How does Austria feel about the four Visegrád states? And vice versa: How do the Visegrád states feel about Austria? These two questions, having never really been answered, have hovered over Central Europe for many years. Of course, they immediately lead to the next two unanswered questions: What is Central Europe? Where does it begin and end? This deceptively difficult question has been unclear for more than a century and a half, which is why people in Austria usually avoid it. But likewise among the Visegrád states—with the exception of a few hesitant attempts by Viktor Orbán in earlier years—interest in Austria has, despite proximity, a shared region, and friendly relations, never led to any serious attempts on the part of the V4 at real political cooperation with the Alpine republic.

On the contrary, the brutal Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has posed a fundamental question regarding the meaning of the Visegrád cooperation itself, which had long been considered settled. Even if open differences are largely avoided, it is clear to everyone involved that Visegrád can hardly be more than a superficial partnership if the constituent states have such profoundly different responses to so central a question—and not only rationally, but also emotionally.

The question ‘How do you feel about Putin’s Russia?’ seems, at least for the moment, to divide the four Visegrád nations more than their common opposition to the paternalism of an overly centralized, overly left-liberal, anti-Christian EU unites them. The inscrutable giant in the east has thus once again become the most important determinant in Central European politics, just as it was between the 1940s and 1980s, to the dismay of all nations in the region.

Is Russia—which has shown in Ukraine that although no longer communist, its nationalist imperialism is at least as dangerous as the old Leninist–Stalinist empire once was—once again the chief nemesis, to be repelled by all available means? The Poles and Balts, as well as many Western Europeans, appear deeply convinced of this. Or is it possible to come to a mutually beneficial peaceful coexistence with Russia, as seems to have become the Hungarian motto, at least in the last year?

(Although the expression ‘peaceful coexistence’, which comes from a different era, is no longer uttered by anyone.)

Since this fundamental question has come to the fore, one cannot (for the first time) accuse Austria of not even attempting to clarify its relationship with the Visegrád states. The Alpine republic’s attitude towards Russia is somewhere between those of Poland and Hungary, since these two countries seem further apart on this central issue than Austria is from either of them.

In addition, any rapprochement is made more difficult simply by the fact that Austria is still ‘perpetually neutral’ under constitutional law, while all Visegrád states are now NATO members.

In truth, internal differences of opinion among the Visegrád countries are by no means a source of discomfort for Austria, since they save the country from having to deal with the immediate neighbourhood—that is, with the V4—as the only relevant Central European structure. Of course, this is a cheap excuse in the long run.

The decision-making process on this subject had, to put it politely, not progressed very far before the Russia–Ukraine War. Indeed, the sense of being a Central European state has actually weakened in Austria in recent years. In the last decade and a half there have been no great personalities such as Erhard Busek, Jörg Mauthe, Alois Mock, and Wolfgang Schüssel, who still felt a personal, emotional connection to Central Europe, and who repeatedly tried to embody this in their political activities as ministers, city councillors and, in Schüssel’s case, as federal chancellor.

All these figures belonged to the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). However, Central Europe has never been a matter close to the hearts of the other parties, including the Austrian Social Democrats (SPÖ), who have often held power in the state. Bruno Kreisky, the SPÖ’s last major foreign-policy figure, was completely focused on Middle East issues and criticism of the USA. He was even more concerned with Africa than with Central Europe. Central Europe is likewise of no interest to the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the third largest party in Austria. This is a result of their historical roots, as the FPÖ has its origins in the German-national camp within the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, which sought to turn away from the non-German-speaking peoples of the Habsburg Monarchy, and which even then always looked towards Germany.

In the twenty-first century, the FPÖ has unquestionably abandoned its Germannational orientation and adopted emphatically Austrian-national rhetoric. In foreign policy, meanwhile the party has found its key allies—insofar as it is interested in what is happening outside Austria’s borders—in Moscow and Belgrade. This policy is also rooted in an attempt to court the substantial number of Austro-Serbian voters. As such, the invasion of Ukraine has come as a shock to the FPÖ, from which it has yet to recover or find a clear response to—a shock that left it, as it were, speechless. The FPÖ prefers to continue talking about COVID-19 issues, in the absence of any clear foreign policy orientation. However, where it does express itself, it seems to broadly support Moscow’s interests: Austrian neutrality is hugely overinterpreted in the FPÖ (unlike the other non-NATO states in Europe, many of which are currently switching over to the NATO camp), and the FPÖ even rejects granting EU candidate status to Ukraine, a status which Kyiv regards as completely inadequate, given that Turkey has enjoyed it for decades.

There is another reason why the FPÖ and SPÖ have always harboured a certain distrust towards the ÖVP’s enthusiasm for Central Europe: they suspect a certain restorationist nostalgia on the part of the Christian-democratic-conservative camp, which supposedly yearns for the return of the Habsburg state.

Of course, even in that historical epoch, the term ‘Central Europe’ had many question marks attached to it. German politicians repeatedly insisted that Germany should also belong to Central Europe. After Bismarck embraced the Kleindeutsch solution, founding a German Reich without the House of Austria, which had dominated German-speaking Europe for many centuries, several things could and should have been clear. First, Austria’s place was in Central Europe. Second, Central Europe’s future would entail a multi-ethnic cooperation of several small and medium-sized nations that join forces on an equal footing, in between the large German Empire and the even larger (but less developed) Russian Empire.

