The Visegrad Four (V4) states of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia emerged as new actors in international democracy about a decade ago. Poland, in particular, began to punch above its weight in the promotion of democracy abroad. Warsaw became the headquarters of both the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Community of Democracies. Poland was a main proponent of the European Endowment for Democracy and an architect of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, which centers on democratic reform commitments.
While ambitious at first glance, however, the democratization agenda has never been a top priority in the V4 states’ foreign policies. The four countries have also struggled to coordinate their individual democracy support efforts. More recently, illiberal political developments in Hungary and Poland have sapped the V4’s credibility in providing democracy support and defending human rights abroad.
Still, it is perhaps surprising that despite their internal political trends, these countries have, in some cases, continued to support democracy externally. And just as surprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic has not entirely undercut the V4 focus on democracy issues, especially when the 2020–2021 anti-government protests in Belarus prompted the group to bring democratic solidarity to the fore. Differences among the V4 states are widening on democracy support strategies, however, with Hungary increasingly set against such support. While the Hungarian government sometimes still aligns with other EU states to shore up democracy elsewhere—for example, with respect to sanctions on Belarus—Budapest has sought to limit EU criticism of China, Israel, and Russia.
If the V4 want to remain valuable partners in external democracy support and build on their existing initiatives, they will need to more clearly address mounting concerns with the state of their democracy at home. The Czech Republic and Slovakia will also have to distance themselves more markedly from Hungary and Poland to show that they are not part of an illiberal wave in Central Europe. Czech and Slovak opposition to the creation by Budapest and Warsaw of a conservative rule-of-law institute sets a good precedent.
Democracy Policies Before the Coronavirus
All V4 members support a foreign policy approach intended to encourage democratization or to support good governance and civil society in other countries. This pro-democracy agenda is implemented through bilateral cooperation, in the form of activities carried out by national entities, and through multilateral channels, such as regional and international institutions and organizations like the EU and the International Visegrad Fund. These efforts are guided by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Each V4 country’s foreign ministry is responsible for planning and coordinating the overarching agenda; and other ministries, embassies, civil society organizations, and development agencies are tasked with implementing the projects. Poland established the Solidarity Fund PL, with offices in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, to “support actions aimed at strengthening democracy in countries . . . covered under Polish Development Cooperation.” The Czech Republic created the Department of Human Rights and Transition Promotion Policy within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Slovakia, for its part, set up the Sharing Slovak Expertise program, managed by the Slovak Agency for International Development Cooperation.
One of the primary goals of development assistance for the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia is to provide democracy support. This is reflected in their medium- and long-term development aid programs. Hungary’s 2020–2025 International Development Cooperation Strategy, by contrast, focuses on addressing the root causes of migration and fostering economic development more generally.
For several years, V4 donors have actively and consistently articulated their interest in sharing their own experiences of undergoing systemic political transformation; this is an official objective for the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia. Each country has developed competitive advantages and expertise over time. As can be surmised from the Czech Republic’s development plan and information on government websites, supporting human rights defenders is a long-standing component of Czech foreign policy.
Slovakia, meanwhile, is invested in crafting anticorruption mechanisms and forming groups that monitor the media and elections. And Poland seeks to bolster the construction of local democracy and civil society structures. Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia also emphasize activities pertaining to the freedoms of religion and belief and the protection of minorities persecuted on the basis of their religion.
Due to their geographic proximity and similar historical experiences, the V4 countries prioritize the post-Soviet space in their democracy and human rights agendas. This includes support for further EU enlargement and assistance for applicable countries with European aspirations. Czech and Polish aid transfers prioritize Eastern European countries, while Hungary and Slovakia additionally focus on the Western Balkans.
Combining values-based and utilitarian perspectives, the V4 countries generally approach democracy and human rights pragmatically, aiming to use foreign aid to safeguard their geopolitical interests. In this vein, Poland, which perceives Russia as its greatest security threat, prioritizes the Eastern Partnership countries in its democratization agenda. Warsaw also uses its foreign aid to boost its international standing and improve the country’s image abroad.
Hungary and Slovakia, meanwhile, have shown an increasing proclivity to use external aid to support foreign trade and migration-related interventions—a trend reinforced by the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that both countries invest in the stability and EU aspirations of the Western Balkans is, therefore, not a coincidence. Similarly, Czech development cooperation is increasingly seen as an instrument for enabling the diversification of Czech exports to non-European markets, according to AidWatch, an advocacy network of nongovernmental organizations.
