The citizens of Eastern Europe are already dividing along familiar lines
For many, one of the greatest surprises of the Ukrainian war has been seeing countries like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, previously lambasted for their isolationist tendencies, becoming humanitarian superpowers providing succour to millions of refugees.
It’s been argued that the warm welcome can be attributed to refugees being of the ‘same civilisation’ as their hosts. Yet scratch the surface, and it’s clear that this argument only goes so far. On a recent trip to a regional town in Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic, I was told that “on TV they say nine out of ten Czechs want to welcome refugees. Here, everyone says ‘I’m number ten.’”
There’s been a significant Ukrainian presence in the Czech Republic for a long time. Prior to the war, Ukrainians were the country’s largest foreign minority, subject to a particular set of stereotypes. They’re perceived as poorly educated cheap labour, so simmering resentment among the ‘left behinds’ of the Czech Republic is likely as hundreds of thousands more arrive. Another stereotype relates to organised crime: Ukrainian mafia groups have been known to extract protection money from immigrants in exchange for support in obtaining documentation, accommodation, and work.
Such generalisations have been largely set aside amid Ukrainians’ westward exodus. But the first rumblings of political discontent are already making themselves known, with former prime minister and current leader of the opposition Andrej Babiš claiming the government is “giving priority to refugees over our citizens.” There’s little arguing with the sharp response from Prime Minister Petr Fiala, who asked incredulously “what would Mr. Babiš have us do? Leave them out on the streets?”
Yet even Czechs offering whole-hearted support only do so on a time-limited basis. A survey has suggested that 60 per cent of Czechs think assistance to refugees should be limited to just a few months. Meanwhile, only a quarter think Ukrainians should receive benefits and assistance in finding accommodation. Eighteen per cent say they have negative views of Ukrainians but are willing to put aside their prejudices for now, while six per cent report unqualified negative opinions.
Meanwhile, projections of the impact of the refugee crisis on the Czech economy mean perceptions are only likely to go one way from here. With interest rates climbing rapidly in an attempt to combat inflation, people are suddenly finding themselves priced out of getting a mortgage; an unhelpful context for the sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands more people on the housing and rental market. And while the refugee crisis is being cast as a favourable development for the labour market, where a chronic shortage of low-skilled workers has been a problem ever since businesses reopened after Covid closures, this only plays into pre-existing stereotypes about Ukrainians.
There are growing signs that attitudes towards the war will become yet another dividing line between liberal urbanites and more conservative rural groups. In small towns and villages, negative views of the refugee crisis are nested within a wider scepticism about the West’s role in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. Metropolitan urbanites tend to believe in the righteousness of western interventionism, while some in rural areas feel the Czech Republic has freed itself from twentieth-century Soviet satellite status only to become a stooge of western powers. The Czech Republic’s fulsome welcome for refugees is moral and good; but that doesn’t mean all-too-familiar cracks of division won’t widen as the war goes on.