Can Europe Make It?

Rethinking “eastern European racism”

Eastern Europeans are accused of a “compassion deficit” towards refugees. Is this really the case, and how can the transition from socialism explain their attitudes?

Maxim Edwards
22 March 2016
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Supporters of Marian Kotleba’s party rally against migration in Bratislava in September 2015. ”Slovakia is not Africa!” reads the banner. Image still via RafaVideoart / YouTube. Some rights reserved.The journey from Budapest to Krakow takes you through the Tatra mountains and the small city of Banská Bystrica in central Slovakia. The country’s prime minister Robert Fico has not been in the international media spotlight as much as his neighbours, though not for want of trying. Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński once boasted of his intention to bring Budapest to Warsaw, by which he means to follow the political example of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Slovakia and the Czech Republic stand between them, but only geographically — these four states of the Visegrad Group have formed something of an anti-Brussels, anti-immigration, and some might say, “anti-European” entente.



Banská Bystrica’s recent history speaks to a particular image of these four friends. In 2013, the city elected one of Europe’s first overtly fascist mayors. Marian Kotleba is leader of the Our Slovakia party, which took 8% of the vote in Slovakia’s elections earlier this month, entering parliament for the first time with 14 seats. His face gurns from occasional billboards in the surrounding countryside, with quotes in Slovak lashing out at the “parazyti” who have invaded his country.

As Kotleba has recently described Hungary’s border fence with Serbia as a “palisade of European civilisation”, his feared parazyti could either be Roma (who may comprise up to 10% of the area’s population) or they could be refugees. I don’t speak Slovak, but for the purposes of this article I don’t need to. In comparison to western Europeans, those in the post-socialist east, it is assumed, are irredeemably racist, bigoted and xenophobic, whomever the object of their passions.

Western Europeans were generally less sceptical than eastern Europeans of the benefits of multicultural societies

It’s a widespread assumption, but the available data complicate this image. Last year’s Pew Global Attitudes survey found that western Europeans were generally less sceptical than eastern Europeans of the benefits of multicultural societies, but not by much. 90% of French, 85% of British and 83% of Spanish respondents believed that it was good to live in a society among different races, religions or cultures, compared to 68% of Poles, 65% of Hungarians and 61% of Slovaks.

While these data may have changed in light of the refugee crisis in Eastern Europe, it’s clear that racial prejudice and xenophobia are not exclusively “eastern” problems. Both western and eastern (defined here as post-socialist) Europeans hold strongly unfavourable views of specific ethnic or religious minorities, though the group in question differs. For example, 78% of Slovaks and 84% of Czechs hold unfavourable views of Roma, while 37% of Lithuanians and 29% of Poles hold negative attitudes towards Jews. Attitudes to these two minority communities were generally worse among eastern Europeans, though there are always exceptions: 69% of Italians hold negative views of Muslims and 84% towards Roma. 

It is not easy to quantify racist or xenophobic sentiments, although Max Fisher found in 2013 that by focusing on one question the World Values Survey, (“would you want immigrants or foreign workers as neighbours”) yielded interesting results: French respondents more hostile (36%) compared to all eastern European states apart from Estonia or Russia.

Perhaps the perception of difference can be explained not by quantifying levels of racism in Europe’s east, but by qualifying it in relation to European-ness, and taking another look at postcommunism.

Turning away from Europe?



The European press has been awash with stories of odious and reactionary governments in Hungary and Poland. The bleak prospects for progressive politics in both states has been summed up with the words “there’s no right or left, just right or wrong”, and leaders have benefitted domestically from fanning the flames of anti-refugee bigotry and xenophobia.

Before PiS’s victory, Kaczyński accused refugees of carrying “parasites and protozoa”. Hungary’s Fidesz government held a “National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism” in May 2015, to the tune of 3.14 million euros. This is soon to be followed by a petition to oppose the EU’s quota proposal for refugees. Slovakia’s Robert Fico has boasted of surveillance measures against Muslims, vowed not to admit Muslim migrants or refugees, whose lives would be complicated by the country’s lack of mosques. 

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Refugees at Idomeni, on the Greek border with Macedonia, September 2015. Their route north took them through Serbia and, until recently, Hungary. Photo CC: Martin Leveneur / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Following events in Cologne, Polish magazine W Sieci published a front cover showing a white woman draped in an EU flag, screaming as she was assaulted by darker-skinned hands. Its headline read: “The Islamic rape of Europe”. One recent op-ed described Warsaw’s authoritarian turn as a “turn away from the west”. If European values are European law, then this is indeed the case. But were France to elect Front Nationale, from where would they turn?



