“Multiculturalism has failed”. This sentence by Angela Merkel – without invoking the actual context of the utterance – tends to be cited when you ask in the region why migration is seen as an insurmountable problem.

It is understood as the ultimate argument behind the conviction that the “experiment” of distinct cultures living together has failed in Western countries.

And this is how multiculturalism tends to be understood; not as a set of policies which differ between countries and individual governments, but rather as a simple approval that yes, various cultures should live together.

It is seen as an ideological stance that prefers the cohabitation of various cultures, and thus destroys social ties in a “natural” society known as a nation state.

Angela Merkel

The proponents of anti-multiculturalism tend to use it as a magical formula: Look, even Merkel agrees that it is over as an ideal, as a project. Why then should we follow the project of multiculturalism? Aren’t we lucky we don’t have to learn the hard way? All we have to do is not let the immigrants in!

We can always explain the popularity of the “multiculturalism is over” narrative in Visegrad by xenophobia or, as more careful analysts put it, by a fear of the unknown. However, apart from the psychological explanation, we may also want to look at the grand narratives which are present in the social psyche.

These narratives allow us to understand the rise of anti-multiculturalism as a response to their democratic transition – a shift from late socialist societies to democracies with open markets.

Being against multiculturalism is a strategy which reverses the transition narrative, and allows Visegrad societies to become role models themselves. As such, it is – as paradoxical and problematic as it sounds – a tool of identity building and a strategy of extracting pride from what was previously seen as a deficit.

Transition reversed

Transition theories suggested that post-socialist societies had a hell of a work to do in order to become like Western societies. While these societies have been seen as accomplished, their Eastern counterparts are portrayed in a perpetual state of “becoming”, as aspiring towards transformation to more open societies not just in terms of economy but also in terms of adopting a more diverse social make up.

Anti-multiculturalism offers a different perspective. It proposes that post-socialist societies underwent the socialist “experiment” but they did not go through the multicultural one (meaning that post-socialist societies abstained from colonisation, de-colonisation and labour immigration).

From this perspective, Western societies are transitioning, too. They recognized their “mistake” – this recognition takes the form of support for ultraright-wing parties and their growing acceptance in mainstream politics – and are in a process of “reparation” (meaning they are adopting strict immigration policies and becoming explicit about who rightfully belongs and who is a guest).

This perspective is anecdotally reflected in the explanation of the Ministry of Interior spokesperson Ivan Netik, who claimed in August 2015: “We want to help Europe with the migration issue. We could take 800 Muslims but we don’t have any mosques in Slovakia so how can Muslims be integrated if they are not going to like it here?”

Anti-multiculturalism thus presents a model of reversed transition: while post-socialist societies emulated the economic model of the West, Western societies will be emulating the social model of “coherent” societies that anti-multiculturalism proponents believe we have been cultivating in Central Europe.

In Slovak and Czech public discourse, these ideas are present but certainly less ideologically explicit. Unlike in Poland and Hungary where listening to Orbán’s speeches or visiting intellectual forums such as Krynica, one may hear these ideas pronounced as a part of identity politics produced under the auspices of the ruling party.

It is only within the logic of “reversed transition” that Orbán’s proposition can be understood: We believed our future was in Europe, now we see we are the future of Europe.

We tried it and refused it

Looking into the past, the anti-multiculturalists may use the dismantling of Austro-Hungarian empire as an argument supportive of their views.

Ivan Krastev

Multiculturalism has failed could had been an answer to the last efforts to fix the empire and offer its nations a more agreeable model of cohabitation. The answer was: no, the nations need their own houses not just rooms in a federation but their own nation states.

It was Ivan Krastev who suggested a view from Eastern Europe on the events after Brexit (however, he expected to see more exits and turbulences which did not happen as expected) by asking whether “the EU could collapse the way Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed”.

Cynical as it sounds, the anti-multiculturalists may also take the events of the WWII – Holocaust and Porajmos – as another argument that “living together” has failed in the region.

And then, it failed again after WWII – the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia and the population exchange between Slovaks and Hungarians. A historical experience which may explain the ability to take the Grand Replacement for a fact rather than an ultranationalist fantasy.

