Last update: 07 05 2010
Visegrad countries and Russia
During the communist rule in the past, all countries of Visegrad region had been the part of former Soviet block. At that period many key links were created and some of them have been transformed into current relations and cooperation - especially on fields of trade, energy, energy infrastructure and foreign and security policy. Between the most recent issues discussed between V4 and Moscow one can identify U.S. anti-missile shield in Czech republic and Poland, gas supplies to Slovakia, as well as Nabucco and South Stream pipelines talks with Hungary.
Relations between the European Union and Russian federation could be described as a sinusoid following an irregular course depending on the various aspects which are taken into consideration and also in respect of individual EU member states. The European Union as a whole started to steadily form a common foreign policy towards Russia during the 90´s and since then the relations have stepped up. Currently Russia is the third biggest trade partner of the EU.
In 1994 EU and Russia signed the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement, which provides a political, economic and cultural frameworks between the two entities. However, this document is currently being revised since 2008 and a new agreement should be signed in the near future. Furthermore the EU and Russia initiated a bilateral Energy Dialogue in 2000, which from the EU side should secure stable supply of energy sources and create an open and transparent market between EU and Russia.
When the new 10 member states countries entered the EU in 2004, the EU launched its European Neighbourhood Policy and later in 2009 also the Eastern Partnership Initiative (which includes Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and especially the V4 countries became active in promoting cooperation with the eastern neighbourhood of the EU. However Russia chose not to join any of the Union’s initiative as it wants to be an equal partner of the EU. As a consequence EU and Russia set up four Common Spaces for cooperation in the field of economy; freedom, security and justice; external security and a common space on research, education and culture.
Although EU and Russia have a long record of agreements, partnerships, contracts etc. there are also issues that create tensions between Russia, the EU an individual member states. Above all is the question of energy security, followed by the tensions between Russia and NATO over the anti- missile defence system, tensions over the influence of EU in the zone of Russia’s interests, dispute over the Kaliningrad Oblast and a number of bilateral disputes between Russia and individual EU countries.
The four Visegrad countries all have specific relations with Russia that are influenced not only by their historical relationship, which is relatively similar for all four of them, but also by the degree of dependency on energy supplies from Russia, their mutual economic trade and the degree of political cooperation as well as political disputes over issues of security and defence.
Czech-Russian relations still reflect the history of these two nations which were closely linked during the 40 years of communist regime. Nowadays in the bilateral relations we can still feel the wariness and cautiousness of the Czech administration towards Russia. The Czech Republic declares its anxiety over the hardline politics of Russia for example in the Caucasus region.
One of the main topics of the Czeuch-Russian relations is planned american radar, which the US government intends to construct in the Czech mountain range of Brdy. The contract concerning the radar was signed by the former foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg and former US secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in July last year. Russian administration has stated its opposition against the construction of the missile defence system in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Moscow planned to place several missiles into its Kaliningrad region as a kind of revenge to the US plans in Central Europe. But since the US government has changed in the fall of the last year the support for the construction of the missile defense system in Central Europe has decreased considerably. Mainly it was because of the financial and economic crisis which hit the US badly but also because the US president Barack Obama hopes for the improvement of US-Iranian relations, which could diminish the threat of possible attack from this region.
In the Czech republic public opinion is in majority against the construction of the US radar. Civic democrats (ODS) support the construction and the most resolute opponents of radar can be found among the communists (KSČM) and social democrats (ČSSD). The ODS+Greens+KDU-ČSL (christian democrats) coalition government was not able to push the radar agreement through the lower chamber of the Czech parliament in March this year and since the coalition collapsed due to the vote of confidence there was not further development in this case
The idea of installing US radar in Brdy was cancelled by US President Barack Obama in September 2009, with satisfaction of Russian President, Mr. Dmitry Medvedev:
Connected to the theme of American radar in the Czech Republic is the recent case of the alleged Russian spies who were expelled from the country. They were supposed to gather information about the radar construction in the Czech Republic and its NATO involvement. Moscow´s reaction was adequate, which means that they have expelled two Czech diplomats from Russia. Russian foreign minister Sergej Lavrov stated, that the expulsion of the Russian diplomats was a act of provocation.
The amount/ volume of last year´s bilateral trade was at its historical maximum – 13 billion USD. Russian import to the Czech Republic consists mainly of energetic commodities – 83%. Russian federation is the 7th most important economic partner of the Czech Republic, according to the 2008 data. The slowdown in the bilateral trade in the last quarter of the year 2008 was due to the global economic and financial crises.