While taking an interest-oriented approach, the Visegrad countries are equally supportive of sanctions as a tool of coercive diplomacy. All V4 states have regularly voted to extend sanctions imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea. They have supported restrictive EU measures against individuals involved in the ongoing brutal crackdown by Belarusian security forces against peaceful protesters, the democratic opposition, and journalists.
And even though these countries did not previously have in place national Magnitsky-style sanctions—named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky—against foreign individuals who have committed human rights abuses, the V4 backed the new EU sanctions regime adopted in December 2020. Only Hungary voiced reservations and initially held up the draft plan. Hungary is also the only V4 country that consistently blocks EU decisions about Chinese human rights abuses or that vetoed the EU’s May 2021 declaration on the latest Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire.
Although the other three V4 countries have also tended to be less vocal than most EU members about Beijing’s human rights violations, this dynamic has been gradually changing. Slovakia recently joined the United States in criticizing changes to Hong Kong’s electoral law adopted by the Chinese parliament. And a Slovak member of the European Parliament found herself on a Chinese sanctions list after the EU introduced sanctions against Chinese representatives responsible for human rights abuses against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.
The Czech Republic has particularly found itself on China’s radar over the past few years. The Chinese government recently enacted measures that detrimentally affect its diplomatic ties with the Czech Republic in response to the mayor of Prague’s support for Taiwan. Meanwhile, Poland’s strategic relationship with the United States, which wields a powerful influence on Polish leaders, has dampened enthusiasm in Warsaw for an expansion of the country’s engagement with China.
Despite well-grounded assumptions that the V4 countries’ democracy and human rights agendas would wane amid the coronavirus pandemic, this has not come to pass. Rather, policymakers in the region have recognized that coronavirus outbreaks risk severe humanitarian crises in neighboring countries, which may, in turn, have implications for the EU’s stability. As a consequence, the delivery of Hungarian and Slovak aid to the Western Balkans is partly a gesture of solidarity and partly a preemptive move to mitigate, for example, potential migratory pressures. In other words, the V4 have realized that providing a helping hand is more vital, not less, in a moment of crisis.
The V4 countries have expressed international solidarity during the pandemic by sending humanitarian aid convoys and providing health assistance primarily, though not exclusively, to their priority partner countries. Hungary allocated nearly €30 million ($37 million) to combat the pandemic and its repercussions in developing countries, and Poland sent eight humanitarian aid convoys to fourteen countries at a total cost of €12.1 million ($14.7 million).1 Slovak ministries delivered thirteen humanitarian shipments, with a total value of more than €1.3 million ($1.6 million), to nine countries. The Czechs initiated a humanitarian response valued at more than €1 million ($1.2 million).
The V4 nations also jointly launched the V4 East Solidarity Programme, which provides financial contributions to strengthen the health, social, and economic resilience of Eastern Partnership countries. Empowering independent media has been another important focus of V4 aid over the past year, with Poland launching a special call for Ukraine through its Solidarity Fund PL. The Czech Republic supported similar media-oriented projects in Belarus and Ukraine as well as Cuba.
Based on available data, the overall resources allocated by V4 countries to democracy assistance in 2020 were not affected by the pandemic. And, so far, these allocations have generally remained at the same levels in 2021. Nevertheless, coronavirus responses have spurred a redirecting of funds from budget items that had already been assigned. While Central European countries have therefore affirmed their ongoing activities by prolonging or reorienting them, these states have also updated the scope and character of their external aid to include humanitarian components and coronavirus-related costs incurred from implementing projects.
Notably, the pandemic has hastened the digitization of certain donor procedures—for example, application processes, connectivity among stakeholder groups, and program outreach. Some shortcomings have undoubtedly cropped up, however. Though the Czech Republic continued its call for development aid proposals in 2020, Poland and Slovakia postponed or canceled some of their calls, provoking the ire of Polish civil society.
Belarus in Need
The aftermath of the fraudulent August 9, 2020, presidential election in Belarus is a second pertinent factor that has kept democracy in the foreground and spurred a continued emphasis on solidarity. The V4 countries, which share a common history with their eastern neighbor, sympathize with the yearning of Belarusian society for democracy. In coordination with Lithuania, which has been leading the agenda on Belarus in the EU, the V4 have lobbied for EU action against the authoritarian government in Minsk and allocated additional funds to support democracy and protect human rights in the country.
