Last year, Lidl unveiled in the Czech Republic its new advertisement leaflet featuring – among other things – a black man as one of the models, prompting a wave of hateful comments on social media. “Why do you have a Negro in your advertising leaflet?”, asked a concerned customer, “so far this is still our own country!”. “I am quite disgusted. The media are trying to force multiculturalism on us, which has totally failed, and it is a targeted genocide of the white race”, added another, who pursued his bullet-proof reasoning: “Why? Was this an order from above?”.
If you believe that this outpouring of hate, bigotry and conspiration theories was simply a reaction to a black man’s face, you’re wrong.
Disenchantment and bitterness
As Veronika Pehe argued in Political Critique, rising xenophobia is also “a response to the failures of the Czech transformation” since the fall of communism. Although the country has strongly benefited from the EU’s single market, despite a booming economy and rising living standards, Czechs expected more, stronger, faster results from their “return to the West” . Nearly thirty years after the Velvet revolution and fifteen years after the country joined the EU, the general, all-encompassing sentiment among the population is that of disappointment and disenchantment.
Across Central Europe, the initial euphoria of EU membership slowly turned into an indifference mixed with a bitterness for or hostility towards Brussels and Western European partners. In the eyes of many Czechs, Western Europe no longer stands as a haven of prosperity, nor does it represent a guarantee of security; in the eyes of many, Western Europe and the Germany-led EU lost its authority as a moral figure and values-based democratic project. The illusions have passed and paved the way for a growing hostility and opposition to the rhetoric, discourse and policies advocated by Western countries, leaders, media and elites.
This frustration, directed towards Western Europe as a whole and Germany in particular, started well before the onset of the refugee crisis. When, in the runup to the 2013 presidential elections, Milos Zeman went to great lengths to portray opponent Karel Schwarzenberg as a representative of German interests, this was no anecdotic campaign move, but a highly calculated – and successful – electoral strategy to tap into his co-citizens ambivalent feelings towards their powerful German neighbor, simultaneously admired and resented, looked up to with envy and looked down upon with ill will.
Refugees and multiculturalism: easy targets
Then came the refugee crisis. Angela Merkel’s decision to open German borders and the EU’s burden-sharing scheme provided the Visegrad Group with the ammunition it needed to launch its attack and make its case: the West, exhausted by multiculturalism, handicapped by leftist ideas and crippled with insecurity, is trying to impose its flaws and mistakes on sovereign Central European nations.
To come back to the Lidl case, the skin color of the model was only half the “problem”. The fact that this advertisement was issued by a German company also played a significant role in the outburst. Often described, in Czech nationalist rhetoric, as profiteers and tax-evaders, Western European companies like Lidl were now seen as doing their government’s pro-refugee betting and multiculturalism propaganda. The Western economic “invasion” of the 1990’s was critical in Czechs’ growing fear of losing their identity and feeling of being exploited. What we have been witnessing since 2015 is only, in the minds of many, the second act of that invasion. And, by all accounts, they didn’t want any of it: enough was enough.
Contrary to foreign companies, refugees are easy, more powerless and much less ambiguous targets. The Czech Republic and Visegrad Group’s stubborn refusal to take in refugees was a way to take their revenge on the West, affirm their own singularity and say: we won’t make the same mistakes you did. Although I wouldn’t go as far as to say that, if the EU and Germany had taken an opposite course of action in the refugee crisis, the Czech Republic would have displayed a pro-refugee stance, one can always wonder… Who knows how far spite might take us?
The virulence of the Czech Republic’s anti-immigration stance since the start of the refugee crisis can only be understood if we consider it in the wider context of the East-West divide; it can only be intelligible if we take into account the disappointments accumulated over the years, the feeling that their voice wasn’t being heard, that their concerns were being belittled and that their uniqueness was being drown.
Xenophobia and racism, all too real, may therefore only have been an underlying and reinforcing issue rather than the main driver of the country’s hardline position. Xenophobia and racism, also, ensured government officials that the vast majority of the population would have their back, even if it meant heading on a collision course with Brussels over that issue. Which they did.
Has Western Europe lost its Europeanness?
“Thirty years ago, we thought that Europe was our future. Today, we believe that we are Europe’s future”, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said, expressing a widespread opinion throughout Central Europe and the Czech Republic.
The “strange idea that Western Europe lost its Europeanness” and that “Visegrad is more European than Europe itself”, already developed by Milan Kundera’s in his essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe”, made its way back to the forefront, as Zuzana Kepplova skillfully wrote: Central European countries, the Czech Republic included, now feel like they are in charge of protecting Europe; from refugees, of course, but more deeply and truthfully, from the politically-correct foolishness, misplaced condescendence and structural weaknesses of Western Europe.