No sooner had news of the Brussels bombing spread, Poland’s prime minister Beata Szydło promptly declared that Poland would no longer be accepting any refugees. Poland is hardly alone in its harsh stance against accepting refugees, but is one of a number of Central and Eastern European states that oppose the resettlement of refugees as part of the EU’s proposed quota system. While anti-migrant sentiments are on the rise across Europe, commentators have singled out post-socialist Europe as being particularly ill at ease with the idea of taking in refugees.
For a region that has tried for so long to shake off the “post-Soviet” label, the similarities in the rhetoric on migrants heard across the formerly Communist East are uncanny. From former East Germany to Romania, the notion that Western Europe is under existential threat from migrants as a result of “failed multiculturalism” seems to hold particular sway in post-Socialist countries.
Slovakia’s newly reelected prime minister Fico has pledged to keep Muslims out of his country citing the impossibility of integrating populations from a different cultural and religious background. In Hungary, the government’s decision to erect fences along its borders and close down refugee reception centers has drawn condemnation from the UN High Commission for Human Rights. In neighboring Czech Republic, President Zeman has categorized refugees as being part of an “organized invasion”. Even in the relatively quiet Baltic states, anti-migrant sentiments are on the rise – a refugee center in rural Estonia suffered an arson attack in early September 2015 and Latvian public opinion is the least favorable to migrants in the entire EU.
The reluctance of post-Soviet EU member states to accept refugees has caused a wave of indignation among Western policy makers, activists and intellectuals. Europe’s post-Communist East has been accused of suffering from a “compassion deficit”, defined by a collective lack of empathy and a skewed moral compass. Eastern Europe went from being lauded as an EU poster child to being admonished in much of the Western media as an example of “failed Europeanness”.
But is Eastern Europe really that different from its Western neighbors? A quick glance at other Western states reveals that the unequivocal rejection of refugees and growing anti-migrant sentiments are not confined to the EU’s eastern borders. While anti-migrant populism is on the rise in France, Italy and Sweden, it is also important to note that countries like the UK, Ireland and Denmark have also refused to take part in the EU quota system. Moreover, despite the lofty rhetoric of solidarity, EU countries have failed to resettle even a tiny fraction of the 160 thousand refugees they had agreed to redistribute back in September 2015. If Eastern Europe has, in the words of Chancellor Merkel, failed to learn from history, Western Europe can hardly hold itself as an example to the EU’s newest members.
In an attempt to explain – and sometimes justify – the prevalent negative attitudes towards migrants in Eastern Europe, observers have tended to focus on the region’s unique cultural and economic makeup. The argument goes that these countries lack a colonial past and are simply too ethnically homogenous and economically underdeveloped to be in a position to accept refugees. Yet this type of cultural and economic determinism does not withstand closer scrutiny. Ethnic homogeneity has not prevented countries like Sweden from accepting record numbers of asylum seekers just as Portugal has shown willingness to accept large numbers of refugees despite dire economic conditions.
It is neither accurate nor helpful to describe Eastern Europe as being “morally inferior” to or culturally different than other European states. At the same time, however, it is impossible to deny the stark similarities in anti-migrant attitudes and rhetoric within Eastern Europe. So what makes anti-migrant rhetoric so prevalent in post-Communist Europe?
Few Alternatives to Divisive Rhetoric
The saliency of xenophobia in post-Communist Europe has less to do with a lack of immigration in its history and more to do with its recent political and intellectual past. Having spent almost half a century behind the Iron Curtain, Central and Eastern Europe was effectively cut off from the solidarity movements of the 1960s and 1970s. While Western Europe saw the emergence of broad solidarity movements aimed at promoting the rights of workers, minorities, women and other disenfranchised groups, Central and Eastern Europe remained in Soviet-imposed isolation. The kind of political mobilization that helped topple Soviet occupation spoke the language of national liberation rather than universal equality and social justice.
The most obvious result of this has been the lack of a viable counter-narrative to the politics of xenophobia. It’s not that Eastern Europeans are more bigoted than their Western European peers – they simply have never been exposed to a radically different kind of rhetoric. While protest movements of the 1960s had a profound effect on the political discourse around the rights of minority groups in the West, leftist movements with progressive agendas have remained conspicuously absent from the political landscape of post-Communist Eastern Europe.
Fear of migrants is just one of the many phobias that currently exist in Eastern Europe – all of which are linked to a deep mistrust of “the other”. Negative attitudes towards minorities – based on gender, ethnicity, religion or sexuality – can easily become mainstream without a powerful and salient counterbalancing voice. Intolerance towards migrants often goes hand in hand with other forms of socially accepted racism such as Romaphobia or anti-Semitism. Indeed, prejudice tends to thrive when certain forms of discrimination are taken for granted and face little societal opposition. Without an alternative narrative, this web of overlapping prejudices provides fertile ground for further xenophobia. Anti-migrant sentiments are by no means limited to Eastern Europe – it just happens to be ideologically and rhetorically ill equipped to challenge them. Appealing to narratives of equality and diversity is all the more difficult in societies that do not have a history of rights-based activism as a reference point. While small grassroots movements fighting for inclusion and tolerance have emerged in Eastern Europe, they have on the whole been unsuccessful at influencing the overall political and intellectual discourse.
Feeling threatened by the arrival of refugees isn’t particularly new for post-Socialist Europe. During the Yugoslav Wars, anxiety over incoming migrants and refugees was also high across the region that felt that it was being used as a buffer zone by Western Europe. If that mistrust was fueled mainly by the fear of economic insecurity during the tumultuous transitions of the 90s, today’s anti-migrant arguments echo an almost existential angst. While uneasiness over losing’s ones identity or sovereignty as a result of immigration is not exclusive to the post-Socialist space, this fear gets amplified in the absence of a palatable anti-discriminatory narrative.
Recent protests against the opening of a temporary refugee housing center in Yahotyn, Ukraine as well as the emergence of anti-migrant militias from Bulgaria to Estonia are all part of a worrying trend of xenophobia across the formerly Communist east. The perception of migrants as a cultural and demographic threat appears to be a common denominator in post-Socialist Europe – and will likely remain so in the near future. This doesn’t, however, give Western Europe carte blanche to engage in “moral shaming”, especially given the general shift to the populist right across Western Europe regarding the current refugee crisis. With a far-right and vehemently xenophobic candidate just inches away from the Austrian presidency, it is obvious that anti-migrant populism is a pan-European problem. In an environment where migrant rights activists increasingly find themselves on the defensive , it is more vital than ever to keep the progressive narrative of inclusion and equality alive as a viable alternative to the political scapegoating of refugees – for Western and Eastern Europe alike.