More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015, the majority fleeing the brutal conflict in Syria. Eastern European attitudes towards them have been viewed in western Europe through the logic of post-socialist transition: intolerance as a sign of an incomplete journey towards becoming “western”.


Eastern seaweed



In 2001, the Hungarian politician István Szentivány lamented the rise of racism in Hungary, wondering why the “eastern seaweed” of bigotry, corruption and xenophobia would not let the country go.

Szentivány’s words are worth remarking on simply because they are so unremarkable; “eastern seaweed” appears to be everywhere. That member states should rid themselves of such seaweed (whatever its origin) is undeniably positive; but there does not seem to be a negative causal link between European integration and racist, xenophobic sentiments. Whatever the answer, the presence of those sentiments in Europe’s east is routinely orientalised, as an irredeemably “un-European” quality.

In the western imaginary, European civilisation has often functioned as a sliding scale of merit from west to east. This approach was quite different from classic orientalism: as Larry Wolff put it in 1994, eastern Europe was treated as a “Europe in quarantine”, not in itself a part of the orient, but was “the developmental scale used to measure the distance between civilisation and barbarism”. David Kideckel identified in eastern Europe a process of “categorical orientalism”, devaluing eastern life not due to its inherent difference, but because “they” have fallen into difference over time.

Racism in postsocialist Europe is orientalised as an “un-European” quality and evidence of a failed transitionPost-1989, there have been countless references to a “New Europe” east of the Iron Curtain. In response, Europe's post-socialist states present themselves as pre-existing — rather than potential — members of the wider European community, cultural or political. The cause for their “artificial” exclusion from Europe as conceived in Berlin, Brussels or Paris is commonly externalised, often to a foreign element. This can be a foreign occupation—namely communism or the Russians (the two are often indistinguishable) or in the case of the Balkans, the many centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule. It can also be an internal “oriental” element holding the nation back from its European destiny, all too often identified as Jews or Roma. Refugees in Keleti railway station, Budapest, 2015. Photo: Maxim Edwards. 

Neighbours can also be cause for concern: as the geographical centre of Europe has shifted east (there are monuments to it in no less than five countries), so have the “eastern Europeans”. The former states of the Eastern Bloc hurriedly rebranded themselves “Central European” in contrast to their post-Soviet neighbours. The idea was as Kundera put it, a “hijacked” region, one nostalgic for a rose-tinted Habsburg cosmopolitanism and prosperity before the arrival of Nazism and Soviet communism. There’s an appropriately matryoshka-lite phrase here, too: that of “nesting orientalisms”, in which European states orientalise those to their south and east in a struggle to prove their western credentials.


Hungarian sociologist Atilla Melegh writes of an “East-West Slope”, a sliding scale of merit for our times of European integration and globalised capitalism. He writes that Eastern Europe’s trajectory under state socialism was, however critically, seen as a distinct modernisation programme. From the 1970s onwards, the states behind the Iron Curtain were again seen as sliding backwards down the East-West slope, difference explained by a temporal scale. 



To varying degrees, Eastern Europeans supported changes to the command economies of the “People's Democracies”. Nevertheless, there was little public input or consultation on the nature of the transition to market economies after 1989. Governments throughout the region opened up markets and state-owned concerns to foreign investors, against whom local entrepreneurs could not compete. The transition was one of “capitalism without [local] capitalists,” in Ivan Szelényi’s words.



Marketisation as desired in the west was presented as modernisation; different forms of privatisation were up for debate, but not the essence of the model itself. Jeffrey Sachs, for example, famously drafted the legislation converting Poland into a market economy in just one night.

 In this framework, racism and xenophobia expressed by eastern Europeans has a clear function: to affirm a rightful place on the loftier reaches of the East-West slope, and in “western civilisation”.


A (brief) history of homogeneity

By the time state socialism had collapsed, the states of Central and Eastern Europe were nearly ethnically and religiously homogeneous—in stark contrast to the interwar period. Meanwhile, from the 1950s onwards, former colonial powers such as France and Great Britain—alongside West Germany with its Gastarbeiter programme—became a major receiving area for migrants from Africa, the Americas and the Middle East.

The Visegrad States (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) had no analogous experience in scale nor intensity throughout the socialist period — but that is not to say that they had none whatsoever. In the first 18 months after the fall of the Berlin wall, 1.6 million people left the Eastern Bloc. In May 1991 when the USSR loosened travel restrictions, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland feared 4 to 5 million Russian “tourists”: Soviet citizens who would end up stranded in Central and Eastern Europe, unable to gain entry to western European states.

