Saturday, September 12, 2015
Eastern Bloc’s Resistance to Refugees Highlights Europe’s Cultural and Political Divisions
JB note: [The statement below -- "Unlike countries in Western Europe, which have long histories of accepting immigrants from diverse cultures, the former Communist states tend to be highly homogeneous. Poland, for instance, is 98 percent white and 94 percent Catholic" -- is a statement that overlooks the fact that historically Eastern Europe has been the home of many ethnic groups "assembled" under empires -- Austro-Hungarian, Russian. See, as an example, the below image of Poland (after the post WWI dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), which fails to mention Jews.]
By RICK LYMAN SEPT. 12, 2015, nytimes.com
WARSAW — Even though the former Communist countries of Central and
Eastern Europe have been asked to accept just a fraction of the refugees that
Germany and other nations are taking, their fierce resistance now stands as
the main impediment to a unified European response to the crisis.
Poland’s new president, Andrzej Duda, has complained about “dictates”
from the European Union to accept migrants flowing onto the Continent from
the Middle East and Africa.
Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, says his country will accept only
Christian refugees as it would be “false solidarity” to force Muslims to settle in
a country without a single mosque. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s hardline prime
minister, calls the influx a “rebellion by illegal migrants” and pledges a new
crackdown this week.
The discord has further unsettled a union already shaky from struggles
over the euro and the Greek financial crisis and now facing a historic influx of
people attracted by Europe’s relative peace and prosperity.
When representatives of the European Union nations meet on Monday to
take up a proposal for allocating refugees among them, Central and Eastern
Europen nations are likely to be the most vocal opponents. Their stance —
reflecting a mix of powerful farright movements, nationalism, racial and
religious prejudices as well as economic arguments that they are less able to
afford to take in outsiders than their wealthier neighbors — is the latest
evidence of the stubborn cultural and political divides that persist between
East and West.
When joining the European Union — as the former Communist countries
have done since 2004 — nations are asked to pledge support to a raft of socalled
European values, including open markets, transparent government,
respect for an independent media, open borders, cultural diversity, protection
of minorities and a rejection of xenophobia.
But the reality is that the former Communist states have proved sluggish
in actually absorbing many of these values and practicing them. Oligarchs,
cronyism and endemic corruption remain a part of daily life in many of the
countries, freedom of the press is in decline while rising nationalism and
populist political movements have stirred antiimmigrant tensions.
“People must remember that Poland has been transitioning from
communism for only 25 years,” Lech Walesa, who led that country’s
independence movement, said in an interview. “Our salaries and houses are
still smaller than those in the West. Many people here don’t believe that they
have anything to share with migrants. Especially that they see that migrants
are often well-dressed, sometimes better than many Poles.”
Few migrants, in fact, are particularly interested in settling in Eastern
Europe, preferring to head to Germany or Scandinavia, where social welfare
benefits are higher, employment opportunities greater and immigrant
communities better established. In that sense, migrants are aligned with
leaders in Eastern and Central European capitals, who frequently argue that
the 28-member bloc should focus first on securing its borders and figuring out
a way to end the war in Syria before talking about mandatory quotas for
But as often as not, the political discourse in these countries has quickly
moved toward a wariness of accepting racial and religious diversity.
“This refugee flow has outraged the right wing,” said Kenneth Roth,
executive director of Human Rights Watch. “If you scratch the surface, why are
they so upset? It’s not about jobs or the ability to manage them or social
welfare. What it is really about is that they are Muslim.”
Unlike countries in Western Europe, which have long histories of
accepting immigrants from diverse cultures, the former Communist states
tend to be highly homogeneous. Poland, for instance, is 98 percent white and
94 percent Catholic.
“And the countries that have very little diversity are some of the most
virulently against refugees,” said Andrew Stroehlein, European media director
for Human Rights Watch.
Even mainstream political leaders eager for closer ties to Brussels, the
European Union’s headquarters, feel pressure to appeal to this growing
“By toughening up their rhetoric and showing a strong hand toward the
Roma minority, facing down the E.U. and refusing a common solution to the
refugee crisis, they are trying to outbid the far right and keep the traditional
political parties in power,” said Zuzana Kusá, a senior research fellow at the
Institute for Sociology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
There is also widespread disappointment with the pace of economic
change since communism’s fall, and a sense that the countries are too poor to
offer substantial support to immigrants.
