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Via Carpatia : a route at the heart of Central Europe

The Via Carpatia is a road crossing seven countries of Central and Eastern Europe. It runs from the Baltic port of Klaipeda in Lithuania to Thessaloniki, in Greece. Running along the border of NATO and of the European Union, the road promotes land connections with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. But it also participates in uniting the countries of the zone into a geostrategic bloc. If the seven states in this project agree to build a road, they do not have the same vision of its objectives.

A road with strong economic opportunities

At first glance, the trans-European road project is justified from an economic point of view. For the countries concerned, the first goal is  to improve road connectivity; in particular, for some of them, in relatively disadvantaged regions.

Boosting the Eastern part of the European Union

The Via Carpatia project was born in October 2006, during the International Conference in Łańcut. Lithuania, Slovakia and Hungary are represented alongside Poland. On October 22, 2010, a second conference was organized, again in Łańcut. The first four countries are then joined by Romania, Bulgaria and Greece.

The name “Via Carpatia”, in imitation of the Roman roads, refers to the Carpathian Moutains, a natural obstacle structuring the region, from south-eastern Poland to Romania. The route of the road partially overlaps existing roads. But the project aims to extend and connect them, giving them common characteristics, allowing vehicles to cross thousands of kilometers without changing the route.

The project participates in a logic of integration of the countries concerned into the European Union, of which they are all members. In fact, these states have been asking for several years for the Via Carpatia route to be included in the Trans-European TEN-T Network.

For these countries, the Via Carpatia is seen as an opportunity to develop the economy of relatively disadvantaged regions. This is the case in Poland and Slovakia. However, this does not apply to all countries: in Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria, the regions crossed are not the least developed.

The Via Carpatia is officially due to be completed in 2025, although delays are already being considered. A study published in 2019 by four researchers from the Institute of Geography of the Polish Academy of Sciences evaluated the positive impact of the road on road accessibility in Europe. The authors consider that the project can fill a “gap” in the TEN-T network in Eastern Europe.

The study led by Piotr Rosik bases its conclusions on an equation, used to measure the road accessibility of a region, taking into account the travel time between two regions of the same importance, inside the region, towards the stranger, etc.

Map of road accessibility in european regions, PIOTR Rosik (dir.), 2019

The first map above, taken from the study led by Piotr Rosik, shows the level of accessibility of the different regions – at NUTS 3 statistical level – of the European Union and neighboring countries. We see, unsurprisingly, that connectivity is greatest around the economic and political heart of Europe: Western Germany – the Ruhr Valley – and Eastern Benelux. The network takes on a concentric shape, the accessibility being more and more reduced as we move away from the center.

The map highlights the Via Carpatia road, extended by the road between Thessaloniki and Istanbul. The regions crossed are relatively poorly connected compared to the heart of Western Europe.


Map of the improvement in road accessibility due to the Via Carpatia road, PIOTR Rosik (dir.), 2019

The second map above shows the evolution of accessibility due to the Via Carpatia. Of course, this evolution is almost non-existent in Western Europe or in Russia. On the other hand, the direct effects of the road are very extensive around it, as far as central Turkey and northern Finland.

The Via Carpatia is therefore a major road infrastructure system for Central and Eastern Europe. Its expected impact on road connectivity is major, and concerns many countries.

From the Carpathians to the New Silk Roads

The Via Carpatia road should promote fast and fluid traffic from one end of Central Europe to the other. But beyond, via Istanbul and Turkey, the road connects the Baltic Sea to the countries of Central and South Asia. Several of these states are members of the TRAECA program, which associates them with the European Union in its transport policy: this is the case of Turkey, Iran, Kazakhstan – but also Ukraine.

If land trade flows pass through the Via Carpatia, this puts Central Europe in an intermediate position between Asian and Western European markets. Beyond that, the Via Carpatia integrates the road transport networks of Central Europe with transcontinental-scale corridors between China and Europe.

Central Europe is directly in contact with one of the land corridors of the New Silk Roads. This gigantic set of infrastructure projects is carried by the People’s Republic of China in the Eurasian space. In fact, Chinese investors have shown interest in the Via Carpatia project as early as 2016.

On a larger scale, there are deliberate efforts by China to develop its influence, particularly economic, with the states of Central and Eastern Europe. This rapprochement policy is embodied in particular in the CEE+1 or CEEC format, for Central and Eastern Europe + China. This format has organized several summits, all of which were held in Central European cities, except for the one in 2015 which took place in Suzhou, China. The group’s secretariat is based in Beijing. A paper by Bartosz Dziewialtowski-Gintowt for the Institute of East-Central Europe explicitly links the Three Seas Initiative to Chinese soft power in Europe.

