What does have the potential to greatly diminish or harm the V4 brand in emerging democracies is a lack of foreign policy strategy and ambivalence in bilateral relations.
One could rightfully hesitate when deciding whether the V4 is a stakeholder that is entitled to help other world democracies prosper. Looking back at the last few years, we have seen what some have called an unprecedented “democratic backlash” in all four Visegrád countries. This pattern went hand-in-hand with the ever-rising position of populism, and not to mention the persistent structural problems such as barriers in the rule of law, a lack of democratic accountability, corruption and clientelism in the state and self-governing institutions.
That being said, we should not prevent V4 foreign policies from focusing on empowering civil societies, offering human rights assistance or promoting democracy. As the history of deeply-rooted democratic societies shows us, a perfect democracy is simply non-existent; the path towards it never ends, and this challenging process of building a democracy requires constant cultivation and care. Even now, we are witnessing an increasing support of illiberal tendencies in the stable democracies with far more developed political culture such as the U.S. or France. Nevertheless, it does not automatically mean they are leaving or abandoning the democratic narrative with which they have followed. In numerous occasions in modern history, democracy has proven its capacity to absorb these, at times, destabilising elements.
What matters in the case of the Visegrád Group is its proven track record with political, economic and—the only partly finished—societal transition to democracy. The experience far from being smooth and often criticized for a number of shortcomings remains credible from the perspective of our eastern or southern partners, countries that are in a more painful transition period at the moment. Specifically, the practice of the last twenty-five years indicates that the countries that are able to profit the most from the lessons the V4 learned are those in the regions of the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership. By no chance, the practitioners refer to “lessons learned” instead of “best practices”, a wording that is linked to the V4’s ability to admit their mistakes and provide others with recommendations on how to avoid them. Together with their combined histories and non-imperial past, the Visegrád Group is strengthening its trustworthiness.
On the other hand, what does have the potential to greatly diminish or harm the V4 brand in emerging democracies is a lack of foreign policy strategy and an ambivalence in bilateral relations. An example of this inability to rethink old patterns was shown when the Czechs sold arms supplies to the Egyptian state apparatus while simultaneously supporting the transition to democracy. Yet, the V4’s active participation in democratic assistance in North Africa at the outset of the Arab Spring illustrates a growing awareness of the influence the V4 can have, even outside the traditional, European borders.
Unfortunately, the V4 are missing the opportunity to utilise the observations it gained during the Arab Spring in the MENA region, and transform this knowledge into rational answers to the refugee crisis. Only time will tell how the Visegrád response, lacking in humanitarian and liberal dimensions, will damage the V4 reputation inside of Europe and abroad.
The article was originally published at the book V4 – 25 Years: The Continuing Story of the Visegrád Group.