The political dialog during the first half of the year 2009 was dominated two themes: Russia-Georgia crisis of (August 2008) and the crisis concerning the Russian gas supplies (January 2009). Czech president Vaclav Klaus presided the EU-Russia summit in Chabarovsk (23-24 May) where Russia refused to give any guarantees against possible future crisis concerning the Russian gas supplies. During the Czech presidency three rounds of negotiations of the new Association and Partnership Agreement with Russia took place.
Although the bilateral relations of Hungary and Russia can be currently regarded as positive, they are influenced by a number of negative experiences from the past. The negative perception of Russia in Hungary stem from for example the Russian invasion in 1848 and 1956, rivalry of the two countries over influence in Balkans or Hungarian anti-alliance against Russia in both of the world wars. The visit of Russian president Yeltsin to Budapest in 1992 was an important point when most of the previous disputes between the two countries were diplomatically resolved. However as in the case of Slovakia, the attitude towards Russia is divided on political line. The previous government of Ferenc Gyurcsány was among the most sympathetic ones towards Russia. Last year during a meeting in St. Petersburg, Fidesz chairman Viktor Orbán said would like to forge a 21st century partnership and ensure that the 20th century relations between the countries are never repeated. At present, the two countries have bilateral ties and focus predominantly on trading and economic relations.
Since 2002 we could say that Hungary has chosen a new approach towards Russia which can be first and foremost labelled as pragmatic. Also Russia is perceived as a big power, the biggest energy supplier and therefore Hungary should be careful and friendly in dealing with it.
Bilateral relations of the two countries in the energy sector are among the most important sectors. Russia is a major gas supplier to Hungary and all in all 80 percent of gas consumed in Hungary is supplied by Russia. In case of crude oil 99% comes from Russia. With these statistics, Hungary is second among EU countries in energy dependence on Russia.
Currently Hungary is a participant country in a major project for the construction of the gas pipeline called "Northern stream", which would bypass Ukraine and supply the European gas markets with Russian gas. Hungary signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the construction of the gas pipeline with Russia on 28 February 2008. However, Hungary is also a partner country in another project, namely Nabucco. The Nabucco project would not only bypass Ukraine, but also Russia and it would pump Central Asian gas to Europe via Turkey. The project is supported by both the EU and U.S. Currently the South stream project is more realistic than the grand Nabucco project. Political representatives from both countries, Medvedev and Gyurcsany both say that they see no contradiction between South Stream and the other project. Analysts point to a different conclusion. Yet Hungary should be definitely interested in both gas pipelines running across its territory.
Russia and Hungary have also set up an inter-governmental forum. Hungary is the first Central Eastern European state to cooperate with Moscow on such a level. Furthermore, the trade and economic ties between the two countries have strengthened significantly during the last few years. Russia is an interesting destination for Hungarian business and it is able to provide Hungary with a lucrative market. In 2001 the export of Hungary to Russia reached 135 billion HUF, while in 2007 it quadruped to 544 billion HUF. The import from Russia has doubled in the same period from 679 to 1196 billion HUF. The rise of the imports were mainly caused by rising energy prices. Machines represent 60% of the exported goods, while the share of oil and gas in the import is above 90%. Other important imported goods are supplies to nuclear power plants. There is relatively little FDI in either direction.
In the context of the Georgian conflict from August 2008, Hungarian politicians held a rather middle course position. But the public opinion lacked a more stronger condemnation of the acts of violence in Georgia and sought a tougher position taken by the government. One of the factors which could explain the negative perception of the Hungarians towards the events in Georgia, is their possible resemblance with the Soviet invasion in Hungary in 1956.
Although Euro-Atlantic ties belong to priorities of Polish foreign policy, Warsaw focuses also on the regional cooperation and watch carefully the EU-Russia relations. In the very recent years, during right-conservative government of Law and Justice party under leadership of PM Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Moscow-Warsaw diplomacy was shadowed by various diplomatic and trade tension, like the embargo on Polish meat import into Russia. But since last year, under Russian presidency of Mr. Dmitry Medvedev and Polish leadership of PM Donald Tusk, relations has much improved. For example and such surprisingly, Russian PM decided to spend 1st September 2009 and remind the 70th anniversary of World War II in Gdansk, side by side Polish leaders as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"Talks about 'hard security' were the main issue of the EU-Russia summit in Khabarovsk on 21-22 May 2009, where Moscow was trying to give the EU a red nose," said Paweł Świeboda - director of DemosEuropa. "Hard security is the last issue that the EU wants to talk about, its very identity being built around the concept of soft power. But Russia is using the opportunity provided by the rapprochement with the US, to twist the EU’s shoulder on the question of the common neighborhood,” he added.