Poland announced an €11.2 million ($13.6 million) aid package titled Solidarity With Belarus to support civil society organizations and independent media and help Belarusians relocate to Poland for work or study purposes. Warsaw is also the headquarters of Nexta, an opposition channel on the messaging app Telegram with nearly 2 million subscribers. Nexta was founded by Belarusian dissidents who played an important role in organizing street protests in Belarus. Journalist and activist Roman Protasevich, who was detained in Minsk on May 23, 2021, after the extraordinary diversion of his Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania, was also based in Poland—although due to failures in bureaucratic procedures, his application for political asylum there had been rejected.
Slovakia, meanwhile, established a fund with an initial allocation of €250,000 ($305,000) to bolster civil society and assist victims of the regime’s repression. And the Czech Republic added €370,000 ($451,000) to a fund that supports the medical and psychological rehabilitation of victims. All four governments extended assistance to journalists and developed a range of scholarship programs for Belarusian citizens.
Hungary, which initially suggested that sanctions against Minsk could prove counterproductive, has been the most hesitant of the four countries to support a more stringent EU policy on Belarus. This restraint is underpinned by Budapest’s close ties to Moscow. While Hungary later came around to the V4 and EU position and has supported the European Council conclusions released after the forced landing of Protasevich’s flight, Budapest has never adamantly embraced the common stance. Hungary is not a signatory of the International Accountability Platform for Belarus, an independent and impartial platform established in March 2021 to collect, verify, and preserve documentation and evidence of serious human rights violations perpetrated in Belarus. This initiative is backed by the EU, its member states, and other like-minded countries, including Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Persistence in Ukraine
Ukraine is a priority country for all V4 assistance. Despite disagreements and tensions between Ukraine and individual V4 members—for example, with Hungary over a Ukrainian law that restricts the use of minority languages or with Poland on World War II–era killings in the cross-border region of Volhynia—the V4 are among Ukraine’s staunchest partners in combating both Russian aggression and the coronavirus pandemic.
The enduring support is rooted in the V4’s geopolitical strategy to create a buffer zone between Russia and the EU’s eastern border by democratizing the countries in between and moving them closer to the EU. “It is in our interest that Ukraine prospers because if our neighbour is doing well, we are also doing well,” Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok said in April 2021. The same logic applies in Warsaw, which became actively involved in Ukraine’s 2004–2005 Orange Revolution but became less active at the highest political levels after Poland was excluded in 2014 from the Normandy format, which brings together the French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders to help end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
All V4 countries have continued to help Ukraine fight the coronavirus pandemic and mitigate the negative social and economic effects of the crisis. Ukraine has been one of the most frequently mentioned countries in V4 external solidarity efforts over the past year. Slovakia estimates that the volume of its development cooperation with Ukraine in 2020 amounted to €634,000 ($773,000). Moreover, in its 2020 foreign and European policy outlook, the Slovak government stressed that it would actively support Ukraine’s transformation and European perspective. On top of health assistance, the Czech Republic gave €19,500 ($23,800) of financial support to the Council of Europe’s 2018–2021 Action Plan for Ukraine, a strategic tool to help the country’s efforts to adopt and implement European standards on human rights, the rule of law, and democracy.
Credibility Issues and Constraints on V4 Agendas
The effectiveness and ambition of Central Europe’s democratization policies will depend on the donor countries upholding values of democracy and the rule of law at home. It would be naive to assume that domestic debates on the rule of law and shared values in Hungary and Poland will not impinge on these countries’ standing and the efficacy of their aid in the neighborhood and globally. Freedom House data for 2020 indicate that the quality of democratic governance in Poland deteriorated for the fourth consecutive year, with the country now ranked as a semi-consolidated democracy. The prognosis for Hungary is even bleaker: the watchdog rated the country a transitional or hybrid regime.
Despite their democratic rollbacks, Hungary and Poland have not completely ceased their assistance to priority countries that are undergoing transitions. By extending their support for democracy abroad, Budapest and Warsaw could foster a stable and prosperous neighborhood, lay the groundwork for economic opportunities in the future, and improve their image on the international stage.
