Menu Menu

Eastern Europe can no longer be considered part of the free world

‘Polish Stonewall’ is an admirable but doomed shout into the abyss for a region already engulfed by fascism.

At this moment in time, the Polish LGBT+ community are fighting their newly elected government for the right to be. ‘Polish Stonewall’ is part of a pushback by minorities and Eastern European youth against the region’s recent backslide into nationalism. It’s heartening to see that human rights as we understand them in the democratic world still has a safe house in the Eastern Bloc, but it is undoubtedly a fugitive.

‘Poland is not East or West. Poland is at the center of European civilization’ – Ronald Reagan

At the beginning of August, our newsfeeds, now functioning as constant tickers of worldwide unrest, filled with protest images from Poland. The stills of youths marching the streets of Warsaw, masks on, rainbow signs clutched in fists held high, were of course intermingled with their necessary ideological opposite images of violent police repression. Clearly a stand was being taken.

Polish Stonewall was ostensibly instigated by the mid-July arrest of Margot Szutowicz, co-founder of queer collective Stop Bzdurom [‘Stop Bullshit’], for ‘promoting false anti-LGBT propaganda and assaulting a pro-life demonstrator’ on 27th June. But the context is much wider than that.

Poland is experiencing the backlash from its recent Presidential election’s culture war. July saw incumbent Andrzej Duda and his Law and Justice party (PiS) re-elected on a platform of conservative national policies including Euroscepticism, opposition to LGBT+ rights, and justice policies that threaten democracy. Feeding anti-gay rhetoric to the masses and pursuing a paranoid politics that divides Poland into ‘true’ Poles and Eurotrash turned what could have been a landslide victory into a close shave, but Duda still walked away with 51% of the vote.

Polish President Duda faces tough run-off vote on July 12 - CGTN

Poland is once again ruled by a man who has called LGBT+ rights an ‘ideology more destructive than communism’, has signed a ‘Family Charter’ that pledges to prevent gay marriage and adoption, and is considering an anti ‘gay propaganda’ law similar to Russia’s.

As it cosies up to the bosom of Russian moral absolutism, Poland follows in the footsteps of Hungary. There, Prime Minister Viktor Órban is less pulling his country down the tunnel of despotism than striding in step with its majority. Órban’s 10-year reign (and counting) is a nationalist dog whistle to ‘new’ old values: the fatherland, the Christian faith, family. His government has relentlessly attacked Hungarian democracy such that Freedom House maintains, given the government’s tight control over the media and independent institutions, Hungary can no longer be considered a democracy.

During the COVID-19 crisis, Órban took on emergency powers that allow him to rule by decree which he is unlikely to give up with the pandemic’s ebb. He is consistently threatening the sovereignty of surrounding states, issuing passports to ethnic Hungarians outside the country’s borders and thus championing an ‘idea’ of nation over the states the EU recognises.

The plight of the Hungarian LGBT+ population continues to worsen – predictably, Órban abused his self-granted power during the pandemic to push a gender immutability law through parliament, abolishing trans rights.

With these lurches in international sentiment, the concept of Europe qua the world is being redefined.

‘One strength of the communist system of the East is that it has some of the character of a religion and inspires the emotions of a religion’ – Albert Einstein

Similar far-right ideologies are popping up along the Eastern bloc like whack-a-mole. Counter-movements to the relatively open societies of Western Europe are created with every new far-right election victory.

The idea of this conservatism is to grant ‘the nation’ priority in a borderless, globalised existence. Duda, Órban, and their contemporaries are attempting to simplify an increasingly complicated world that is also collectively regarded as threatening. Both men make no bones about openly opposing democratic styles of government, with Órban christening his Hungary an ‘illiberal state’.

The broad direction the country of Poland is headed can clearly be seen through public opinion on immigration. ‘We don’t want terrorists here’, a Polish grandmother tells Guardian journalist Adam Leszczyński. ‘Have you seen what they’re doing in the west?’

The novel threats immigrants supposedly bring with them according to anti-immigration stalwarts – what they’re ‘doing’ to the west – usually involves some form of moral and anti-Christian oppression. Poles don’t want Islam diluting the ‘purity’ of their culture – subjugating their women, radicalising their sons.

