatively big country like Hungary bordering Ukraine could refuse to contribute its fair share to restoring peace in Europe, especially as others have assumed considerable risk in doing so. Likewise, how can Budapest flirt with China and even side with Russia on some matters?  

The second issue is related to the state of democracy and in particular upholding the rule of law in Poland and Hungary. If not expressed explicitly, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are concerned about political developments in Warsaw and Budapest. What is more, they are losing patience with paying a price for a damage done by the Polish-Hungarian tandem on the V4’s reputation in Brussels.   

Three scenarios for the future of V4 relations 

Depending on which party coalitions will be governing in Warsaw and Bratislava, at least three scenarios are possible: 

First, Hungary becomes even more isolated in the group. This could happen if the current opposition led by the Civic Platform wins the elections in Poland, and Slovakia selects a government similar to the one it has now. In this format, three out of four V4 partners will maintain unity on Russia policy, and will maintain a pro-Atlantic and pro-European course, paying more respect to democracy and rule of law at home. This scenario is not likely. 

Second, the V4 is divided into two camps: the Czechs and the Slovaks on one side, and the Poles and the Hungarians on the other side. This would mean that the national interests from before the war in Ukraine are restored. For this to happen, the elections both in Poland and Slovakia would have to bring no changes in the political scene, and Hungary would have to make a U-turn on its Russia policy. This scenario is also not very likely. 

Third, and the most likely scenario is that Prague gets isolated. This will happen when the current government of the united right led by the Law and Justice (PiS) wins the elections in Poland, and the Eurosceptic SMER-SD party of former Prime Minister Robert Fico forms the government, as the current polls seem to suggest. In this case, the Czech Republic will seal Prague’s pro-Western shift, strengthen its position in the EU, and keep implementing a foreign policy based on Vaclav Havel’s values, accentuating respect for human rights and civil society. The currently isolated Hungary would in this case receive support from Slovakia. It is not clear how the Polish-Hungarian relations would develop given their difference on Russia. However, any policy alignment is possible given the recent Polish-Hungarian unity in banning grains import from Ukraine.  

Regardless of what scenario proves to be true, we should not expect that the format will cease to exist. In the three decades of the Visegrad group’s existence it has produced multidimensional cross-border ties and enhanced people to people contacts. It is true that it will operate in survival mode until all V4 countries are governed by parties sharing a common ideological line. But their relations and common history are too deep and too close to be easily given up on. 

This might be of inerest to you:  

Martinek, K. Brudzinska, In the Eye of the Storm: Political Turmoil in Slovakia, IDM Blog, 19 December 2022

Apaydin, Ukrainian-Hungarian relations are complicated, and not only because of the war. IDM Blog, 3 March 2023

Brudzinska for Judy Asks: Is Hungary a Reliable EU and NATO Member?, Strategic Europe Blog of Carnegie Europe, 30 March 2023