Ukrainian Refugees and National(ist) Politics in Eastern Europe

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Migrants at the Latvia-Belarus border in February 2022; used under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

In an article in our last issue (November-December Public i), I used the case of Hungary—its positive reception of Ukrainian refugees, alongside its negative role in hindering EU political and material support of Ukraine in its defense against Russian aggression—to explore some of the contradictions of current European migrant politics. The EU welcomed with open arms the Ukrainian millions, while trading financial backing to authoritarian strongmen beyond its borders—most prominently in Turkey and Tunisia—to keep war and climate refugees from the Global South at bay, by any means necessary. Western European opinion, expressed through dominant positions in EU bodies, decries the crude anti-migrant politics and practices in many of the eastern member-states, while their own populist politicians ride anti-migrant rhetoric to political success—dragging centrist and even liberal parties in an anti-immigrant direction. In this article I will expand my scope to other East European contexts to argue that these contradictions should complicate our view of Europe’s immigration issues.

East European states and people have taken on a sense of “front-line” status for Europe that reaches back centuries, when they constituted a Christian bulwark against the advancing Ottoman Empire. This identity was fortified during the 2015 migration crisis, when 1.3 million, mostly Asians and Africans, surged up through the Balkan route, mostly through Hungary. (The aforementioned subsequent deal with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan regime largely closed down that route.) The Ukraine war has shifted the threatening Other from non-European migrants to Russia, but again made eastern Europe Ground Zero for a crisis. But this time the refugees, fellow Christians and Slavs, have been much more readily seen as victims.

Poland has experienced an estimated 15 million crossings on its Ukrainian border since the invasion, dwarfing Hungary’s 3–4 million; almost one million (more than a million, if pre-invasion refugees are included) are currently living in Poland, per capita the third-highest rate (after Estonia and the Czech Republic) of any country. An astounding 77 percent of Poles personally helped refugees in just the first few months of the war, spending around two billion Euros of their own money. But historic resentments—including a Polish-Ukrainian war in the aftermath of World War I and massacres of Poles by Ukrainians during World War II—have been percolating to the surface, especially encouraged by the far-right Confederation party. Ukrainian grain—its usual export routes blockaded—flooding the Polish market has caused further tension; the price drop and competition have hurt Polish farmers, a strong constituency for the Right. More recently, Polish truck drivers have been blockading the border to protest the suspension of quotas for Ukrainian trucks and drivers transporting goods beyond the border zone, threatening their livelihood. Even Slavic Christian solidarity goes only so far.

The flood of Ukrainian refugees followed the instigation in 2021 of what was later described as “hybrid warfare,” by Vladimir Putin ally and fellow dictator Aleksander Lyukashenko of Belarus against Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, to retaliate for EU sanctions against his government after a stolen election and brutal crackdown. Thousands of migrants from the Middle East (especially Iraqi Kurds) and Africa were enticed to Belarus with the false promise of free access to the EU, and then released into wilderness border areas and ordered to find their way across. Many were violently pushed back by Polish border guards, and then abused by Belarusian guards; dozens of migrant deaths have been documented, and over 200 are currently missing, fate unknown. A number of Polish activists who attempted to aid the foreigners are now facing prosecution on smuggling charges.

A new dramatic film by Polish director Agnieszka Holland, Green Border, exposes the brutality, especially by the Poles. The PiS Justice Minister and the border guards’ union—based on the trailer and media reports from international film festival showings—accused Holland, two of whose grandparents were victims of the Holocaust, of putting out propaganda worthy of the Third Reich. Despite government pressure and nationalist demonstrations against theaters showing it, since opening in Poland on September 23 it became the most-seen Polish film of 2023.

In recent months Russia has taken up the tactic directly, sending hundreds of refugees across its 830-mile-long border with Finland, the newest NATO member; Estonia also has complained of being victimized by its hostile neighbor.

The on October 15 victory of a liberal opposition coalition over the right-wing nationalist ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, allied with Confederation, gave hope that solidarity would prevail over such lingering animosity. But early signs are that the liberals’ dabbling in anti-immigrant rhetoric during the election campaign was not just tactical: new Prime Minister Donald Tusk just declared that Poland would “not accept a single migrant” under the EU’s contested relocation scheme (which the previous PiS government had been blocking).

