Czechs and migration: Solidarity lost in transformation


“I will not bring 18-year-old Afghans to the Czech Republic because I consider it a security risk,” said Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamáček of the Social Democrats at the beginning of the year, when the country was asked to take in 40 unaccompanied migrants and refugees from Greece’s overflowing refugee camps. He had reiterated different variations on that position before then and has repeated them since, most recently after the blaze that razed the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos to the ground, leaving thousands of unaccompanied minors and hundreds of parents accompanying their children homeless.

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stock photo (Pixabay / MichaelGaida)

Is this a shocking absence of solidarity? Is it a populism pushing the envelope that inevitable will be resisted by civil society? In the present-day Czech Republic it is more an anticipated reaction from a politician who, with few exceptions, could come from any part of the political spectrum, whether that be the nationalist, right-wing “Freedom and Direct Democracy” party (SPD) or the Communist Party. How could such a position become common in a country that, during the 1990s, hosted thousands of refugees from the former Yugoslavia and was passionate about defending human rights in the international arena?

Seen from the perspective of the inhabitants of Western Europe, it could be temptingly easy to believe the anti-immigration Czechs are simply reactionaries whose minds still remain behind the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain, to seek the causes of the current situation in the past above all. Czechs’ aversion toward migration, however, is influenced to at least the same degree by their post-socialist present.      

From flaming liberalism to anti-Western revolt

Being closed to people from different cultural environments, and the all but contemptuous grin that almost automatically greets any mention of multiculturalism, certainly has deeper roots in Czech society, which is homogenous, but the current intensity and mainstream nature of this attitude is a modern phenomenon. This is illustrated quite well by the conversion of Czech President Miloš Zeman, who bet his re-election to office in 2018 on playing the anti-migration, xenophobic card.

This is the same Zeman who, exactly 20 years earlier in August 1998 as Czech Prime Minister, signed the Government’s program declaration stating that “… today’s membership of the Czech Republic in the Council of Europe and our future integration into the European Union will aid Czech society with overcoming some of its negative attitudes toward people who speak, look and live differently, attitudes suffered by any isolated society. The Government will do all it can so that Czech society opens up, to the most acceptable extent, to Europe and the world and transforms itself into a multicultural society.”      

We should not just dismiss this conversion of his opinions as an individual manifestation of opportunism, politically. Zeman can justly be reproached for that, but as a competent populist, he has actually managed to sense the opinion shift that has happened in Czech society in the interim.  While the Government’s program declaration from the 1990s exudes all the ambition of a diligent student striving to turn the Czech Republic into a liberal, Western-style democracy as quickly as possible, Zeman today is speaking to a society that has lost its appetite for and patience with launching social experiments - such as transforming a culturally, ethnically homogenous society into a multicultural melting pot.

This revolt of the post-socialist states that are currently refusing, after 30 years, to continue their longstanding, humiliating effort to become copies of the liberal West (albeit knock-offs who are always one step behind) has been described in a famous essay for The Guardian newspaper by the political scientist Ivan Krastev. That analysis also applies to the Czech Republic and its attitude toward receiving refugees and toward cultural diversity. Why, though, has exactly this subject sparked such heated debate in the Czech Republic in particular?

During the years 2015 and 2016, when millions sailed to the shores of Greece and Italy, not more than roughly 1 500 people annually sought asylum in the Czech Republic, and just a few hundred applicants were successful. Of those, a large number came from post-Soviet countries, as they had prior to the so-called refugee crisis. The vast majority of Czechs have never seen a refugee in person, and their concerns about Africans or Muslims cannot, therefore, be based on negative personal experiences with specific people.

Despite this, fear and rejection of them continues to intensify. According to a poll by the CVVM agency, the number of people here who unambiguously reject receiving any number of refugees from war zones, even temporarily, rose from 50 % in 2015 to 69 % in April 2019, and one year later declined slightly to 63 %. The proportion of people who expressed agreement with receiving and settling refugees ranged from two to four per cent between 2015 and 2019.  

Refugees on the political map of the Czech Republic

Given these numbers, it is not surprising that a Czech politician would arrive at the conclusion that expressing public support now for receiving refugees would be the equivalent of political suicide. In today’s Czech Republic, expressing such an attitude actually demands a significant dose of political courage and moral principle. At the same time, it is necessary to add that part of the Czech political scene chose to let themselves become frightened to death right at the beginning of the crisis and more or less capitulated to this xenophobic populism, while another part of the political scene senses how powerful of an instrument that fear is for mobilizing voters who are exhausted by the eternal repetition of unfulfilled hopes and promises, by corruption scandals, and by the growing feeling that “those on top” are just working to line their own pockets.

