Serge Halimi: ‘Imposing cruel sacrifices on entire nations in the name of rules that you don’t understand, and forgetting about those rules as soon as your political cronies break them, creates the climate of amorality and cynicism in which the far right advances.’ (From the archive.)
Silvia Faschner (her name has been changed by the editors) is standing off to the side. The 64-year-old undertaker has come with her son, who works as an elderly care nurse. She points over to the other side where a group has gathered to protest right-wing extremists in Chemnitz. And where a handful of young men from Syria have assembled under a tree.
Furious at the Federal Government
Faschner points to the Syrians and says: “I just don’t want so many foreigners coming. When I look over there, I wonder why my tax money is spent on them. They just want to be professional football players or singers, but if they actually have to do a bit of hard work, they complain that their back hurts!”
She doesn’t know the exact numbers. But according to statistics reported by the local Chemnitz newspaper Freie Presse, foreigners made up only 7.6 percent of the city’s population at the beginning of 2018, while the share of refugees was just 2.41 percent. The newspaper cited statistics compiled by Chemnitz City Hall.
In 1991, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a group of 500 neo-Nazis attacked buildings housing refugees in Hoyerswerda, northeast of Chemnitz. Since then, there have been far-right attacks against minority groups in Leipzig, and Freital, also in Saxony. The state capital, Dresden, is the birthplace of the anti-Muslim, nationalist movement Pegida, a German acronym for a title that translates roughly as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.
Of 15 Eastern European countries, populist parties currently hold power in seven, belong to the ruling coalition in two more, and are the main opposition force in three.
Aside from hard data, we need to consider the underlying social and political factors that have made populism so much stronger in Eastern Europe. For starters, Eastern Europe lacks the tradition of checks and balances that has long safeguarded Western democracy. Unlike PiS Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s de factoruler, Trump does not ignore judicial decisions or sic the security services on the opposition.
Another major difference is that Eastern Europeans tend to hold more materialist attitudes than Westerners, who have moved beyond concerns about physical security to embrace what sociologist Ronald Inglehart calls post-materialist values. One aspect of this difference is that Eastern European societies are more vulnerable to attacks on abstract liberal institutions such as freedom of speech and judicial independence.
This shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, liberalism in Eastern Europe is a Western import. Notwithstanding the Trump and Brexit phenomena, the US and the UK have deeply embedded cultures of political and social liberalism. In Eastern Europe, civil society is not just weaker; it is also more focused on areas such as charity, religion, leisure, and politics, rather than social issues.
Another major difference between Eastern and Western European populists is that the former can count on support not only from the working class, but also from the middle class.