However, these perspectives have never been realized. Not even within the Habsburg Empire. There were two reasons for this. One was that German-speaking Austrians felt they would only have a minority role in such a Central Europe, and therefore kept looking towards Germany, even though they had just been pushed out of it. Also, from 1867 until the end of the Dual Monarchy, Hungary was willing to do everything in its power to prevent the bipolar ‘equilibrium’ between Vienna and Budapest from becoming a multipolar entity in which the Slavs in particular would have a strong voice, alongside smaller Italian and Romanian entities (even though it was entirely unclear whether the Slavs of the Monarchy could ever have settled their internal differences).

But even during the interwar period, the Central Europeans found no useful common ground. Outside of Austria, a certain distrust of Vienna, which had dominated the region for so many centuries, was palpable. And in Austria, after 1918, all three major camps looked longingly across the border to Germany. Relations with Czechoslovakia were particularly fraught, especially given the fate of the German-speaking Old Austrians in Bohemia and Moravia, who had been separated from the rest of Austria for the first time in more than half a millennium, and who now had to start again in a Czech-majority state.

When, nevertheless, the Christian Social Party tried to cooperate more closely with their Central European neighbours in the 1920s, the Social Democrats in Austria immediately began to grow nervous, as did supporters of union with Germany. They saw in it a subliminal effort towards restoring the Habsburg state. Austrian Social Democrats were innately hostile to the Habsburg Empire until at least the 1970s, though they had not been so hostile to it before its dissolution at the end of the First World War. But after 1918 it became helpful for them to differentiate themselves by blaming the Habsburgs for all evils.

The Second World War and the Nazi regime prevented a Central European identity from taking shape. Above all in Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovakia, but also in the Baltic states, the Nazis triggered a dangerous internal polarization between followers and opponents. The Poles and Czechs, on the other hand, suffered the most terrible persecution from the Nazis, but in their case the result was increased national solidarity.

The deepest dividing line between Austria and the other Central Europeans, however, was undoubtedly drawn by the Soviet seizure of power in East Central Europe and the closing of the Iron Curtain. A whole generation of Austrians grew up without any idea of what was happening just a few kilometres to the east, or what kind of people lived there. They were glad to have freed themselves of the Soviets in 1955, and in 1956 they provided aid to Hungarian refugees, as they would in 1968 for those from Czechoslovakia, and after December 1981 for many Poles. But there was no further interest in these peoples. For most Austrians, everything behind the Iron Curtain shrank to a grey, unknown, rather threatening mass.

Then, finally, came the turning point of 1989. That was certainly a happy year for all European peoples, both East and West (except for Vladimir Putin and his ilk). But 1989 was also the year that Austria submitted its application for EU membership. For the republic, this again meant, albeit for a completely different reason than before, that all eyes would once again turn westward, and the focus would be on the economic integration process.

From 1989 onwards, developments in the now open Central European neighbourhood were followed in Austria with friendly interest and benevolence, but again without any broader political perspective. There have been tens of thousands of successful partnerships between small and medium-sized businesses and banks, as well as on various cultural levels. Likewise, more than 100,000 new workers from Central European countries put the Austrian economy on a steep upward curve. But that was it. Political visions? None. For a long time, the Austrians even looked down on their poorer neighbours with a certain haughtiness. Somehow they believed that the country’s greater wealth was both earned on merit and destined to remain in perpetuity.

By the same token, the now free peoples of East Central Europe also looked towards Vienna without any particular political vision. Their new freedom, the United States as a security guarantor, and the powerful and, under Helmut Kohl, benevolent Germany as the dominant economic power in Europe, were all much more important to them. The perspective of the EU and NATO was of course behind this. Talk of a unique Central European approach would only have been a distraction. In addition, there was perplexity with regard to Austria’s neutrality, which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, had become completely meaningless, yet which the Austrians had become surprisingly fond of.

In 1989, Austria failed to abrogate the international treaty it had signed with the Soviet Union, and the indirectly related neutrality law, as Finland immediately did with its oppressive ‘Treaty of Friendship’ with Moscow. Like the Finns, Austria could have declared that the Soviet Union had perished, so a treaty concluded with it was naturally obsolete. But they neglected to do so. In the years between 1989 and 1995, the Alpine republic focused on the accession negotiations with the EU and therefore not only failed to abrogate the international treaty with the Soviet Union, but also failed take proper mental note of the fact that two (later three) immediate neighbours and one indirect neighbour were coming closer together within the framework of the Visegrád Group. There was no serious discussion about whether and to what extent Austria could or should participate in this structure. The Austrians, like the Visegrád states, had their eyes fixed on the West. Not together, however, but in parallel.

In addition, there was also a clear, though never directly expressed, sense of superiority among Austrians with regard to their Central and Eastern European neighbours: it was believed that they were so far behind in terms of their economy, standard of living, democracy, and the rule of law, that it would not be entirely appropriate to fraternize with them too closely.

