East European Geographobia

There are particularities of fear in a post-communist Europe bewildered by the demands of neoliberalism, which also tap into a legacy of aversion matured during Communism.
Bashkim Shehu
11 May 2011

One of the characteristics by which post-communist Europe, (also called ‘Eastern Europe’ in Cold-War fashion, not merely because habits die hard) can be differentiated from the other part of the continent, is the relatively small importance of anti-immigrant racism and of its corresponding political discourses.

It is less important both comparatively to the other part of the continent, and at the same time in comparison to other versions of the politics of fear - and hatred - within eastern European societies themselves. ‘The Other Europe’ was an expression originally coined by dissidents in relation to their totalitarian condition; ironically, it fits rather well some present western perceptions  that view it as a threatening otherness generating flows of immigrants who are out to deprive local people of their jobs. But how is this threatening otherness also under construction in eastern Europe itself?

In this regional paradigm, the most famous-infamous component is radical nationalism, which first became very visible in the region in the aftermath of the ancien régime, encroaching on its processes of democratization. Here it should be pointed out that nearly all the countries of the region have in common not only their communist recent past, but also the delayed national construction that underpins them: having been part of the Habsburg empire, or the Ottoman empire, or the Russian empire, until the First World War, they then became, after a short interval between the two wars, part of a Soviet empire. Some of these countries were formally federations, and by the beginning of the 1990’s, quite significantly, they were broken up into nation states. (One exception which proves the rule is the Russian Federation - look closely at the reality of this entity and the name begins to sound like an oxymoron). They had been undemocratic unions: they had no democratic legitimacy. Therefore, the inherited federal power frame was considered arbitrary. There was a tendency to seek, by contrast, a ‘natural’ basis of legitimation, and this was supposed to be the ethnic community – the spiritual ties of cultural tradition (sometimes prominently epitomized by religion), and/or, bottom line, all the mysticism of natural blood ties.

In the case of former Yugoslavia, this disintegration led to atrocities which had not been seen in Europe since the Second World War. But nationalism was rampant in other post-communist countries too, the explicit target being, as always, the ethnic minorities within, as well as the neighbouring countries, although, one should say, unlike in former Yugoslavia, this usually insinuated itself ‘peacefully’. It provided, however, ideological petroleum to populist and authoritarian political options, its implicit target being, as ever with such phenomena, the freedom of all citizens, including those belonging to the ‘national’ majority. This was the case in both the newly created nation states, like Slovakia, and older ones, like Romania or Hungary.

Partly due to the Yugoslav wars, radical tribal nationalism seems to be the most visible expression of the “us-and-them” dichotomy in East European (para)political phobia in the eyes of western European public opinion, and in the words of western opinion makers, and in the words and images of the western media. But the truth is that the panorama beyond the former Iron Curtain would be very incomplete indeed without anti-Semitism and anti-Roma racism. Regarding the first, I would especially mention the Polish “anti-Semitism without Jews” (I am borrowing this phrase from Adam Michnik) which is especially significant in illustrating the paranoid character of a collective imagery. Equally significant in its own way is Hungarian anti-Semitism which tends to manifest itself through identification between Jewry on the one hand, and a secret communist continuity qua liberal cosmopolitan crypto communism – a new or not so new version of the Protocol of the Elders of Zion. As for anti-Roma racism, there is a considerable thriving of the far Right, e.g. in Hungary and Romania, complemented, as in several other European latitudes and longitudes, by the fact that mainstream parties tend to softly appropriate significant elements of the far Right agenda, including anti-Roma scapegoating and discrimination. But this is not only the case in situations where the far Right is rising in the polls, which might serve mainstream parties as some sort of justification in their copycat behaviour on this score. No – in the Czech Republic, for instance, where there is practically nothing to the right of the conventional Right, the government has nevertheless only relatively recently decided to put Roma children into schools for handicapped pupils.

As you might notice, I am choosing my examples from EU countries in what can be called Central Europe in order to distinguish them from South Eastern Europe (viz. the Balkans, with all its connotations), and bring them nearer to the west. There is, however, an et caetera of similar cases.

These types of nationalism and racism, like nationalism and racism in general, have beyond their specific differences a common denominator, in being a useful instrument for an authoritarian politics agonistically defined by the construction of a threatening ‘other’ as the enemy, and at the same time because this nationalism and this racism can be related to a certain vision of human society like a block (of steel or ice) which is homogenous through and through, at least outwardly, and pure, at least in its central core (while there is an inner hierarchy of purity, but this is another question), whereas anything that is unpure, or dirty, i.e. the heterogeneous elements, is by definition doomed to exclusion. In what follows I shall try to find an explanation for the common occurrence of these forms of nationalism and racism in eastern Europe.

One hypothesis, among the earliest which had been advanced, is that of the “freezer effect”: communist dictatorship had supposedly frozen the past, which now has been unfrozen, and thereby certain political options have re-emerged and were revived by present day politicians. True, there is a certain revival of things past, but the above explanation implies too much determinism and leads to the question why present day politicians have resorted to those things from the past rather than others. Another hypothesis points to the lack of democratic tradition in eastern Europe. This, in my opinion, brings us closer to truth, but it is too general and therefore hazy; moreover, it fails to take into account the fact that, before the Second World War, Czechoslovakia was among not many liberal democracies in our continent. 

