Czech Republic, Opinion

Xenophobia is a response to the failures of the Czech transformation

Anti-Islam demonstration

Veronika Pehe: It seems to me that in the past year, the Czech Republic has experienced a marked increase in Islamophobia, xenophobia, and nationalism. Do you also see this as a sharp shift in public discourse?

Pavel Šplíchal: When speaking of a right-wing radicalization in the Czech Republic, we have to realize that these kinds of attitudes have existed here for a long time. The refugee crisis only strengthened such opinions and allowed several disparate currents to come together in the current wave of xenophobia.

Jaroslav Fiala: I would differentiate between three aspects in relation to the rise of this new xenophobia. First, we have the media, which strongly shape xenophobic sentiments. It is much more attractive for mainstream media to spread fear and hatred than to report about the vast majority of Muslims who live in Europe peacefully and are of course not thinking about terrorist attacks. The second aspect concerns not only Visegrad countries, but Western Europe as well, namely the consequences of the financial and economic crisis. On the one hand, this is a continuation of a crisis of the Eurozone, on the other hand, it is also a crisis of political representation, in which people feel that many traditional parties have been discredited and are demanding some kind of change. And finally, we are experiencing a crisis of the collective identities of European nations. We are witnessing an attempt to renationalize European identities. These trends are common to both East and West and xenophobia finds fertile ground in all of them.

Who is who
Pavel Šplíchal studied sociology. He is an editor, reporter, and political commentator for the Czech progressive daily website A2larm.
Jaroslav Fiala is the editor-in-chief of A2larm. He publishes essays and articles on Czech and world politics and lectures in history and political science at Charles University, Prague. He is a Fulbright alumnus and deals with the modern history of Latin America, United States and Europe.

So the refugee crisis was not the cause, but merely a catalyst for all of these issues?

 JF: Exactly. There has certainly been a shift in the sense that these problems have found their spokespeople, who articulate xenophobic sentiments in public. And the media facilitate this.

If many of these problems are common to both Eastern and Western Europe, why have xenophobic and Islamophobic feelings emerged so strongly in the Visegrad countries?

 JF: The Central European space is specific in that the Left was decimated here to a much larger degree than in the West. Throughout the transformation, “Left” was considered a bad word and was pushed out of the public sphere. Today, politicians like Miloš Zeman, Viktor Orbán or Jarosław Kaczyński can use the problem of migrants, and people respond to them, because proposals for a more egalitarian society or social justice basically don’t exist for them. We fight culture wars instead of reflecting on class divisions.

PŠ: I find it interesting to observe what kind of ideas of Western Europe the representatives of these anti-refugee initiatives have. I think the dominant image of the West is changing – previously, the West was associated with wealth, and now it’s a place where there are migrants and security threats. Some people have the feeling that we can save ourselves from this path by taking a defensive stance.

JF: This reflects the common attitude that the West is “exhausted” by multiculturalism and leftist ideas, while Central and Eastern Europe has been through the experience of “left-wing utopias”, therefore it no longer holds these illusions and so can defend good, conservative values, which are in fact more Western than the West.

PŠ: We’re basically a small Eastern version of the West.

JF: Precisely, that’s the position taken up by Lidové noviny, one of the major Czech dailies, which claims we need to defend the “common sense” that Europe has lost, that we’re in fact defending Western values.

In Poland and Hungary, nationalism and Catholic conservatism have played a prominent role throughout the transformation process, while in the Czech Republic, these attitudes were not as conspicuous in the 1990s or even the 2000s. So where are they coming from now?

PŠ: Nationalist parties were not successful in the Czech Republic to an extent because of the existence of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM). This party, which has always propagated a defensive variety of nationalism, attracted a large proportion of more nationalistically-oriented voters. And because the Communists were relegated to the margins of the political spectrum, this contributed to the illusion that Czech society is somehow more “naturally” democratic than Slovak, Polish, or Hungarian society. During the transformation, the Left took the side of the less successful. But because the story of the transformation was narrated as a return to Europe, this meant that the Left represented the interests of the less pro-European part of the population, which often also shared nationalist sentiments. The Social Democrats were somewhat more moderate in this sense, but KSČM is really a nationally-oriented party, which in articulating the story of the less successful took up an anti-Western, defensive position.