This recognition is exemplified not only in the two countries’ foreign policies and development aid strategies but also in figures showing that the magnitude of their aid has not considerably decreased. OECD data on official development assistance (ODA) reveal that aid from the two countries has not fluctuated significantly over the past ten years—and even grew in the case of Hungary. This could indicate that foreign aid has not fallen victim to the political interests of the ruling coalitions in Budapest and Warsaw.
It is fair to say, however, that the Hungarian and Polish approaches have drifted apart. While Warsaw’s international support for democracy is less enthusiastic and more political than in the past, Budapest formally talks much less about democracy and directs more of its ODA toward in-donor refugees. There are also differences in the target audiences for aid allocated for democracy purposes: Poland invests in the civil societies of developing countries, while Hungary channels its aid primarily to the public sector.
When it comes to evaluating the V4 states’ efforts to promote democratization and human rights abroad, the four countries should not be put in the same basket. The group is not a single organism, and its members are diverse and divided on numerous issues. The Czech Republic and Slovakia, in particular, have endured the consequences of bad press shedding light on political developments in Hungary and Poland. It is no wonder that Prague and Bratislava are now seeking out new regional groupings—including the Slavkov format with Austria and the Central Five initiative with Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia—with which they can engage more constructively.
Hungarian-Polish relations are no straightforward matter, either. The two capitals agree on some issues, including a joint plan to establish a new institute that would assess how the rule of law is being upheld across the EU. Yet, Budapest and Warsaw have adopted contrasting points of view on EU policy toward China and Russia—a gulf that was also apparent in the two governments’ divergent responses to the crisis in Belarus.
Beyond political differences, practical barriers also present a challenge to the development of an ambitious and coordinated V4 democracy and human rights agenda. These constraints include limited financial resources, a lack of V4 ownership over aid management, a narrow geographic focus, and minimal cooperation within the grouping.
All V4 countries earmark funds for democracy and human rights support through their ODA, with the figures amounting to rather small sums even before the pandemic. According to the OECD’s most recent data, Hungary is currently the largest ODA donor among the V4, with its share making up the equivalent of 0.27 percent of gross national income. The country is followed by Poland and Slovakia (0.14 percent) and the Czech Republic (0.13 percent). These figures are below the official target of 0.33 percent to which all four countries are committed.
The fact that democracy projects are funded from development assistance budgets is often a target of criticism, too. This is because the aid dedicated to democracy support projects is overshadowed by development projects focused on improving living conditions, which, in the short term, might have bigger impacts for donors and bring more tangible results. What is more, the democracy and development aid agendas fall under separate departments, so priorities, programming, and budgeting are not always synchronized.
Compulsory contributions to the EU account for between 55 and 77 percent of V4 countries’ total ODA, which has negative implications on both capacity and the V4’s ownership of this agenda.2 The high proportion of contributions to the EU means that the scope for bilateral aid is small and countries feel less ownership of projects developed at the EU level. Meanwhile, political and financial reasons limit the geographic focus of V4 development aid to the post-Soviet space, with few exceptions. For example, the EU’s southern neighborhood countries garner only sporadic attention against the backdrop of the refugee and migration crisis.
Finally, apart from ad hoc activities, there is little coordination on democracy assistance among V4 countries. The V4 East Solidarity Programme and the financial support that all four countries have provided since 2012 to the European Endowment for Democracy are notable exceptions.
Despite their internal political problems, Central European countries can still make a positive contribution to external democracy support, as they still see this agenda as in their interests. After benefiting from foreign aid during their own transformations, these states even feel they have a moral obligation to share their experiences and expand their capabilities to aid others. Paradoxically, this makes these countries even keener on this agenda than other EU member states, like France, Greece, Italy, or Spain.
The coronavirus pandemic and events in Belarus have reminded the V4 about the importance of such external support and the difference it can make to societies and economies. However, these countries will need to increase their commitments to democracy policy if they are to make a really significant contribution. And their credibility will suffer internationally while the governments of several of these states continue to challenge democratic norms within their own borders.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.
Kinga Brudzinska is the head of the Center for Global Europe at GLOBSEC, a think tank based in Slovakia.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the official positions of GLOBSEC.
1 Updated data provided to the author during an interview with a Solidarity Fund PL official.
2 Author calculations based on “Knock-On Effects: An Urgent Call to Leave No One Behind,” Concord AidWatch 2020, CONCORD European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development, 2020, https://concordeurope.org/?smd_process_download=1&download_id=19732.