Recreating Central Europe

02/17/2015 10:16 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

In 1991, when they disbanded the Warsaw Pact, the countries of Central Europe officially declared their independence from the Soviet Union (though the breaking of the bond really took place two years earlier). This newfound independence did not, however, translate into a common voice or common position based on history and circumstance.

The region almost immediately broke into several rival camps. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary created the Visegrad Group and positioned themselves as the most likely to succeed (as members of NATO and the European Union). Bulgaria and Romania scrambled to present themselves as second-tier candidates for European accession. The Baltic countries struggled to escape their post-Soviet identity. And Yugoslavia simply fell apart.

As befit countries that were establishing competition as the standard for their domestic economies, they also competed among themselves for the best deals from Brussels and Washington.

"The biggest mistake, the area where we have not been so successful in the last 20 years, is that we don't have a common voice in Central Europe," Dariusz Kalan, a Central Europe expert with the Polish Institute for International Affairs (PISM), told me in an interview in Warsaw in August 2013. "From the foreign view -- for instance, foreign investors -- we are sometimes considered to be not Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, or the Czech Republic but instead Central European. But we can't speak with one voice on strategic issues or toward Russia. Russia knows this and has a policy of divide-and-rule in the region. We can't speak with one voice with the United States. It was quite shameful that we couldn't provide a common voice on the visa regime, for instance. Each country was fighting for itself."

One reason for this lack of common voice, even in the face of common interests, has been an absence of public interest. "Why politicians are less interested in Central Europe as such is because society is not very much interested in Central Europe," Kalan continued. "If you went along Krakowsie Przedmescie or Nowy Swiat -- just outside the office here -- and ask them what the Visegrad Group is and what countries belong to it, my intuition is that not many of them will give the proper answer. This is the probably one of the biggest problems we have right now -- the weak people-to-people contact. And this is why it's not very attractive to politicians as well."

The failure of people to connect across the region is in some sense because of the lack of ways to connect. "In addition to the failure to establish a lot of people-to-people contact," Kalan added, "we've also had a problem with infrastructure. It's a small issue, not a strategic issue. It is quite shameful that a trip from Warsaw to Prague lasts 10 hours, that there is no direct connection between Warsaw and Bratislava by train. There's not even a highway. And this is not to mention countries like Romania or Bulgaria where the infrastructure is very weak. These are small problems at first sight. But it limits people from visiting neighboring countries and not only to dropping their money there but also strengthening the people-to-people contacts and the social aspect overall. This is also the reason why we don't really know what is the Visegrad Group and what to do with it."

We talked about Poland's attempt to represent the region in European bodies, why young people are leaning toward conservative movements, and how Central Europe views Russia.

The Interview

In the United States there was a lot of interest in this part of the war in 1989-90 and in the Balkans during the war. But since then, interest has declined, rather quickly -- in the media, even in academia. Is there still sustained interest here in Poland for what's going on in the Visegrad Four, but also in the areas further south?

You mentioned that the United States is no longer interested in Central Europe. This is one of the biggest problems we have to face in the region. After the great momentum in 1989, and then in 1999 when we joined NATO and in 2004 when we joined the EU, the interest not only of the United States, but actually the whole world, has declined, with the possible exception of Russia, which has different reasons for being interested in Central Europe. This is a big challenge for us. This is the reality. Plenty of experts and a lot of politicians from the region still believe that nothing has changed since the 1990s. They still try to build their political identity or the identity of their parties in this particular area of foreign affairs on the United States.

As for Poland, we have an image of ourselves as a Central European leader. We are the biggest country in the region. We do our best in the EU to present and defend the regional position. Our smaller partners mostly agree to that. Realistically speaking, Poland nowadays is a much more trustworthy partner for the bigger European countries. But the problem is -- or it may seem to be a problem -- we do not really know a lot about Central Europe.

Let me explain more clearly. We are interested in Central Europe in the EU rather than in Central Europe itself. Maybe things have changed a bit recently. As you perhaps know, the Visegrad presidency for Poland just finished, and it was quite successful. Our minister of foreign affairs, experts, and diplomats were pretty active not only in the EU but also in Central European countries, which was quite unexpected. But why politicians are less interested in Central Europe as such is because society is not very much interested in Central Europe. If you went along Krakowsie Przedmescie or Nowy Swiat -- just outside the office here -- and ask them what the Visegrad Group is and what countries belong to it, my intuition is that not many of them will give the proper answer. This is the probably one of the biggest problems we have right now -- the weak people-to-people contact. And this is why it's not very attractive to politicians as well.

The second reason is that we don't really know what to do with the Visegrad Group right now. It was established in 1991 with the main aim to make the region closer to EU and NATO. Here we succeeded. What to do now is the question. Politicians try to use the Visegrad Group to fight for common interests in the EU. But in my opinion that should not be the only reason for the group's existence.

What do you think the Polish government should do in relation to the Visegrad Group? You said that the recent presidency of the Visegrad Group was successful. What changes, however, would you make?

There are a lot of things to do. My opinion is that the biggest mistake, the area where we have not been so successful in the last 20 years, is that we don't have a common voice in Central Europe. From the foreign view -- for instance, foreign investors -- we are sometimes considered to be not Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, or the Czech Republic but instead Central European. But we can't speak with one voice on strategic issues or toward Russia. Russia knows this and has a policy of divide-and-rule in the region. We can't speak with one voice with the United States. It was quite shameful that we couldn't provide a common voice on the visa regime, for instance. Each country was fighting for itself.

It's also the case in terms of relations with the post-Soviet area. But here, not every country is interested in having an eastern policy. For Poland, it has the greatest meaning. But for Hungary, they are much more interested in the Western Balkans. But we are not able to build some compromise here. This is where we did not succeed. My recommendation would be to try to build a common voice, to try to list the strategic issues for the region.

In addition to the failure to establish a lot of people-to-people contact, as I mentioned before, we've also had a problem with infrastructure. It's a small issue, not a strategic issue. It is quite shameful that a trip from Warsaw to Prague lasts 10 hours, that there is no direct connection between Warsaw and Bratislava by train. There's not even a highway. And this is not to mention countries like Romania or Bulgaria where the infrastructure is very weak. These are small problems at first sight. But it limits people from visiting neighboring countries and not only to dropping their money there but also strengthening the people-to-people contacts and the social aspect overall. This is also the reason why we don't really know what is the Visegrad group and what to do with it.

The third point is again strategic. As you know, in the last century Central Europe was most unstable part of Europe. I'm not really sure if we are really aware of how important this region is. Here military spending is very important -- but less than 2 percent of GDP. We are part of NATO, part of EU, and it is quite unlikely that we will encounter any military danger in the region. On the other hand, we have experiences from the past. If history gives us any lessons, we should depend on ourselves, not only on our friends from the Western world. I understand that this is a tough issue, especially right now in terms of economic turmoil. There are important steps, like the Visegrad battle group to be established in 2016. We can connect this not only to very low level of military spending, but also to the energy issue. We have this idea of a gas corridor to go through the whole region, from Gdansk to Croatia. This is very good. But it's not enough to become more independent from Russian supplies.

What's the level of trade among the Visegrad Four, and has it been increasing?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.