The explanation seems to be more complex, and has to do with the past and the present. Here, by ‘past’ I mean above all the nearly half a century of communist rule. Its ideology, far from being a non datur for radical nationalism and racism, implies them at least in some respects. What I have referred to as a vision of the homogeneity and purity of society was already there, part and parcel of the official ideology and policies of dictatorship. And, unofficially, nationalism in a very usual sense was already there in the form of attitudes towards “non-national” ethnic groups, ranging from the expulsion of Germans by the government of Czechoslovakia after the War, to Ceausescu’s aggressive attitude towards Transylvanian Hungarians, that of the Yugoslav authorities towards Albanians, that of the Bulgarian authorities towards Turks, etc. The internationalism of the communist doctrine was undermined by an important factor: the frame of political power par excellence of modernity has been the nation state. Communist governance had to adapt itself accordingly to the structural requirements of power, especially given its tendency towards total power. On the other hand, submission to Moscow did not proscribe nationalism: rather, the situation was ambiguous, stimulating and frustrating the narcissistic political libido of local leaders. In this respect (among others), the satellite countries represent some analogy with Oriental satrapies. It is symptomatic that hard-line communists, quite frequently, both in Russia and in former satellite countries, had no difficulty in rapidly converting themselves after 1989 into fully-fledged nationalists.

Racism, too, was there, not limited to the persecution of Jews during Stalin’s last years and to the marginalization of the Roma all over eastern Europe during the whole period of the communist rule. Racism, through communist totalitarianism, goes beyond that. Most importantly, social class was racialised, in the sense that the “bourgeois”, the “class enemy”, was treated as an inferior race, making for a cross-totalitarian feature described first by Kautsky and furtherly analysed by Hannah Arendt.

This political heritage seems to be interwoven with newly present factors, emerging from the new system. The key notions, applying to correlated phenomena, are social problems and delusion. Social problems are produced by a market economy without a welfare state and its cushioning effects. Indeed, the state (as by now in western orthodoxy) is seen as a problem itself, not as a solution. Hand in hand with this devaluation of the state, there is a lack of concern for the public realm, or the common good, part of an aversion to the previously enforced collectivism coming from above.

Meanwhile, economic difficulties obviously produce disillusionment. The beautiful and colourful dreamy idealism of the days of uprising for democracy gave way to the grey and harsh reality of capitalism. Such a disillusionment becomes aggravated by the fact that many former functionaries of the communist regime are well off, metamorphosed into successful business persons. This is an outcome of a transition which turned out favourably for many a dexterous member of the Nomenklatura. And this is the most visible aspect of something inherent to and co-substantial with post-communism, namely, that in the transition from the state-owned economy to the market economy, opportunities were not equal from the start. One may wonder whether such an outcome was avoidable, if not by arbitrarily depriving certain individuals of the right to dealing in business. Still another element which, together with social inequalities, has corrosive effects on the faith in democracy is the corruption of the elites, which is generalized in the perception of those elites by the other strata of the society.                

It is not difficult to see that all this tends to create a propitious space for unscrupulous politicians to play their game of manipulation by the dangerously simple gadget of scapegoating, and thereby provides an appropriate climate for authoritarianism. Thus in Hungary, for instance, where the Hungarian EU presidency has been inaugurated by passing laws which seriously curtail freedom of expression in the media at home, within the broader domestic climate of anti-Roma racism. Thus, too, in Poland during the rule of the Kaczynski twins, nationalism was blended with authoritarianism, as in the demand for restoring the death penalty, or in the way history has been instrumentalized with the intention of disqualifying political opponents and critical minds. It is more difficult, on the other hand, to explain why authoritarian tendencies and, concomitantly, scapegoating, have not diminished with time in countries which are already EU members and with less poverty than twenty years ago. On the contrary, here these phenomena appear and reappear with much strength.

Another poser is a certain parallel one can detect between eastern and western Europe: the thriving of ethnicism and racism in the East, after the fall of communism and again at present, occurs simultaneously with the rise of the far Right and a ‘normalisation’ of the politics of fear in the West. This can hardly be considered a mere chronological coincidence, in spite of the fact that, as I tried to explain above in relation to the past of eastern Europe, the respective grounds from which they stem are different, pointing to separate causes. There are however some mutual influences that we can identify. On the one hand, western influences have to do with the neoconservative revolution and its economic canon as a model for the East at the moment of change. Meanwhile the corresponding turn of the tide in the domain of culture has led, in the western Right, to an identitarian discourse of exclusion. The influences from the East, on the other hand, can be related to the impact of the fall of communism, which, until then, provided the West with a contrasting self-image: liberal democracy versus communist dictatorship, human rights versus repression, and so on, besides the fact that it was an incentive for the maintenance of social welfare in the West – and, thus, together with the enemy, certain political inhibitions vanished. In this sense, all Europe is ‘post-communist’, despite the fact that former communist countries are becoming ever more similar to their former enemies, or maybe because of it.

However, I have focused only on the negative aspect of the evolution of post-communist Europe, while on the other hand there is substantial progress in several other aspects. But faced with these negative phenomena as portrayed here, it remains the question (by the way, as a parody of the title of a book by Lenin, who himself unwittingly parodied the title of a book by a Russian liberal Enlightenment thinker, Chernyshevsky): ‘What is to be done?’ Time and again it is said that the dissidents, who embodied the spirit of human rights in eastern Europe, have lost the political struggle. To put it simply, this means that what is real does not correspond to the ideal. We might avail ourselves at this point of the dictum of a well known Czech intellectual, Antonin Liehm, to the effect that dissidents always lose the struggle and have to start it anew.  Otherwise they are simply not dissidents.  But we might add by the same token that one does not embody the spirit of human rights unless one is aware that one will lose the political struggle over and over again, and that one will have to start it anew.

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