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The East’s Fear Explained to the West

It’s far too easy to just blame the phobia of migrants on racism and xenophobia. 

by Martin Ehl 29 March 2017

A simple fact provides a small illustration of the interest of migrants to reach the Czech Republic – and of the seemingly irrational fear of the vast majority of the public. According to the statistics of the Czech Ministry of the Interior, a mere 102 registered migrants were staying in local detention centers as of 28 March, though capacity could serve up to 488.


Still, the Czech public feels in danger of probable waves of refugees flooding all corners of the country. The latest proof are the results of a poll that four agencies conducted under the coordination of the German Bertelsmann foundation among young people aged between 15 and 24 in Germany, Austria, and the four Visegrad countries.


The STEM agency ran the survey in the Czech Republic, which revealed that 70 percent of young Czechs think the country should not accept refugees. That represents the majority opinion of not only young people, but the general population. Similar opinions are noted in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia, while Austria and Germany – countries that have actually experienced waves of refugees – have much milder positions.


A full 80 percent of young Poles see immigration and the inflow of refugees as a threat, while the figure is 76 percent for young Czechs, and 77 percent for young Slovaks and Hungarians. In contrast, 51 percent of young Germans and 60 percent of young Austrians shared that opinion.


Now what would normally follow is a couple of sentences condemning post-communist societies for how bad, undeveloped, xenophobic, and racist they are in comparison with their Western neighbors.


But wait a moment! What if there is something rational, albeit only incompletely communicated through bare data, in such anti-migrant stances?


The key might be in the economy. The Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and, to a much lesser extent, Hungary now live in the most prosperous times of their histories. Since the financial crisis of 2009 their economies have grown, while businesses seem to be flourishing, seemingly untethered to the political world, which is going downhill, increasingly dominated by populism and nationalism. All four economies are tied to Germany and since that country continues to see export growth, high demand, and a budget surplus, there is no need to worry about the state of their respective economies at this point. Even the Hungarian one – with a little boost from some unorthodox measures of the government and EU funds – has improved as of late.


People then see pictures of war in Syria and Ukraine as events quite far away and otherwise unconnected with their daily lives. But under the pressure of messages from sensationalist media, Russian-sponsored or inspired propaganda, and stupid politicians (both true populists and mainstream ones), people are scared. What if these people out there will come and take away the fortune that we have only recently and painstakingly earned while catching up with the West after the hardships of the transition? What if they want to attack our values – which are, due to increased secularization, weaker in the West, but still important for us (see eastern Poland or Slovakia)?


Definitely, this fear is not the only explanation for Central Europeans’ desire to keep the achievements of the last 25 years for themselves – one can call it selfishness also, but in the present circumstances that, too, can be understandable. There is still a low level of understanding of lectures from the richer West about “shared solidarity” among people who have just emerged from a painful transition and a grueling financial crisis. Even more so given that Central Europe is now receiving humanity lessons from countries which – for example – built their wealth on colonization and exploitation of Africa or Latin America.


Central Europeans are not saints but I have a growing sentiment that post-communist societies, in their effort to catch up with the West, know and understand much better the West than vice versa. Yet ignoring history and the experience of your partners might lead to problems, if not disaster, in a still united Europe (minus the United Kingdom, of course).


We have seen, for example, a total shock in Brussels when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban won the 2010 parliamentary elections and started to transform the country based on his and his party’s historical perspective (of addressing real and perceived wrongs that happened both before and after 1989) – with very little liberal democracy thrown into the mix. Something similar is now underway in Poland, and very few Western politicians or analysts have attempted to understand the roots and reasons of that striking transformation, which might be connected with the low acceptance and difficult implementation of institutions of liberal democracy, such as the rule of law or freedom of the media – even nearly 30 years after the collapse of communism.


It does not mean that these principles are not necessary, or might eventually be outright rejected, but perhaps the catch-up process was simply too fast and not well enough explained. Young people do not remember the old communist times, or the tough first years of transition, but hear their parents telling them to watch out for themselves, to cheat the system, and not to trust institutions such as the painfully slow-moving courts.


The new East-West divide emerging from the above-mentioned poll, as well as from the lofty political discussions in Brussels, mostly emanates from a lack of knowledge and understanding of each other and not from a lack of solidarity.


That is sad news for any future European integration.

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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