Refugee Crisis: What’s behind the choices of V4?
by Elsa Pacella (December 2, 2016)
After that, many other events have followed, mainly personified from the sharp rhetoric of the V4 politicians against refugees and from the Serbian-Hungarian border, which had been built in order to prevent migrants entering Hungary.
Since Visegrad countries have been judged rather negatively by the media during the course of last year, I investigated the reasons which led such countries to show such hostile feelings towards foreigners. One of my conclusions is that there is a deficiency of democratic values. Central Europe returned to be part of the Western liberal democratic sphere to which it has arguably belonged since 1989. But so far (after having joined the European Union), Central Europe was only enjoying the positive sides. Today, when the times to contribute to a united European Union have come (in this case the refugee crisis) the old division has been shown again, mainly represented by the typical political culture of the East, namely xenophobia and ethnic nationalism.
More than one year ago, an article entitled “Central Europe’s crisis is one of liberal democracy, not migration” was published by the writers Šimecka and Tallis, which substantially, stated that on the basis of the problematic approach to the Other which was evident already in September 2015, there is a serious problem which strongly influences both present day and future decisions. To be part of the democratic European Union, it should also implicate the embrace of democratic values and therefore it should proof that a country which is part of the Europe Union, is actually democratic. But the question is how democratic these countries actually are today? However, it should be questioned whether the attitude and mentality of countries in East Central European are democratic and not whether if the status of such countries is actually democratic. It seems to be the same concept, but in a matter of fact, it comes to be a broader concept. There is no doubt that those post-communist countries have embraced a long and hard period of transition, whose main object was to achieve a “normal” life, turning their backs on the Soviet Union and integrating with the West, establishing Western values and systems with democratic institutions and market economies.
Such a long period was finally concluded with the achievement of the democracy. However, it is a common opinion that nowadays, those countries are still far away from liberal democracy or more exactly, how Peter Mucha writes: “they still have not rooted in Western liberal democratic mindset sufficiently”. The democracy has been reached and completed within their own institutions and all the decisions which have been taken by them so far, however, what still lacks to achieve a real democratic mentality are the citizens and politicians themselves.
Moreover, the corruption of media and lobby, worsen the situation. There is, indeed, a strong Russian presence which strongly threatens the democratic values. Several political interest groups with a pro-Russian orientation try to spread anti-European values and in order to gain support for tendencies contrary to European ones. These attitudes can be identified with those of nationalism, xenophobia and Euroscepticism. Many scholars have also discussed the tendency of “democracies without democrats”. Investigating this expression, we can state that the main problem occurring in the development of establishing a democracy is the presence of “a political culture still marked by intolerance, polarisation, or confrontation”.
Additionally, all four countries have always been exposed to an evident tendency to show and claim nationalistic feelings. It has been a long historical experience which somehow shaped the attitude and behaviour until today. It is not simple to overcome the past which was mainly characterised by events dominated by a strong nationalism. Those countries have always been submitted to the extremism which highly influenced their political culture. Germany first, Soviet Union after, have forced the countries of East Central Europe to be submitted to their totalitarian regimes.
When Nazism and Fascism ceased to exist and when the communist regime collapsed, there was a new challenge. Finally, all four countries, received the possibility to embrace the liberal democracy. However, that enthusiasm was not enough to erase familiar experiences such as the extremism, radicalism of political parties and even more importantly, to let the phenomenon of xenophobia, racism and nationalism disappear.
Many politicians, have then exploited the situation of the migration crisis instead of finding a solution to it. During the 2016 parliamentary elections, the Prime Minister Robert Fico, used the migration crisis as a tool in order to take advantage of it and to increase the support of people. This action is notable from the change of the rhetoric that the Prime Minister Robert Fico and leader of the left-wing populist party SMER did, which was mostly concentrated on xenophobic statements against the Muslims. Some days before the parliamentary elections, he changed the slogan of its campaign from “We work for the people” to “We will defend Slovakia”.
Further relevant explanations lie in the historical legacies of those countries. They are still much influenced from the past. One of these legacies is the Communist one, due to the fact that the countries which underwent its influence have experienced a period of homogeneity which obviously is the cause of not having the possibility of dealing with a foreigner, and thus, were not prepared to multiculturalism. Moreover, the communist regime has also been the bearer of nationalistic feelings. People from V4 have not been exposed for a long time to the diversity, which successively produced only fear and scarce tolerance towards foreigners who were about to live and co-exist within the borders of their own territory.
This reason implies also another cause which is the lack of experience with diversity. During my journey in East-Central Europe, I held several interviews with Slovak NGOs (People in Peril, Kto pomoze) and the Migration Office of the Ministry of the Interior SR in Slovakia. Most of them stated that even the relation with Roma minority has always been difficult, and somehow still is, considering the fact that they have already lived in V4 for a long time. Moreover, most of them have claimed that during Communism there was a big minority of Vietnamese people who worked in the factories, but nobody was asking himself about them.
Therefore, the lack of contacts and experience with the “Other”, is a big trait of today’s behaviour towards migrants and refugees. Similarly, these reasons are also valid for the behaviour towards the Muslims which explains today’s islamophobia. The fact that people have not been used to them, provokes a big fear for something they do not know. In the case of Poland, however, the “new” Muslims, could alter a long lasting pacific co-existence with the “old” Muslims, the Lipka Tatars, who were seen as part of the big Polish family, by the time they arrived and settled. They have lived in Poland for several centuries and in a certain way, they are also considered being part of the Polish heritage and legacy of that multicultural piece of Polish history. Actually, other Muslims arrived in the 1970s in Poland, which however was characterized by a small number but bigger than that of the Tatars though.
They have been accepted by the Polish society but the integration has not been that successful as it was for Tatars. While the old Muslims have been judged as if they were Polish, the new Muslims have not received such treatment. The reason why the new Muslims have not been fully accepted is the relationship that the Polish population has created with the Tatars. Such Muslims of Arabic origin, have criticized the Tatars for having refused and abandoned their own religion, embracing the new one. Most of them, indeed, over the time, went through a strong assimilation which consisted also in neglecting Islam. However even if some of the Tatar people did not abandon the Islam, they continued to have a normal and honest relationship with the Catholic Church. This provokes, therefore a reaction by the Polish society, which does not want to allow the new incoming people to destroy that old and long lasting peaceful co-existence that they have built with their “brothers” over the years. The same treatment is reserved to the Chechens, who are seen as “radical Muslims that might cause problems”.
Therefore, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland have strong reasons which do not allow them to seriously understand the problem of the refugee crisis. However, today the time to be part of the European family and to show the European unity has arrived. Thus, it is time to finally overcome the past and to embrace possible solutions to the refugee crisis within the European Union than rather within the “Visegrad Union”.
 Mucha, P. (2016). Central Europe and a Democratic Mindset. Retrieved from http://www.europe-infos.eu/central-europe-and-a-democratic-mindset
 Pehe, J. (2013). From Communism to Democracy without Democrats. Retrieved from http://www.aspeninstitute.cz/en/article/4-2013-from-communism-to-democracy-without-democrats/
 Gorak-Sosnowska, K. (2011). Muslims in Poland and Eastern Europe: Widening the European discourse on Islam. Warsawa: University of Warsaw, Faculty of Oriental Studies.
Elsa Pacella is Junior Policy Analyst at Bridging Europe
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