This Islamophobia, of course, overlooks the egregious acts of domestic terrorism committed by what’s now the country’s centre. Stripping trans people of their identity, slashing welfare benefits, denying the existence of ethnic minorities, and encouraging police militancy, illicit the exact kind of lawless brutality Poles suspect of far Eastern arrivals, merely tying it in a nationalist bow.

Queer DJ Avtomat describes to i-D his experience during the protests in Warsaw of being bundled roughly into police vans, driven recklessly around the city with no information and no seatbelts, and laughed at by officers who directed homophobic slurs at him and his companions. Their lawful entitlements – to access medication whilst incarcerated, to be given a reason for incarceration or told if they were under arrest, to inform their family or lawyer – were denied in clear violation of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Queer communities are being written off en mass in the country as safe havens for paedophiles. Around 100 municipalities have declared themselves ‘LGBT-free zones’. Ministers are comparing queer people with Nazis. And, though solidarity marches with the Polish protesters are appearing the world over, in New York, London, and even Hungary itself, it’s easy to predict how good intentions and rainbow flags will fair against such an overwhelming tide of fascism.

‘… the peoples of Central Europe and Hungary are a community in fate, to the death. Many of us would spill our blood for Poland anytime’ Victor Órban

It seems as the narrative of Europe is at a crossroads, with the West choosing one fork and the East another. Given the glacial pace of policy making, and the even slower reaction of culture, this pivot doesn’t seem likely to reverse.

Claims that crisis-ridden economies and high unemployment has initiated the nationalist backslide of Eastern Europe are disproved by the Czech Republic. Economic growth of almost 5% in 2019 and a spectacularly low unemployment rate of 3% – the lowest in the EU – hasn’t kept the country from shifting right under Prime Minister Andrej Babis.

Moreover, the economy of Poland has actually improved in leaps and bounds since the 90s. Whilst the average Polish citizen earned one-twelfth of what an average German citizen earned in 1990, today the figure has improved to one-third.

Rather than an issue of law and state, the conservative, nationalist shift in the East is entrenched in the politics of identity. As Polish writer Ziemowit Szczerek points out, none of the Eastern transformation states had a Social Democratic era post-WWII. Neoliberalism hit a society already atomised by communism and was allowed to grow unchecked. This left scars, including ‘a minority complex that is still visible to this day’.

Consistently beleaguered, and many-times invaded Poland still views itself through the eyes of the West, ‘slightly poor, slightly backward, not as efficient’, says Szczerek.

The struggle to reclaim an identity and a position of strength, and not be subsumed by the EU, is increasingly a priority for citizens of this region. Part and parcel of this is rejecting the ‘artificial’ borders imposed on them by Brussels in favour of the national demarcations handed down by their elected leaders.

On 6th June, Órban visited a small town on the Hungarian-Slovak border to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Trianon. The agreement, signed in the wake of World War I, dramatically shrunk Hungary’s territory from its Austro-Hungarian empire borders, resulting in Hungary ceding two-thirds of its territory and leaving sizable populations of ethnic Hungarians outside of the new boundaries.

Map showing Hungary lost two thirds of its territory after the Treaty of Trianon

In his speech, which was imbued with nationalist resentment, Órban described every Hungarian child inside and outside of the country’s borders as a ‘guard post’ to protect national identity. Additionally, he boasted about the speed at which Hungary has increased defence spending and built ‘a new army,’ proclaiming, ‘We haven’t been this strong in a hundred years.’

This is the reason the uprisings in Poland cannot really be considered a repeat of the Stonewall riots of New York in the 60s. Under that context, the cries of an LGBT+ minority were being carried upstream by public sentiment – by a simultaneous civil rights movement, and a trend towards liberalism in a young nation with a rapidly growing economy resolutely facing forward.

Eastern Europe, on the other hand, is looking backwards. Órban’s speech, which ideologically claims back territory lost to the annals of history, is indicative of the region’s grasping towards past prosperity. Whilst the state lines drawn after WWII that notionally ‘created’ the Eastern bloc are relatively new, the sense of nationhood these ethnic groups have is very old, and it is providing a sense of ‘blood and toil’ collectivism that the state is not.

Whilst the youth of Eastern Europe participating in today’s protests, and that will participate in inevitable protests to come, are waging an important fight against oppression, they’re swimming upstream. Eventually, the tide will take them, or they’ll have to leave.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if Eastern Europe ignited its own crisis of mass migration?