JF: Czech nationalism has always been defensive: we are small, we don’t need to conquer anyone or reclaim any territories, which is different from nationalism in Poland or Hungary. Until the refugee crisis, the Czech Republic lacked a clear enemy who would threaten it from the outside.

PŠ: Slovakia is also a small country, but unlike the Czech Republic, the Slovaks are militarized because they feel themselves to be permanently endangered by the Hungarian minority. Defensive nationalism can also turn aggressive when it feels to be under threat.

JF: A second factor we also have to take into account is that the course of the transformation had a more social dimension in the Czech Republic than in neighbouring countries, if we consider indicators such as poverty, though it is of course not negligible. But on the other hand, the financial and economic crisis coincided with right-wing governments who declared that it is necessary to privatise public insurance systems, and to finish off the transformation, so to say. This attack on the public sector was accompanied by disillusionment with the fact that we had not caught up with the West, that our wages are lower, and the parliamentary Left was unable to offer an adequate answer. This created a vacuum that is now being filled by xenophobia.

What role do governmental and non-governmental political parties play in shaping xenophobic discourse?

JF: Most political parties are riding a wave of banal fear. They have understood that people feel alienated from party politics and this is an opportunity to articulate their fears and prejudices. And even a large part of the Czech Left, including many Social Democrats, who are currently in government, are part of this anti-refugee wave. In my interpretation, the Left did not succeed in answering questions related to the transformation, such as low wages, preventing the spread of poverty, or stopping profits from leaving the country. In short, the Left has failed to deal with the basic consequences of capitalism. So it won’t protect us from capital, but it can protect us from refugees, and it’s actually doing that. If I exaggerate a little bit, people feel that they can win the “struggle” over impoverished people fleeing from war zones, while they can’t win the struggle with capital.

In the Czech Republic, there is a strange confusion of terms: “populism” was always associated with the Left rather than the Right.

PŠ: But it’s not only the losers of the transformation who feel threatened, the current wave of xenophobia is often also shared by those who would  consider themselves the successful bearers of capitalism. In their case, xenophobia has liberal roots, i.e. they object to Muslim culture because they perceive it as anti-liberal. For instance, the founder of the first anti-Islamic initiative, Martin Konvička, started off with extremely liberal rhetoric, but he sees no problem or contradiction in aligning himself with non-liberal anti-Islamism, so the whole movement is undergoing a kind of “fascization”.

Konvička shared the stage with President Miloš Zeman on the 17th of November, which is the date of the national holiday commemorating the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989. In fact, the whole day was marked by a legitimization of extremism. What does this mean for the relationship of the Czechs to their communist past?

 JF: The post-1989 developments, as in other post-communist countries, were marked by the hegemony of liberal elites, who dominated public debates. These elites generally remained deaf to the problems of the people who had lost the transformation – and of whom there is a majority. They tended to trivialize complaints coming from below. This is related to the general discourse of post-communism, which is founded on the cult of success and harsh puritan ethics. Even last year, the celebrations of November 17th, like the whole post-communist era, were marked by the question of “coming to terms” with the past. And suddenly, this public holiday for the first time became a site of coming to terms with issues of the present in the form of Islam and refugees, which I see as a stand-in and false problem. Unfortunately, these problems are being articulated in the public sphere by people with a far-right orientation. So we are no longer looking back into the past, we are looking into the future, but in the wrong direction.

Does this also signal a change in who commemorates November 17th?

