WARSAW — Even though the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have been asked to accept just a tiny fraction of the refugees that Germany and other nations are taking, their fierce resistance now stands as the main impediment to a unified European response to the crisis.
Poland’s new president, Andrzej Duda, has complained about “dictates” from the European Union to accept migrants flowing onto the Continent from the Middle East and Africa.
Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, says his country will accept only Christian refugees as it would be “false solidarity” to force Muslims to settle in a country without a single mosque. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s hard-line prime minister, calls the influx a “rebellion by illegal migrants” and pledges a new crackdown this week.
The discord has further unsettled a union already shaky from struggles over the euro and the Greek financial crisis and now facing a historic influx of people attracted by Europe’s relative peace and prosperity.
When representatives of the European Union nations meet on Monday to take up a proposal for allocating refugees among them, Central and Eastern European nations are likely to be the most vocal opponents. Their stance — reflecting a mix of powerful far-right movements, nationalism, racial and religious prejudices as well as economic arguments that they are less able to afford to take in outsiders than their wealthier neighbors — is the latest evidence of the stubborn cultural and political divides that persist between East and West.
When joining the European Union — as the former Communist countries have done since 2004 — nations are asked to pledge support to a raft of so-called European values, including open markets, transparent government, respect for an independent media, open borders, cultural diversity, protection of minorities and a rejection of xenophobia.
But the reality is that the former Communist states have proved sluggish in actually absorbing many of these values and practicing them. Oligarchs, cronyism and endemic corruption remain a part of daily life in many of the countries, freedom of the press is in decline while rising nationalism and populist political movements have stirred anti-immigrant tensions.
“People must remember that Poland has been transitioning from communism for only 25 years,” Lech Walesa, who led that country’s independence movement, said in an interview. “Our salaries and houses are still smaller than those in the West. Many people here don’t believe that they have anything to share with migrants. Especially that they see that migrants are often well-dressed, sometimes better than many Poles.”
Few migrants, in fact, are particularly interested in settling in Eastern Europe, preferring to head to Germany or Scandinavia, where social welfare benefits are higher, employment opportunities greater and immigrant communities better established. In that sense, migrants are aligned with leaders in Eastern and Central European capitals, who frequently argue that the 28-member bloc should focus first on securing its borders and figuring out a way to end the war in Syria before talking about mandatory quotas for accepting refugees.
But as often as not, the political discourse in these countries has quickly moved toward a wariness of accepting racial and religious diversity.
“This refugee flow has outraged the right wing,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “If you scratch the surface, why are they so upset? It’s not about jobs or the ability to manage them or social welfare. What it is really about is that they are Muslim.”
Unlike countries in Western Europe, which have long histories of accepting immigrants from diverse cultures, the former Communist states tend to be highly homogeneous. Poland, for instance, is 98 percent white and 94 percent Catholic.
“And the countries that have very little diversity are some of the most virulently against refugees,” said Andrew Stroehlein, European media director for Human Rights Watch.
Even mainstream political leaders eager for closer ties to Brussels, the European Union’s headquarters, feel pressure to appeal to this growing nationalist wave.
“By toughening up their rhetoric and showing a strong hand toward the Roma minority, facing down the E.U. and refusing a common solution to the refugee crisis, they are trying to outbid the far right and keep the traditional political parties in power,” said Zuzana Kusá, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Sociology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
There is also widespread disappointment with the pace of economic change since communism’s fall, and a sense that the countries are too poor to offer substantial support to immigrants.
“There is a long history of victimization in our region,” said Csaba Szaló, a professor of sociology at Masaryk University in Brno. “We are the ones who have always been victims of injustice, the ones who have suffered. And now there is somebody trying to grab that status. People find it very difficult to accept that somebody might suffer more than us.”
While rising xenophobia is playing a role, there are other factors behind the East-West divide, said Marcin Zaborowski, executive vice president at the Center for European Policy Analysis and head of its Warsaw office.
“The primary reason for this difference in attitude is that we come from a region where the tradition of accepting culturally different refugees is very weak,” he said. “And now there is this wave of refugees from another continent that has no precedent, so people don’t know what to think.”