In Slovakia, populist Robert Fico’s Smer-SD party won the highest share (23 percent) in a split parliamentary election in October, and has become prime minister for the third time at the head of a conservative coalition that has made anti-immigrant rhetoric a key part of its appeal. Fico, who has been described as a “technician of power” with his finger on the pulse of his electorate, promised during the election campaign that he would send “not another bullet” to defend Ukraine, and has drawn closer to Putin and Russia since his previous stints. In the neighboring Czech Republic, former prime minister Andrej Babiš made opposition to immigration a pillar of his political appeal. In Slovenia, three-time prime minister Janez Janša (an independent peace activist during the late Communist period)—currently out of power—has also propagated anti-migrant policies, in sync with his ally Viktor Orbán of Hungary.

Popular support for anti-migrant rhetoric and policies in eastern Europe—which is certainly not across-the-board, as the Ukraine refugee situation shows—is a function of a sense of historical victimhood, most recently at the hands of the Western-dominated EU, which in the view of many has failed in its promise of equality and prosperity after decades under the heel of Soviet domination, and facilitated the control of their domestic markets by Western companies. Immigrants, especially Black and brown ones of a different faith and culture, are an easy scapegoat.

But western Europeans, again aside from the Ukraine crisis—and the exception of Germany’s welcome of over a million of the 2015 refugees—have hardly shown themselves more generous. In the UK, Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government has been fighting to implement a plan to send asylum seekers arriving illegally to Great Britain to Rwanda to await the outcome of their cases, hoping that the expectation of deportation will deter the “flood” of migrants “assaulting” British shores by boat. (The plan, already shot down once by Britain’s Supreme Court, was just voted down by the upper house of Parliament after passing in the House of Commons; the government insists it will push it through.) Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy has its roots in a postwar neo-fascist party, has aggressively opposed immigration and taken the lead in the deals with northern African regimes to shut down pipelines for would-be boat people on their way to the Mediterranean. In parallel to the British Conservatives, she has negotiated a deal with Albania to detain arrivees to Italy there. In the Netherlands and all of the Scandinavian countries, nationalist parties with a focus on stopping immigration have either entered governing coalitions or taken the largest share of recent elections, leaving the stereotypical Nordic liberalism and openness to refugees at great risk. French President Emmanuel Macron has abandoned his previous promised “resistance” to the French Right’s anti-immigration agitation, pushing through a new immigration bill to tighten restrictions on immigrants in France. And even Germany’s Social Democratic Prime Minister Olaf Schultz, pushed by the rising far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), helped craft new measures to make lives harder for asylum applicants, whose numbers have been surging again.

The contrast between the EU’s universal welcome of Ukrainian refugees and its by-and-large harsher treatment of those from Asia and Africa, not to mention its failure to meaningfully address the tragedy in the Mediterranean—with over 28,000 people drowned so far trying to reach its shores in recent years—may seem to cement a (literally) black-and-white framing on the issue. But a comparison between the (ab)use of migrants as a political weapon by Lyukashenko and Putin and their scapegoating by politicians and public opinion in east and west is also apropos. Western anti-immigrant politics have been based also on vilification of eastern Europeans filling jobs that their own citizens were no longer willing to do (e.g., the infamous “Polish plumbers” that greased the way to the UK’s Brexit vote). Given the reality of plummeting birthrates and aging and declining native populations across Europe, a receptive and constructive perspective and policy seems the only rational one. With “refugee fatigue” sure to weaken even the Ukrainians’ position, Europe appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

But there are also encouraging signs against the general trend: over 100,000 Germans earlier this month protested news that the AfD had met with neo-Nazis to discuss a “master plan” for mass deportations. And recent developments in Hungary could foreshadow new tensions across the Bloc: after PM Orbán’s years of poisoning the minds of his subjects against foreigners, his government has recognized a dire need for immigrant workers to address the labor shortage. But his party’s supporters as well as the liberal opposition have slammed the recent importation of such as Turks, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, and Georgians to fill factory jobs, decrying the replacement of Hungarian employees and an imagined security risk. Chickens do come home to roost, and not only in the East.

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About Richard Esbenshade

22-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.
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