After a short war between Russia and Georgia started in early August 2008, Polish President Jaroslaw Kaczynski expressed the strong solidarity with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. Together with Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Estonian Presidents they paid a visit in Tbilisi short after conflict erupted.
On 30th September 2009 the analysis about the Russian-Georgian conflict. Document was commissioned by the EU and drafted under the leadership of diplomat Heidi Tagliavini. It seems like Poland‘s effort to hold international investigation and to condemn Russia by official way failed. The report says: "The shelling of Tskhinvali by the Georgian armed forces during the night of 7 to 8 August 2008 marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict in Georgia, yet it was only the culminating point of a long period of increasing tensions, provocations and incidents. [..] There seems to be little doubt that if the Russian peacekeepers were attacked, Russia had the right to defend them using military means proportionate to the attack. Hence the Russian use of force for defensive purposes during the first phase of the conflict would be legal," Reuters informs. Polish effort for holding investigation was backed by Czech republic as well.
The relations between Slovakia and Russia have both, negative and positive character and have changed noticeably during the last decades. Currently economic and trade relations are the most significant sphere where both of the countries seek for intense cooperation and perceive their mutual relations as positive and fruitful. In comparison with Czech Republic or Poland, relations between Slovakia and Russia were not influenced as negatively as in the two countries with regards to the American missile programme. The Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico stated that Slovakia would never allow the US to build a missile defence sheet on its territory.
The perception of the relations between Russia and Slovakia vary across the political spectrum and political parties as well as among citizens.
The development of the bilateral economic relations can be described as a highly perspective and dynamic field of cooperation. For Slovakia, economic and trade relations with Russia are a long term priority in foreign policy. In 2005 the two countries signed a key agreement on economic and scientific-technical cooperation. The agreement led to the establishment of on intergovernmental commission, which meets regularly to discuss issues of their bilateral relations. Via the commission Slovakia mostly focuses on the implementation of approved measures which enable the country to strengthen export activities of Slovakia to Russia. Trade and economic relations between Slovakia and Russia are currently focusing on a more regional level, in order to achieve a greater accessibility of the local free markets for traders and investors. Slovakia has 6 priority regions in Russia: Moscow, Sankt Petersburg, Tatar republic, Bashkir republic, Sverdlovsk and Omsk regions.
The international trade between Slovakia and Russia is permanently increasing. For example the export of Slovakia in 2004 was 335 mil. euro, while in 2008 the export reached 1695 mil. euro. Concerning import in 2004 Slovakia has imported goods worth 2731 mil. euro, and by 2008 the sum increased to 5023 mil. euro. Naturally the most frequently imported commodity from Russia is oil and oil products (48,5%) and natural gas (37%). Slovakia has mostly exported automobiles (26%) and other technical equipment. The traditional sectors such as power and machine industry, food processing and textile industry, civil engineering and tourism belong to the perspective areas of economic cooperation between Russia and Slovakia.
Relations between Slovakia and Russia are the most intense, at least from the Slovak point of view when it comes to the issue of energy supplies. The issue of energy supplies is also the area where the imbalance of the relations is more obvious than in other sectors and Russia being the dominant "partner". Russia supplies Slovakia with 98% of the whole oil demand and nearly 100% of the gas demand. The drawback of total dependency on Russian gas was especially proved during the gas crisis in early January in 2009. Due to the disputes between Ukraine and Russia about the transit prices of gas and other unresolved issues related to payments between the two countries, Slovakia was without gas supplies for two weeks. The only thing Slovakia could do was to demand that the Russian gas company Gazprom meet the agreement which Slovakia has singed with Gazprom.
If we take a more broader look at the international scene and the position of Slovakia and Russia, there can be found both common, but also diverse approaches of these two countries. Russia as well as Slovakia for example did not recognize the independence of Kosovo in 2007 and would only do so if also Serbia recognizes Kosovo as a new state. When it came to reasoning why Slovakia did not support the independence of Kosovo, one of the arguments was that Slovakia supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Serbia. Russia too insisted on a formula in the UN resolution on Kosovo, that it should be considered as a special case, not a precedent according to which also other regions could separate from the mother country. However, in 2008 Russia fully supported the independence of Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Slovakia did not.
Another point of discord is their support for the integration efforts of Ukraine or Georgia into the EU or NATO. Slovakia is a strong supporter of the integration processes of all the eastern countries while Russia is a fervent opponent of such actions.
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