Hence, a recent hysterical rejection of the UN compact on migration in the Slovak parliament under the influence of an internet rumour that it was a first step of the master plan. While such a conspiracy survived among ultraright circles in the West, in Visegrad, it was easily mainstreamed.

Of course, this has something to do with Slovakia being a target of the Russian hoax-scene. However, the panic would not have overwhelmed almost an entire political scene if it did not match very particular national fantasies.

With the help of these narratives local ideologues tend to go back to historical moments such as the Slovak fascist state to excuse it and take it as an inevitable stage, even a source of pride.

A narrative of pride

So far, post-socialist societies were seen as resulting from numerous ethnic cleansings after which half a century of socialism conserved the status quo; this is despite any internationalism occurring in the region, such as cooperation with developing countries like Angola, Libya, Syria or Afghanistan and even guest-workers from Vietnam who formed early immigrant communities in Czechia and Slovakia.

In contrast, anti-multiculturalism does not portray post-socialist societies as crippled by history – deprived of the original multicultural make up of these societies to fit a narrow idea of a nation state but rather as protected from Western failures.

Thus, instead of urging their compatriots to join a project of transformation, of opening up and embracing tolerance, anti-multiculturalists have taken the status quo as a source of pride for one’s identity.

In this way, anti-multiculturalists present post-socialist societies as a role model for the West to follow. They try to rethink Eastern European societies through conservative adjectives as positive features to emulate – coherent, family-oriented, traditional… even corruption may seem as simply a form of building ties, as a currency of closeness.

How to be post-patronising

This potent master narrative solely understands multiculturalism through ethnicity and, by extension, religion. Religion is a vector of identity which has been stressed only with the rise of the migration crisis.

It serves as an argumentative tool to go around xenophobia – We have nothing against refugees or migrants; it is just that we don’t want to open up to Muslims who would uproot our Christian society.

Afterall, they don’t assimilate, they want to install their own rules and are unwilling to respect our values, look at France or Swedish Malmo!

This is also the reason why Houellebecq is actually the greatest Eastern European author as he perfectly voices the fears of becoming multicultural in the most apocalyptic way, as an erosion of culture and a pathway to civil war.

In the case of African migrants, race is used as an argument – “We have nothing against Serbs or Ukrainians coming to work in Slovakia, but we refuse to accept those illiterate Africans; their culture is just too distant from ours.”

If we abstain from ethnicity and religion as the only vectors that define multicultural societies, we learn that we have always have been multicultural.

The situation becomes far more complex if we consider lifestyle or worldviews as more important. When we look at our societies closely – for example at the election polls – we can see that they are way less coherent as anti-multiculturalist tend to present them or as we all often like to believe. That is also a reason, why anti-multiculturalism takes us to anti-pluralism and, finally, to the erosion of democracy.

Anti-multiculturalism is thus not a more accurate description of who we are, it is a project that shapes societies. It tries to remove diversity as a positive feature and replace it with coherence, homogeneity, by invoking national unity as an ideal. Eventually making an exclusive society, a club whose membership depends on the will of politicians and ideologues.

Anti-multiculturalism is a powerful narrative having a strong backing in the Eastern European experience. However, it stands in contrast with the political lessons that Western Europe took after the WWII.

Eastern Europe was missing when race/ethnicity was discussed in the West. Thus reasoning informed by post-colonialism, New Left, civil rights movements tend to be received in the region as Western patronising – on the Left – and/or as a way through which “communist thinking” returns – on the Right.

Voilà, a conundrum of how to discuss race and religion without reiterating a distinction between a civilised West and an East that needs to be civilised.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was also published in Slovak on SME.

a columnist, writer and an editor of the opinion section at the leading Slovak newspaper, SME.

Scenarios for cohesive growth

As of 2019 the negotiations about the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will enter a critical moment. In the face of an imminent Brexit and the fallout from global turmoil, the EU has to reflect on its guiding principles and take decisions to fulfil the promise of a united Europe.

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The Visegrad/Insight is the main platform of debate and analysis on Central Europe. This report has been developed in cooperation with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

Launched on 1 October 2019 at the European #Futures Forum in Brussels.