The emotional enthusiasm of conservative politicians in Austria for the eastern neighbourhood materialized politically only once, but then strongly—albeit in a different region of Central Europe. That was the massive support, especially from Foreign Minister Mock, for the steps taken towards independence by Slovenia and Croatia. Without him, and without the German help which Mock mobilized, these nations might never have dared to take the path towards independence.

Viewed objectively, the challenges which arose during the first years of freedom were indeed very similar in each of the Visegrád countries, but very different from those in Austria: the conversion of a centrally administered economy into a market economy, the writing of new constitutions, the path towards NATO membership as a top priority, the internal reforms of administrations and judiciaries largely staffed by communists, as well as the path to EU membership ten years after Austria had become a member.

Furthermore, Austrians have some peculiar characteristics. In addition to their neutrality, they have long held a bizarre missionary belief that they both can and must talk other countries out of using nuclear power. In reality, of course, Austria imports a great deal of nuclear power, not least from the Czech Republic …

In recent years, however, it has become increasingly evident that the Visegrád states are attempting to overtake Austria in many respects. Due to the flat tax, significantly lower tax rates and more liberal regulatory laws, their countries have now become much more attractive than Austria to international companies looking for new sites. For instance, Austrian companies increasingly struggle to find young successors to the tens of thousands of workers who came from Central and Eastern Europe, especially Poland, because the difference in pay and opportunities is small enough now to hardly be worth it. I recently talked with a Polish skilled worker who told me that he had sent his family back to Poland, because the majority of pupils in the schools in his district of Vienna were now uneducated immigrants from non-European cultures, and the education quality had dropped markedly.

It is as though there is a hex on us: logical as it would be for the peoples of Central Europe to grow together on equal terms and cooperate, given their similarities— despite major linguistic differences—in cultural, civilizational, and also legal terms (think, for example, of the joint inheritance of the institution of the land register, which is of enormous legal and economic importance), the ambient conditions have simply been too different for too many generations. Things have just never fitted together quite as they should have. And there has often been a lack of foresight on the part of individual political personalities.

So today it is quite stunning that Austria’s politicians, including the conservative Christian-social ÖVP, are taking part in the stupid agitation of the European left against Hungary and Poland. In Vienna, for example, there is no longer a single politician who would think emotionally in Central European terms. Instead, even conservative politicians are completely brainwashed by left-wing political correctness when it comes to LGBTQ ideology. Instead, the ÖVP also wants to become the star student of EU centralism.

This is because all actors in Austria are now shaped by the EU. At the same time, the flow of information from the still dominant fee-based television station ORF is so strongly left-leaning that there has not been a positive word about Hungary or Poland for a long time. One could also argue that this attitude of the ÖVP is selfdefeating. The party does not even notice how far astray it has gone by failing to implement a strategic neighbourhood policy, because there is no longer a relevant Central European voice from the other political parties to the left or right or in the media from which such a criticism could be heard. It has become more convenient for everyone to take part in the Orbán-bashing than to develop their own Central European policy.

Let there be no misunderstanding: there can be no excuses when suspicions arise that jointly raised EU funds are being misused through corrupt methods. Such accusations must of course also be carefully investigated in relation to our Central European neighbours. But it is equally clear that the policy towards all EU members must be entirely consistent!

All Europe knows that it is in the Mediterranean countries, especially Italy, that the worst and most extensive misuse of European funds through corrupt practices takes place. But we appear to have somehow grown used to this. It seems that when it comes to these countries, such corruption is dismissed as a quaint local tradition, without the threat of major ‘rule-of-law procedures’.

It is therefore particularly irritating that these same countries with horrendous national debt, caused by indiscipline, continue to be financed to an increasing degree by the European Central Bank’s zero interest rate—a situation which can almost be described as criminal. Especially by all savers in the euro area, who are being robbed of enormous sums of money.

Many Austrians are bemused by the fact that the EU appears completely uninterested in corruption in their country, while constantly attacking Hungary and Poland. And Austrian corruption is officially documented. Every year, hundreds of millions of euros are handed over by politicians—without any objective, tender, or other strings attached—to media close to them and newspapers that report positively about them, in form of advertisements and ‘cooperative’ initiatives. This is, in fact, nothing more than a bribe to buy the goodwill of the newspapers. All governing parties are accomplices as soon as they enter government anywhere.

For decades the socialist-led city administration of Vienna has been by far the worst in this regard.

So far nobody has been able to explain why the EU is completely ignoring this Austrian scandal, while constantly announcing with a grave frown that the rule of law is threatened in Hungary because government-linked companies there prefer to advertise in the pro-government media. It is actually far worse when politicians use tax money than when entrepreneurs use their own money in support of a politician.

All in all, an examination of the situation in Central Europe leads to a rather downbeat conclusion. Instead of growing together as all logic and emotion suggest they should, the shadow of the Iron Curtain, which was dismantled more than forty years ago, still divides the nations of the region today, while political, media, and cultural incompetence is driving an ever-deeper wedge into Central Europe.

It is a shame.

Translated by Thomas Sneddon

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