Their fears proved unfounded—and most new arrivals from the Soviet Union later left for Germany, Israel, or the United States. Other tourists, true to the euphemism and the visa regime, stayed for only a few months and were engaged in informal trade or construction. Such tourism was a harsh reality of life in the immediate years after the collapse of state socialism, with Polish tourists a regular fixture in the markets of Hungary, and Ukrainians in Poland's.

When the USSR loosened travel restrictions in May 1991, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland feared 4 to 5 million Russian “tourists”


Entry restrictions tightened in the early 1990s with practical and financial aid from newly united Germany, concerned at rising numbers of refugees and migrants from poorer eastern European states and bloody wars in the western Balkans. In the early 1990s, Romanians were a majority of those detained on major borders in central Europe (64% on Polish and over 50% on Hungarian borders). 

Meanwhile, the UNHCR estimated over 29,000 Yugoslav war refugees in 1992, and the Nagyatád refugee camp in southern Hungary, which closed in 1996, sheltered hundreds of Bosnian and Croatian citizens. “From a Cold War position demanding the right of persons in the East to cross borders”, wrote Saskia Sassen in 1999, “the West Europeans are now asking Central Europe to police its borders to the East and West”.


The compassion deficit


As thousands of refugees marched from Budapest's Keleti station in September 2015 to Hegyeshalom border crossing with Austria, the EU commentariat did not allow Hungarians to forget the munificence of the free world. Jan Gross searched in vain for the eastern European sense of shame. Ivan Krastev identified a “compassion deficit”, in a region where “Donald Trump [comes] off looking good”. As 23 October approached, many Hungarians resented the widespread invocation of 1956, when 200,000 of their number fled to western Europe after the Soviet invasion.

These images sentimentalised western European receptiveness at a time of rising xenophobia in western Europe itself. They also left no space for collective Hungarian responses which did not fit the agenda: the mass organisation of donations and volunteering efforts to aid newly arrived refugees. As Agnes Gagyi has written, both Western European liberals and the Orbán government in Budapest were united in their interest in portraying Hungarians as innately nativist and xenophobic — though to very different ends.

  Migrants, go home. Budapest, Hungary, January 2016. Photo: Maxim Edwards.The failed integration of the Roma east-central Europe, Krastev believes, also contributes to the “compassion deficit”. Indeed, strained local relations with Roma were probably a big factor in Kotleba’s first mayoral victory.  Simply put, members of ethnic majorities in the region (particularly in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia) mistrust the state’s ability to integrate “foreigners” in their midst, let alone newly-arrived refugees. Last October, Hungary’s Minister of Justice Lászlo Trócsányi linked age-old fears to the unfolding crisis by warning that Europe’s Roma were particularly vulnerable to radicalisation by Islamic extremists.



Competitive immigration to western Europe could be a significant factor in explaining these attitudes

However, a lack of recent experience with ethnic diversity cannot account for the region’s varied responses to refugees. Its place in the global division of labour must also be addressed: the states of Central and Eastern Europe also became a major migrant sending area following the collapse of socialist regimes. Economic woes, both post marketisation in the 1990s and post-2008, have encouraged hundreds of thousands of citizens of these states to try their luck in western Europe — particularly France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Competitive immigration”, as G.M. Tamás terms it, could be a significant factor, bringing with it the fear that western-bound (and in the case of Syrians, often educated) refugees will threaten the livelihoods of young Hungarians, Romanians or Slovaks. In his recent meeting with David Cameron, Orbán called on Brits not to treat Hungarians working in the UK as “migrants”. They are, the implication follows, fellow Europeans — and therefore a better class of alien.

Truly European



“You’re no better” goes the response from a Fico or an Orbán, “look in the mirror, and never at us”. The former is necessary; the latter is whataboutism, a call to nothing but smug, cynical inaction. We would do well to remember the Jungle camp in Calais, the burning of refugee shelters in France, Germany and Sweden, the banlieues of Paris or the anti-refugee frenzy in the British tabloids. Eastern European racism cannot and should be excused by reference to the same tendencies in western Europe. 


Eastern European racism cannot and should be excused by reference to the same tendencies in western Europe

“Eastern European racism” is a depressing reality, but so are the asymmetries of political and economic power in “westernisation” and “Europeanisation”. These have helped to amplify racism and xenophobia in Eastern Europe, which is then held aloft as proof of the region’s backwardness, inability to transition to European values, and a reason why it is — and is seen to always be — strangled by the “eastern seaweed”. The structural links between racism, xenophobia, and anti-refugee bigotry across all Europe are orientalised away, and an understanding of how to move forward is made poorer for it.



A hard truth may be, as Gustav Gressel writes, that these attitudes show “Eastern Europe’s full integration [sic] in Europe’s own struggle for defining a post-modern identity.”



In short, they may be too European for comfort.

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