The former group (those who capitulated) included the governing Social Democrats (ČSSD), whose leading representatives may have expressed regret inside the corridors of power over the refugees’ situation in the temporary camps on Europe’s borders, but who bet on taking an elusive tone when speaking to the public, a tone that, over time, became more and more repressive instead of emphasizing compassion for and solidarity with people in need.

With a few exceptions, even the representatives of the Christian Democratic Party (KDU-ČSL) did not stand up for the refugees. The conservative right wing, represented by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), associated the subject with their Euroscepticism and the rejection of a common asylum and migration policy under the baton of “Brussels”. On the political spectrum’s extreme right, several new nationalist/xenophobic entities were then born for whom refugees were the main subject of their election campaigns, and the one that has been the most successful in the long run has turned out to be the “Freedom and Direct Democracy” (SPD) movement, led by the Czech-Japanese entrepreneur Tomio Okamura.

The attitude of the current Czech Prime Minister and chair of the governing ANO party, Andrej Babiš, toward receiving refugees is characterized by his governing style, which oscillates between the approach of a businessman and that of a pure-blooded populist governing by opinion polls:  While at the very beginning of the so-called refugee crisis Babiš claimed several thousand refugees could easily be made use of in companies hungry for a labor force, he soon reassessed that opinion and became a harsh opponent of receiving asylum-seekers.

Among the parties seated in Parliament, the exception to the rule with respect to anti-migration attitudes is the Pirate Party, currently the strongest opposition party, and some members of the laissez-faire right-wing TOP 09 party. Even those parties, however, have not taken a very conspicuous stance on the side of refugees and have been prepared to support, at the most, the reception of a smaller number of such people. The connecting bridge among all the parties and their different positions is, therefore, their aversion to quotas for the redistribution of refugees within the European Union, a project that was thus condemned to political failure in the Czech Republic from the beginning.

Thanks to the persevering political mobilization of the populists and the nationalist right, the issue of migration has become a significant dividing line on the continually solidifying front of a culture war and identity politics, an issue that, at least cosmetically, has obscured the trenches that previously divided the left from the right. Unleashing this culture war as a political strategy to draw the attention away from political questions that are much more relevant and urgent for the inhabitants of the Czech Republic, albeit more difficult to answer, fulfills a purpose for populist politicians.

Every election since 2015 has featured a frequently absurd panopticon of candidates who appear to be good-hearted as they look down from billboards stylizing them in the role of a tough defender of the national borders, scaring people into believing that the next generation of girls will grow up wearing burkas here otherwise, and assuring voters in small towns whose inhabitants of non-Czech origin can be counted on one hand that they “will be free of migrants” after electing that politician.

Many of those who are trying to better comprehend the Czech aversion to or even fear of migration blame politicians above all for the poisoning of debate in society with the toxin of xenophobia. Is it actually the case, though, that the Czech public, with their strongly rooted skepticism of political representatives and their declarations, have placed such great faith exactly in politicians on issues of migration.      

Dangerous migrants and the insane West:  An image that sells well

Mobilization in politics that is successful is difficult to imagine without the strong role played by the mainstream media outlets and social media. Mainstream media outlets threw themselves into the subject of migration as they do for all news that promises to keep the attention of readers, viewers and social media followers, constantly supplying the public with news from the Balkan migration route and the inexhaustible commentary by politicians and by specialists in everything from biology to sociology who suddenly felt allowed to express their views of migration. The so-called migration crisis fully illuminated the crisis, or at least the significant ills, of the Czech mainstream media outlets:  A hunger for sensation irrespective of the actual relevancy of the information, the predominance of economic interests over cultivating quality and ethical principles, and the frequent lack of resources for deeper research, for going into the field, or for international correspondents.

News reporting on the domestic front frequently made do with the commentaries of politicians who expressed themselves on this subject so often and so willingly. With respect to international news reporting, the category into which migration-related subjects mainly fell after 2015, it was demonstrated that the customary practice of covering this part of the news just by transcribing wire service reports chosen for their clickbait potential can lead to a significant distortion of the bigger picture.