Map of the land & sea corridors of the “New Silk Roads” and their connections with the Via Carpatia

This map shows a schema of China’s Belt & Road Initiative land & sea trade transport corridors. Transcontinental transportation is by rail. Expressways boosting connectivity in Central Europe would allow synergy between these huge corridors and the dense network of Western Europe.

We understand the interest of the Via Carpatia for Central European actors: it is a question of giving these countries a central place in the world of the 21st century. But the role of intermediary between Asia and Europe is also traditionally claimed by the largest country in Eurasia and the world. Russia, which the Northern Corridor crosses, can be seen by Central European players as a competitor – as well as a valuable partner. Favoring the southern corridor, passing through the States of the TRACECA program, would make it possible to bypass Russia, to its detriment; but the Via Carpatia also promotes East-West connectivity between Belarus, Ukraine and Germany.

The backbone of Polish geopolitics in Central Europe

The Via Carpatia unites seven countries. It is asserting itself as one of the main collective projects of the Eastern countries of the European Union. For some leaders, particularly in Poland, it is an opportunity to unite the States of the region around a common initiative – an initiative for which Poland is at the forefront.

A Polish project

Polish political actors are at the forefront of the Via Carpatia project since its inception. The two conferences of 2006 and 2010 are taking place in Łańcut, in the Subcarpathian Voivodeship[1] of Poland, in the south-east of the country. The first conference in October 2006 was chaired by Polish President Lech Kaczyński. On that occasion, he delivers a speech, called the Łańcut Declaration. The President insists on the idea of ​​developing North-South connections in Central Europe, connections that he believes to have been neglected in favor of the East-West axis – that is to say between the Russian Federation and European Union.

Lech Kaczynski, who died in April 2010, was a member of the Law and Justice party – in Polish Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS. This party is still led today by his twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński. From its origins, the Via Carpatia project has been linked to this party, which is conservative and nationalist.

The idea of ​​competition between East-West and North-South connections is a constant in Polish transport policy. In PiS discourse since its 2015 victory, East-West connections have been too privileged by its ruling predecessor, the Civic Platform. MEP Tomasz Poręba, in his article at the Warsaw Institute, deplores the inaction or even the obstruction of his counterparts from the Civic Platform, regarding the promotion of the Via Carpatia project. However, this idea must be nuanced, because the North-South road between Lublin and Rzeszów, included in the route of the Via Carpatia, has been a priority project since 2013, under the Donald Tusk government.

The three Polish voivodeships crossed by the Via Carpatia, along the eastern border, are the regions where the PiS obtains its biggest electoral scores. For the party, emphasizing the infrastructures developed in these regions is therefore an internal political issue. However, this political polarization of the route project is specifically Polish, and is not found at European level. In the article quoted above, Tomasz Poręba thus remarks that European leaders politically classified on the left or in the center have been more receptive to the project than his own compatriots from the Civic Platform.

The Three Seas Initiative

The Three Seas Initiative was launched in 2016. From that date, this initiative should oversee the Via Carpatia road project, as well as other infrastructure projects, in energy and digital. The Initiative is a group of twelve states, between the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea. All of them are members of the European Union; and all of them, apart from Austria, are part of NATO.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, in charge since 2015, has made the Three Seas Initiative a major point of his foreign policy. The principle is to unite the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, so that they speak with one voice, in order to compensate for their relatively weak weight compared to the Western countries of the European Union.

Map of the European Union highlighting the member countries of the Three Seas Initiative and the route of the Via Carpatia

This map shows the situation of the twelve member states of the Initiative, on the eastern side of the European Union. The Via Carpatia, which crosses this area, is an economic artery, but also a common project giving a concrete goal to this group.

Andrzej Duda speaks of the Via Carpatia as a “backbone” for the Three Seas Initiative. The road should promote trade between the regions crossed, and boost employment. But beyond that, it  should promote cultural exchanges, relations between universities for example, in order to increase solidarity between the countries of the region.

The Three Seas Initiative takes up the concept of Intermarium, developed in the interwar period. The Polish leaders around Jozef Pilsudski wanted to federate the other Central European states, to face together a possible renewed threat from Russia or Germany. This Federation Międzymorze (Polish for “between the seas”) was never set up because of the dissensions between the states concerned – dissensions which turned into war between Poland and some of its neighbors in the 1920s.

