Say it loud and say it clear: Soviet values are still here

Jakub Patoĉka · 23 September 2015
This is perhaps the coldest fact the current refugee crises has exposed. The cultural and political mentality of post-communist countries is in some fundamental respects still deeply rooted in the patterns that have evolved here during the communist era.

What a paradox! The overarching political goal of the Central and Eastern European post-communist countries after the Cold War was to join the European Union. It took long to achieve, whole of fifteen years, and in some cases even more. Yet, ten years barely passed since eight post-communist countries have joined EU, with three more entering later, and all of the sudden the political elites of the region behave like it had been the Western original EU countries who have desperately wanted to join the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Pact to share our deep-rooted and well-nurtured values with us.

The fact that Croatia is the only exception to the general rule of refuting the refugees should come as no surprise. Croatia is in the EU for too short a time to have an appetite for lecturing others, but maybe even more importantly, many of her citizens know too well what is it like to be running for your life from a war.

Living in an alternative reality

The so called CEE attitude towards migration, pointing to “huge numbers of Ukraine migrants” already accepted in the region and emphasizing the need to defend borders and deal with the refugees before they set off for Europe, is actually no attitude at all. It is just a denial to accept any responsibility based partly on wishful thinking and partly on ignoring some elementary self-evident facts.

To say that the CEE countries have little tradition of dealing with refugees from other cultures is a meagre attempt to dress our institutional xenophobia and even racism as something like a cultural heritage Western EU countries are somehow obliged to respect. They are not.

Angela Merkel is presented as irresponsible by many commentators in CEE, while she is precisely the opposite. The fact-based nature of public debate in Germany only does not allow her to escape to some delusional wishful thinking in which most of her CEE counterparts happily dwell. She knows that vis-à-vis the current influx of refugees there are only two options: accommodating it, or accepting more suffering and tragedies, including a possible humanitarian disaster in the Balkans.

And she also knows that if the European Union shares the responsibility fairly, there is nothing we could not cope with. As her Austrian counterpart Walter Faymann has put it: “According to estimates, about 7.5 million people may come to Europe in the next several years. That would be 1.5 percent of the EU population. Nobody has been able to convince me that we cannot properly handle this.”

The most striking difference one can observe between the standard EU countries and the post-communist ones is in the mood of the public. While in the West public is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the refugees escaping the horrors of Syria and elsewhere, the overwhelming majority of people living in the post-communist countries is openly xenophobic.

Compare traditionally conservative milieus as the football fans: those of Bayern, Arsenal, Real and other football clubs manifest their support with refugees, in the CEE countries we can see football fans boycotting Europa League matches in order not to contribute to refugees (Lech Poznan) or even displaying anti-refugee banners (Victoria Plzen).

Of course, there is a sympathetic minority in the CEE public too, with dozens of volunteers helping the refugees relentlessly – driven also by the shame stemming from the official positions of the countries and from the prevailing mood of the public. But this charming solidarity is displayed only by quite a tiny minority which in a way resembles the minority of the dissidents from the communist era.

Vivat homo sovieticus!

The major value of the late Soviet era was the pretence. Governments of Eastern Europe pretended they are trying to build the best societies in the name of peace and brotherhood – and made their citizens pretend they believe it too – while in fact they were just some rough authoritarian states struggling to keep the regimes economically and politically alive.

Today also the political elites of region pretend they have some “specific historic experiences”, “relevant arguments”, “original solutions” add sometimes even that they truly care about the fate of the refugees, while in fact they do whatever it takes to discourage them from entering the countries, including barb-wire fences on the borders in the case of Hungary or incarceration and institutional stealing from the refugees in the case of the Czech Republic.

Slovak prime-minister Robert Fico even manages to pretend that while approving all those nasty things he is a social democrat. No wonder some of his counterparts in the European Parliament think differently and want his party called somehow ironically The Direction out of the European social democratic Party.

But this will not happen, because Fico is not alone. Yes, overwhelming majority of the CEE politicians in accordance with the overwhelming majority of the CEE public still unashamedly chant: „Say It Loud Say It Clear, Soviet Values Are Still Here.“

Premature enlargement – a fatal mistake?

How could this happen? Well, one cannot avoid to think about the process of the enlargement of the EU. It took very long time to prepare, but judged by the outcome, it was either terribly mismanaged or premature or maybe even both.

There was a good case for enlarging the EU immediately after the Cold War – in a similar manner in which Germany was unified. This „common Europe first, political harmonization later“ approach would have apparent advantage in the fact that it could have built upon the enthusiasm from the revolutions at the end of the Cold War.

The enlargement of the EU as it was organized later was based on the assumption that countries meeting a set of legal and economic criteria were fit to join. It was believed this would bring the „harmonization of standards“ which in itself was considered to be a proof of common, shared values. It should be obvious by now, that it was a terrible mistake with potentially fatal consequences for the whole of EU.

But there is another mistake which builds upon it even further. This resides in the fact that the opulent development aid the new EU countries have been awarded is largely managed by themselves, thus supporting above all the home-grown corrupted political and economic elites.

What happened is that the CEE countries managed to avoid building a good quality media, strong civil society and political parties firmly rooted in traditional European ideologies while successfully pretending so within the legal and economic boundaries the EU has charted. The new political and economic elites thrive, building upon the Soviet political culture of pretence, while democratic liberal virtues suffer.

As a matter of fact one has to wonder who had an interest in the enlargement of EU without strict measures taken to ensure that all the applicants are obliged to build a living, liberal democracy. Dissolving – at least a little bit – more principled western politicians with the pool of much more easily corruptible politicians coming from the new member states looks like a smart move from the perspective of western corporate and financial lobbies. Even if it was not a plan, it has worked in such a way very well.

And this also gives us a clue what can be done next. The Western leaders are completely right to threaten CEE countries with upholding the EU cohesion funds. Since the solidarity only makes sense if it works both ways.

But a revaluation of the cohesion policies should happen anyway. The funds should be used for a real cohesion, invested not into tumid infrastructure projects but into the development of strong independent media and strong civil society. Because only than we can have fact based public debate too, and only that the common European values of humanity might prevail over the Soviet tradition of pretence.

Is the fate of Greece under EU’s dictate awaiting also us? The only difference will be that in Greece external pressure thwarted progressive trends which were supposed to help Europe regain its momentum, whereas in Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary it could eliminate the rotten nationalist backwardness, which no one in Europe cares about anymore.