“There is a long history of victimization in our region,” said Csaba Szaló, a
professor of sociology at Masaryk University in Brno. “We are the ones who
have always been victims of injustice, the ones who have suffered. And now
there is somebody trying to grab that status. People find it very difficult to
accept that somebody might suffer more than us.”
While rising xenophobia is playing a role, there are other factors behind
the EastWest divide, said Marcin Zaborowski, executive vice president at the
Center for European Policy Analysis and head of its Warsaw office.
“The primary reason for this difference in attitude is that we come from a
region where the tradition of accepting culturally different refugees is very
weak,” he said. “And now there is this wave of refugees from another continent
that has no precedent, so people don’t know what to think.”
Most of the countries, like Poland, have “no proper infrastructure in place
to deal with such cultural assimilation” and little appetite to spend precious
resources building one, Mr. Zaborowski said.
As for the region’s seeming indifference to the migrants’ plight, that is
partly because unlike France, Britain and Germany, the former Communist
states have no history of colonialism, he said.
“The attitude is: We didn’t meddle in these countries that are now sending
the refugees, like other nations did, and so we have no sense of guilt about our
obligation to deal with them,” Mr. Zaborowski said.
And all of these attitudes blend together into a common aversion to being
told what to do by Brussels.
In Hungary, Mr. Orban has taken a particularly uncompromising
approach, demanding more help from Brussels in dealing with the tens of
thousands who continue to enter his country while insisting that Hungary is
under no obligation to endanger its traditional Christian values by accepting
large numbers of Muslims.
On Tuesday, a new raft of refugee laws go into effect that will allow the
Hungarian government to build new “transit zones” at the border where
arrivals would have their asylum requests quickly reviewed — eight days, plus
three more for an appeal, a pace that refugee advocates believe violates
European Union due process rules.
But Hungary is not the only country that has taken a hard line or seen
Anti-immigrant marches have become a regular occurrence in Slovakia
and some other nations.
In Estonia, the northernmost Baltic nation, which has a population of just
1.3 million, an agreement to accept fewer than 200 refugees over the next two
years was enough to set off protests. Rightwing bikers demonstrated outside
the country’s only refugee relocation facility in July, and earlier this month it
was burned to the ground.
Officials in Latvia said they would continue to resist mandatory
requirements that they accept a set number of refugees while the parties in the
ruling coalition appear unable to agree on whether to require a parliamentary
vote on the issue.
“It would be very wrong and sad if this matter threatened the
government,” said President Raimonds Vejonis.
Lithuanian officials said they were open to discussing the acceptance of
more refugees, but only on a voluntary basis, and would continue to oppose a
“permanent mechanism” that would allocate future refugees.
Bulgaria had agreed to accept 500 refugees, but under a new formula
unveiled last week, it could be asked to take up to 2,000.
Talking by phone while driving from an economic conference in southern
Poland, Robert Biedron, the mayor of the city of Slupsk, said he was ashamed
of the reaction of many to the plight of the migrants. “There is always conflict
around the world and people need help,” Mr. Biedron said. “Perhaps, someday
again, the Polish people might need help. Do we want to hear, ‘Oh, Poles are a
danger to society, you are different, you are not of our culture.’ ”
Already, he said, he has blocked many former friends on Facebook —
“even well-educated people, who I thought were my friends” — over anti-immigrant comments they have posted.
“Here I am, driving on a road that was built with European Union
money,” Mr. Biedron said. “It was built with money taken from taxpayers in
Italy and Germany and France. Now we refuse to do our part? I am really
Mr. Walesa said he intended to do his part. Reacting to a call from Pope
Francis that Catholics take in a refugee family, Mr. Walesa said he wanted to
do just that, if he can talk his wife into it.
“She is reluctant,” he said. “She had to singlehandedly raise our children
and she’s exhausted. So I would have to be the one responsible for taking care
of the migrants.”
Reporting was contributed by Hana de Goeij from Prague,
Joanna Berendt from Warsaw, Richard MartynHemphill from
Vilnius, Lithuania, Boryana Dzhambazova from Sofia, Bulgaria,
and Miroslava Germanova from Bratislava, Slovakia.