According to research by Pavel Pospěch of Masaryk University in Brno (published by the humanitarian NGO People in Need),  between August and October 2018 – i.e., a point in time when the number of asylum-seekers in Europe had already declined significantly – 40 % of the Czech news reports about migration in the online media that were associated with Germany were dedicated to problems and unrest connected with immigration, while just about 6 % of news reports described the lives of migrants and refugees there. This selective assortment of narrowly-focused news items about crime and other problems, taken out of context and of interest solely because migrants were portrayed in them as the originators of problems, created an image of Germany, France and Sweden, taken together, as countries full of “no-go zones” occupied by culturally “inadaptable” migrants where even the police are afraid to enter.

Here the news that readers already anticipate of “migrants causing problems again” is mixed with another top-selling media article, describing the West as a place where the world has gone mad. News reports about an exaggerated political correctness, the requirements of feminists and LGBTQ initiatives, or any endeavor to provide more support for minorities that is perceived as forced and strongly ideological belong in this “package” of reporting. The frequency of these news items suggests they are as successful with readers as is reporting about “criminal migrants”.

This unbalanced image of migration in the media was also strongly influenced by the rise of the so-called alternative media outlets that have absolutely given up any pretense of honest research and an attempt at balance, and that absolutely intentionally spread negative news about migrants, including deception, half-truths, and footage that is either manipulated or taken out of context. The algorithms of social media show users the kind of content that corresponds to their attitudes and interests, and they took care of the rest.

Solidarity as a shabby concept in a post-transformation society

By saying all of the above, however, the question of why the Czech public reacts exactly to the subject of migration and minorities with such a strong aversion has not yet been answered completely.  Part of the explanation may be a feeling of exhaustion and humiliation after years of attempts to copy the West and a sense of satisfaction at an opportunity to point out the West’s deficiencies and stop trying to imitate it, as Krastev describes.

Aversion to support for minorities specifically, however, apparently is rooted in the strong post-revolution ethos of individualism, when politics and society in large part washed their hands of responsibility for individual lives in the spirit of the motto that “Each of us is the architect of his own happiness.”  

Whoever, during the 1990s, did not manage to be born again as a successful entrepreneur, or to at least rise in terms of social status compared to the previous regime, was considered within the dominant logic as deserving the brand of a “loser” lacking in either ability, diligence, or both. There was not much discussion in the Czech Republic of the idea that such persons may have rather been lacking in the social capital with which to aid themselves in the new economic and political arrangements, capital that many well-connected and well-positioned representatives of the previous regime used to come by considerable property. It is only recently that discussion has begun of the idea that the cultural capital of children’s parents is also a strong determinant of academic success.

This atmosphere of competition, and the individualization of failures and successes that replaced the socialist ethos of relative equality, mean there is not much room left for solidarity – the very word, ever since the 1990s in the Czech Republic, has smelled suspiciously of communism. The actual impact of this atmosphere was, at the level of politics, the neoliberal reforms of the welfare state, while at the level of society, the impact was to label those who are socially vulnerable and unemployed as “parasites” who deserve no support. This rhetoric decidedly was not just heard from the economically well-off voters of the laissez-faire right, but was very strongly expressed exactly by the lower middle class, proud of their modest affluence bought through their hard work – affluence to which, in their view, nobody else should be entitled without expending the same effort. 

One-third of Czech households cannot afford to suddenly spend CZK 10 000 [EUR 370], for example, to replace a broken washing machine. During the last 30 years, most of us have accepted the idea that any failure in our lives is our just deserts – we should probably have done better in school, worked harder, saved more money. This goes along with the idea that the state cannot afford and probably even should not disburse too much money to support the socially vulnerable.

Then, suddenly, the public is following, in astonishment, the debate about the Czech Republic having to receive migrants and refugees from a foreign country, people who – according to news reports and politicians – might also bring problems and risks here with them. “How is it possible that for this, suddenly there is money? Why, then, must we take up collections for our own children who fall ill? Those who want to aid refugees can let them move into their own homes,” were the most common reactions of the annoyed inhabitants of the Czech Republic on social media to this issue.        

Anti-immigrant rhetoric in the media and by politicians was able to be asserted so emphatically just because it fell on fertile ground in post-revolutionary Czech society. Given the absence of elite politicians who will authentically care for the public good of the majority society, support for minorities and refugees remains at an impasse, politically, thanks to the aversion of the public. It is difficult to expect somebody who feels neither acknowledgment or support from society and the state to agree with members of minority groups receiving what they do not have. Until the rehabilitation of solidarity happens within Czech society, migrants and refugees apparently will not be able to expect any either.