Democracy of convenience, not of choice: why is Eastern Europe different
And why you have to rethink the revolutions of 1989
There are, in my opinion, two considerations that are almost never taken into account when the reluctance, or outright refusal, of East European countries to accept African and Asian migrants, many of them Islamic, is discussed. They are the history of these countries over the past two centuries, and the nature of the 1989 revolutions.
When one draws the line from Estonia to Greece, or to be more graphic and to imitate Churchill from Narva to Nafplion, one notices that all currently existing countries along that axis were during the past several centuries (and in some cases, the past half-millennium), squeezed by the empires: German (or earlier by Prussia), Russian, Habsburg, and Ottoman. All these countries fought, more or less continuously, to free themselves from the imperial pressure, whether it was exerted through cultural assimilation (as in the case of Czechs and Slovenians), imperial conquest and partition (Poland), imperial conquest tout court (the Baltics and the Balkans), temporary inclusion as a second-tier ruling nation (Hungary) or any other way.
Their histories are practically nothing but unending struggles for national and religious emancipation (when the religion of the conqueror differed from theirs, as in the case of Ottomans and the Orthodox, or as between Catholics and Protestants). National emancipation meant the creation of a nation-state that would ideally include all members of one’s community. Of course, none of the nations were averse, when given half a chance, to convert themselves into the rulers of other weaker neighboring states—so there was no valid ethical superiority they had compared to the empires that ruled, and often oppressed, them. The line between the oppressed and the oppressor was always thin.
Eventually, as the four empires receded, notably in the aftermath of the First World War, and eventually in the early 1990s when the last such empire, the Soviet Union, collapsed all countries along the Narva-Nafplion line became independent and almost wholly ethnically homogeneous.
Yes, I know that there is an exception, Bosnia, and precisely because it is an oddity and exception, the civil war was fought there. But every other country is now fully, or fairly close to being fully, ethnically homogeneous. Consider Poland that in 1939 consisted of 66% of Poles, 17% of Ukrainians and Belorussians, almost 10% of Jews and 3% of Germans. As a result of the Second World War and the Holocaust and then the westward movement of Polish borders (combined with the expulsion of German minority), in 1945 Poland became 99% Catholic and Polish. It fell under the sway of the Soviet Union but since 1989 it was both free and ethnically compact.
In fact, if we define the national ideals as (a) zero ethnic members outside country’s borders and (b) zero members of other ethnic groups within the borders, Poland, Czech republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Greece (total population of almost 70 million) fulfill these two criteria almost to perfection. Close by come Hungary, Lithuania, Croatia, Serbia, Albania and Kosovo (total population of about 30 million) that fulfill almost fully the criterion (b); Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania (about 30 million) satisfy (a), but do have relatively important minorities within their borders. The upshot is that most countries that run from the Baltics to the Balkans have today almost entirely homogeneous populations within their borders, i.e. they satisfy either both (a) and (b), or (a) alone.
What would migrants do? They would dissolve that homogeneity, thus undermining the key objective for which these countries fought for several centuries. This time ethnic heterogeneity would not be imposed from the outside by one of the conquering empires but would, insidiously, come from within in the form of migrants, people of different culture, religion, and most scary in the eyes of the locals, people whose birth rates significantly outstrip the anemic, or even negative, growth rates of the native population. Migration thus appears as a threat to the hard-won national independence.
The second consideration is related to the first. It has to do with the nature of the 1989 revolutions. They were often interpreted as democratic revolutions. Thus the current “backsliding” of East European countries toward overt or covert authoritarianism is seen as a betrayal of democratic ideals or even, more broadly and extravagantly, of the ideals of the Enlightenment. The refusal to accept migrants is regarded as contradicting the nature of the revolutions. This is however based on a misreading of the 1989 revolutions. If they are, as I believe they should be, seen as revolutions of national emancipation, simply as a latest unfolding of centuries-long struggle for freedom, and not as democratic revolutions per se, the attitudes toward migration and the so-called European values become fully intelligible. These values, in Eastern eyes, never included ethnic heterogeneity within their borders. For Westerners this may be an obvious implication of democracy and liberalism, but not for the Easterners who are asked to risk their key accomplishment in order to satisfy some abstract principles.
When the revolutions of 1989 happened it was easy to fuse the two principles: nationalist and democratic. Even hard-core nationalists liked to talk the language of democracy because it gave them greater credibility internationally as they appeared to be fighting for an ideal rather than for narrow ethnic interests.
But it was a democracy of convenience, not a democracy of choice. It was similar, to give an out-of-Europe example, to the Algerian revolution which was also viewed by their protagonists not as a national but fundamentally as a democratic revolution. And indeed when you have an overwhelming majority in favor, the two objectives, national and democratic, can run together and be easily confounded. It is only when tough choices, like now, have to be made that we can much more clearly see which one of the two was really a driving force. And when we see that, we cannot be surprised by the apparent obduracy of Orbans, Kaczynskis, Zemans and many others. It is inability to see them in the right context that has blinded both Eastern and Western elites to the reality.