PŠ: What’s interesting is that the supporters of Miloš Zeman are generally those who lost out in the transformation. And these people came to celebrate November 17th with him, even though it’s a day generally commemorated by students and those who benefitted from the transformation. So this day suddenly belongs less to the right-wing winners who had traditionally claimed it, and more to the losers, who have been labelled as populists by the liberal elites. In the Czech Republic, there is a strange confusion of terms: “populism” was always associated with the Left rather than the Right, in the sense that left-wing politics as such, even the very idea of redistribution, is considered populist. The voters of the Social Democrats and Communists have been labelled populist for the past twenty-five years. Of course it’s terrifying that on 17th November, 10,000 people marched to the seat of the government and demanded that the borders be closed. But labelling them fascists, authoritarians, or Bolsheviks is a familiar narrative that has been going on for a long time, and to which they are oblivious.

Is it still meaningful to speak of legacies of the communist past affecting what is happening in the public sphere today?

JF: We always have a tendency to look for the cause of problems in the past, so even the current wave of xenophobia is interpreted by the liberal elites as the legacy of the previous regime. That is completely off the mark, they simply do not take into account that this is mainly a problem of real existing capitalism after 1989. This is where I perceive the legacy of Václav Havel in a negative light. Havel said that it would take at least two generations before we get rid of the effects of communism. In this way, he wrote off two generations in an almost biological manner, but those generations have to live here in some way. And they are continuously being labelled as “rotten” by the liberal elites, and this contributes to the xenophobia of people who feel themselves to be left behind.

In the other Visegrad countries, politicians have discovered a very effective mixture of socially-oriented economic rhetoric with conservative social and cultural politics. This kind of politics is represented by President Zeman, but how does Andrej Babiš, the current finance minister who wields significant power in government, fit this model?

JF: Andrej Babiš, who owns one of the largest enterprises in the Czech Republic, established the political party ANO (“Yes”). In a sense, Babiš is a figure similar to Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. He is an entrepreneur who entered politics – an entrepreneur populist, if you will. Babiš has managed to articulate the disappointment with the post-1989 development. However, he is quite unpredictable. On the one hand, he is refusing to embrace refugees and rejects EU quota proposals. On the other hand, he has allowed the creation of a centre-left government led by the Social Democracts and currently serves as the Finance Minister. In comparison to Orbán and Kaczyńksi, he is not authoritarian to such an extent and has respected basic democratic principles. In fact, he is also not anti-European, although no one really knows how he might evolve.

PŠ: At the same time, Babiš, though a technocrat and a populist, is not particularly nationalist. As an entrepreneur, he has a personal interest in keeping EU money flowing into the country. It is in the interest of Czech oligarchs to remain in the EU.

To what extent have the developments of the past year affected the Czech relationship with the EU?

 JF: The Greek problem, which was the first part of the story of 2015, has a lot to do with this. Central Europe took a very hateful stance, a racist stance in fact, which cast the Greeks as lazy, dirty. Once again, this reflected those puritan values of hard capitalism that are so widespread in the region. During the Greek crisis, the attitude of Visegrad countries coincided with that of the West.  And then when the refugee crisis came along, Visegrad countries found themselves in opposition to the European mainstream, but continued to pursue a refusal of solidarity with the weak.

Is the Czech Republic moving towards the Polish or Hungarian model?

PŠ: Definitely. Rhetorically, it will be very similar. Think of this – the opposition against the government is being formulated by Miroslav Kalousek, the neoliberal right-wing former finance minister and most obvious symbol of the seven years of right-wing rule that preceded the current coalition. Political confrontation in this country is being conducted between Kalousek and Zeman. In effect, this is a battle between hard capitalism and primitive authoritarianism – so what do you choose? This is not even a manifestation of the collapse of the differences between Right and Left, these are simply two different right-wing visions.

JF: Although each of these countries of course has its specificities, I agree that we are experiencing a slow “polonization” of the political scene. In the Czech context, we may yet witness much more brutal hatred towards Muslims than in the other Visegrad countries, all the factors we have been discussing would seem to indicate that. And although we have an established parliamentary Left, which could lead observers from the outside to say that the situation can’t be that bad compared to Poland or Hungary, the problem is that a large part of this Left is nationalist and is taking the same stance as the Right.



Veronika Pehe
is a historian and contributing editor at