The Intermarium project also refers to the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or Rczespospolita, which disappeared at the end of the 18th century. At the height of this state around 1619, it stretched from Latvia to the heart of present-day Ukraine. References to this entity are frequent in Polish foreign policy. They show Poland’s ambition to position itself as a leader in Central Europe, certainly not through territorial expansion, but through the construction of regional multilateral alliances. Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth is then idealized as a model of pacified multi-ethnic governance, and as the equal of the great powers of Western Europe.

A controversial strategic issue

Beyond its economic interest, the Via Carpatia road is also a geopolitical and strategic issue. This is, after all, the case with all roads. While improving the interface of the European Union’s eastern border with its neighbours, the road can also be used to strenghten the continent’s defenses against a worrying Russia.

The importance of the road for NATO defense

The Via Carpatia runs along the eastern border of the EU and NATO. We have seen that it promotes road accessibility in neighboring countries: it therefore helps to bring them closer to the European Union. But the road also has a visible strategic interest. Close to the borders, it almost gives the appearance of a military boulevard, favoring the transport of troops and heavy equipment from North to South. At a time of Russian military presence in Belarus and especially the invasion of Ukraine, this conflicting aspect of infrastructure might take over.

Between Poland and Lithuania, the Via Carpatia passes through the Suwałki Corridor. This is the region separating Belarus from the Russian Kaliningrad Oblast. It is therefore a crossroads of tensions, because Kaliningrad, powerfully militarized, represents a major flaw in the NATO system. By taking control of the roads in the Suwałki corridor, Russia could open up Kaliningrad, but above all isolate the three Baltic States from the rest of Europe.

The prospect of a Russian attack on the Baltic states, members of NATO, still seems very unlikely. But for Lithuanian political actors, the risk is permanent[2], with the idea that if the impossible ends up happening, the country would very quickly be put under Russian control, and it would be very hard for NATO to get it back. The Lithuanian fear is that Russia would bet on the reluctance of other NATO countries to defend Baltic countries they know little about; worse, it would not be a question of defending a territory, but of reconquering it.

The Via Carpatia makes it possible to consolidate the road links between Poland and Lithuania through the Suwałki corridor. It therefore provides better strategic security for Lithuania. The stakes go far beyond this single country, given the strategic situation of the three Baltic States for NATO and for control of the Baltic Sea.

The care given to the synergy between rail and road also takes on another dimension when viewed from this angle. This synergy is decisive for the deployment of numerous troops and heavy equipment.

This strategic vision, determined by a fear of Russia, is very present in Lithuania and Poland; but it is not unanimous.

Project countries divided

In the countries concerned, there is hardly any opposition to the Via Carpatia, apart from some controversies related to the environmental impact of the road. But the disagreements, frequently implied, concern the use of this road. If the economic opportunities make consensus, the strategic stakes of the Via Carpatia are more controversial.

The Via Carpatia project reflects the disagreements linked to the Three Seas Initiative. This Initiative, since its inception, has presented itself as a geopolitical and geostrategic project. Poland and Lithuania consider this group of states in the eastern part of the European Union as a security tool, with a particularly strong distrust of Russia.

But other states like Hungary and Bulgaria have good relations with Moscow. They do not want the economic opportunities of the Initiative – including the Via Carpatia – to be used as a pretext to drag them alongside Poland into an openly suspicious attitude towards Russia[3].

However, Bulgaria expresses its distrust of Russian positions deemed aggressive since 2014. The Russian attack in progress in Ukraine for a week has been condemned, including by Bulgaria and Hungary. Rising tensions may eventually alienate Russia from NATO member countries that have maintained good relations with it.

As a conclusion

The Via Carpatia is a structuring project for the Central European area. It crystallizes the major tensions within these countries. We see these tensions between the consensus on the need for economic development and European integration & the distrust of some of them towards Russia, not to mention the disputes of Poland and Hungary with the European Union.

By its evocative name, the seven countries crossed, the diversity of regions and populations, the Via Carpatia is built as a symbol of a region “united in diversity”. It is the motto of the European Union; it applies perfectly to the initiatives launched between the seas, in this space between Germany and Russia. But through its strategic, even frankly military implications, the Via Carpatia also brings together the misunderstandings and disagreements that fracture this zone.

[1] The voivodships are the Polish regions.

[2] Interview with Gytis MAŽEIKA, Chief Advisor at the Development and International Cooperation Group of the Ministry of Transport and Communications of Lithuania, July 9, 2021.

[3] Interview with ZHELEV Paskal, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Political Science and International Economics at the Sofia University of National and World Economy, 01/07/2021.

 

Link to the full research paper of the author (French Institute of Geopolitics – Paris VIII) : DOWNLOAD

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