Racism in Post-Communist Central Europe

Racism in Post-Communist Central Europe

Zdenek Kavan

In order to understand the problem of racism in the post-communist Visegrad countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) it is necessary to briefly outline its existence under the communist regimes. The official ideology of these regimes denied that racism existed under socialism and presented it as a problem generated by capitalism and imperialism/colonialism. Racism could not exist under socialism as it was incompatible with proletarian internationalism. The consequences were that that there was no real public debate and tackling of racial attitudes.

What is worse is that the public anti-Semitic campaigns carried out in the late Stalinist period (the Doctors’ Plot in the USSR, the purges and show trials of which the Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia was the worst example) were presented as struggles against Zionism and imperialism. Anti-Semitic attitudes were thus given official legitimation. Even as late as 1968 an anti-Semitic campaign was carried out in Poland and presented as a struggle against antisocialist internal enemies. The paradox that there were by this time very few Jews in Poland suggests that anti-Semitism could exist without Jews. The second major racial issue – The ‘Roma problem’ – was dealt with by introducing strongly assimilationist policies, but no policy that addressed anti-Roma prejudice.

The collapse of communism in 1989 resulted in an ideological void which was not really fully filled with democratic and liberal ideas/values. Instead a major revival of nationalism occurred in all these countries accompanied by the return of history. Indeed, the process of national/ethnic homogenisation of states in Central Europe that formed one of the main themes of Central European history in the 20th century reached its apogee with the disintegration of Czechoslovakia. The Visegrad countries were now nation states with very few and rather small minorities (Roma apart).

The return of history generated some problems, particularly with regard to anti-Semitism. The attempts to rehabilitate the Slovak national state of the Horthy regime in Hungary generated problems given the responsibility of these regimes for the Jewish genocide. In Poland, the furore over the Carmelite convent in Auschwitz and the controversy generated by the publication of J. T. Gross’s Neighbours showed that the issue of Polish involvement with anti-Jewish persecution during and after WWII was not going to be easy to deal with.

The Polish Catholic Church is still liable to occasionally show that anti-Semitism has not been quite expunged. Anti-Semitism has not disappeared from Central Europe and is still used by right-wing extremist parties such as Jobbik in Hungary or Koleba’s fascist party in Slovakia. However, anti-Semitism has been supplanted as the main form of racism in this area by anti-Roma prejudices and Islamophobia.

Minorities and anti-Roma prejudice

Various surveys of public opinion after 1989 indicated quite clearly that anti-Roma feelings replaced anti-Semitism as the main form of racism in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (over 90% of the population openly acknowledged their negative feelings towards this minority). There were several reasons for this. The Roma constituted a minority that was poor, poorly educated and who were quite unprepared for the impact of the new capitalist market. Levels of unemployment among them were very high, the assimilationist policy did not work and the social cohabitation between the majority and minority populations was riddled with conflicts.

The public perception of the Roma as alien, criminal and at least partly anti-social was thus easily reproduced. Public policies towards the Roma did not generate successful and speedy radical change. Indeed, it is difficult to see how this long-standing and quite complex problematic could be resolved speedily. The outcome of this is that anti-Roma prejudice has not declined and if anything has become more pronounced.  Studies made of the rise of political extremism – Jobbik in Hungary, or Kotleba’s fascist party in Slovakia show that support for these extremist parties is not caused by social deprivation but by the hatred and prejudice towards minorities in general and the Roma in particular and is further fuelled by the migration issue.

Islamophobia and migration

Unlike anti-Semitism and anti-Roma prejudice, Islamophobia is a new issue in these countries. It is, of course, strongly linked to the migration issue. None of the Visegrad countries have a significant Muslim minority and none of them has actually experienced any incidents of ‘Muslim terrorism’.  But opinion polls show that a very high proportion of the populations in these countries feel a real fear of Muslims and is opposed to any Muslim immigration. The fear of Muslims is fuelled by media reporting and campaigns and is further strengthened by the way in which populist politicians exploit these fears to enhance their popularity.

It is not just politicians from the extremist margins of these polities who engage in very public racist denunciations of Islam and of Muslim refugees. The president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, has been voicing openly prejudicial anti-Muslim views for many years. Among his public statements were such pieces of wisdom as ‘It is not true that all Muslims are terrorists, but it is true that all terrorists are Muslim’. He has advocated the use of the army to safeguard the state border against the influx of Muslim refugees and talks in Huntingtonian terms about the civilizational conflict between the West and Islam.

The Prime Minister of Slovakia, Fico, has stated recently: “It is difficult to integrate people who have different traditions and culture. We have many Roma in Slovakia. Even them, our own citizens, we have not succeeded in integrating. We monitor every Muslim in Slovakia. There is a great security risk. We must prevent the creation of a Muslim community in Slovakia” (Novinky, 19.4.2016).

The threat to security is not specified and it does not have to be as it is a general sense of fear that is being appealed to. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Orban, has been playing the anti-immigration and anti-Muslim card for all its worth, at least partly to protect his party against the competition from even more extreme parties (Jobbik). The recent elections in Poland brought to power a right-wing nationalist-conservative Law and Justice party which pursues openly xenophobic and anti-immigrant policies.

The rejection of refugees in the Visegrad countries has had an adverse effect on attitudes towards the EU which is perceived as pushing for compulsory quotas of refugees. Indeed, migration in general is perceived as a threat to the national identity and the more ‘alien’ the migrants are the greater the perceived threat.

Public opposition to racism

It is important to note that the rise of xenophobia and racism has generated public protests in these countries.  Public demonstrations have been held in Hungary against the memorialisation of the Horthy regime. There have been demonstrations against Islamophobia in the Czech Republic and even in Slovakia there have been public protests against extremism.

The actions of the Polish government have generated the largest public protests. But it also needs to be noted that the protests against Islamophobia and the treatment of refugees have not so far affected the xenophobia and racism expressed by the majority. Indeed, the populist politicians have tended to dismiss these protests as an example of privileged intellectual minorities being out of touch with the people. Nevertheless, the positive side is that this generates some grounds for a public discourse on issues of nationalism and racism.

Concluding remarks

Racism is now quite widespread in these countries even if it is denied by the authorities.  Fear of Muslim refugees has had an impact on the rise of more virulent racist attitudes. In recent times, the treatment of people who look ‘different’ has worsened and it has been remarked that the threat of violence is felt more acutely by people of darker skins in these countries.

In many ways, the anti-refugee public policy and the Islamophobic discourse have legitimised racist attitudes. The clear linkage with the dominant forms of nationalism, including its traditional origins and the relative weakness (lack of rootedness) of democratic transformation are very significant factors in the normalisation of xenophobia and racism. The perceived threat from the ‘other’ has had an impact on worsening the attitudes towards minorities in general.

The prospects for the foreseeable future look quite grim. The rejection of multiculturalism and the increasingly anti-European attitudes are on the rise. Indeed, the sense of insecurity and threat is linked to the perception that the EU’s policies constitute part of the threat.


Zdenek Kavan is based in the Department of International Relations, University of Sussex. He is co-author of The Velvet Revolution: Czechoslovakia, 1988-1991 and has published papers on post-communist transition, democratisation and civil society development in Central Europe.


Image Credit: Novinky