In May 2021 the Council of Europe, overseen by the presidency of Portugal, announced that it will proceed against Poland and Hungary for their continued violation of European values. Values of anti-discrimination, particularly racism and anti-Semitism, Portugal’s Santos Silva said “is a matter for all of us, it is not only a matter for some and not for others”. He then added that it is “a necessary condition for our membership of the European Union”.
To EUropean latecomers the conditionality of membership is familiar as it has accompanied the Eastern European states’ journey into neoliberal capitalism for the last three decades. Hanging as a civilisational carrot at the borderlands of the European core, EU membership meant moving closer towards the Western liberal project and further away from “Eastern backwardness”. As Eszter Kováts comments in a recent article, these already vague values are only upheld when breached in the peripheries of the EU. The long-standing members of the EU, the countries that do not have to prove their European civilisational credentials, or their commitment to progressive values, no matter how many racialised bodies are left to die at its borders, in detention centres or at the hands of police, are rarely disciplined in the same ways.
If this echoes the structural inequalities of the European Union, it should not fail to make “us” aware that these very inequalities last but not least enabled a consolidation of the Right: the steady popularity of right-wing populism in both Hungary and Poland pushed right-wing slogans about “resisting Western dependency” and “colonisation” to the mainstream, while on the opposition there is a lack of engagement with decolonial critiques that could take on the right-wing capture.
Colonial and anti-colonial discourses
In Hungary and Poland, coloniality and race are closely connected to local histories of Roma and Jewish racial subjugation. In the last decade, both Hungary and Poland have advanced right-wing conservative populist politics that have increasingly appropriated colonial and anti-colonial discourses without reckoning with their own histories of racial exclusion.
Since 2012, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Hungarian government-supporting political figures have been constructing a “colonial discourse” against the West. This “freedom-fighter” position has been woven into various historical moments of colonial subjugation: 140 years of Ottoman rule, failed independence wars (1703–11, 1848–49) against Habsburg subjugation, the revolutions in 1956 and 1989 against the Soviets and the “communist” regime. Brussels has been cast as colonial and imperialist, but also connected to “communist” history as observed in sentiments like “Brussels is the new Moscow”. These narratives have also been advanced in Poland since the 2015 elections of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) and similarly interwoven with Poland’s precarious place in Europe, through the partitions (1772-1918) and between 1945-1989 during the “communist” regime.
The anti-colonial arguments are often framed within a broader discourse of “we never had colonies and are therefore free from colonial guilt”. As Orbán stated: “they want to force on us Central Europeans their own logic, but we were never colonizers, we do not have such moral or political responsibilities. And not only did we not have colonies, we never called here anyone as guest workers, or for any other reason, to live with us.”
At the same time neither countries offer substantial critiques of colonialism. For example, on European colonial history Orbán said “I’m not judging this, in that historical era it was logical”. Historically, ambitions of colonial expansion promoted by the Maritime and Colonial League in Poland in the interwar period and earlier efforts by the National Democracy of colonial expansion to Brazil, were closely imbued with racially exclusive narratives. Today, both countries uphold connections to “European civilization” and “Westernness” without colonial and white guilt through “Central European” exceptionalism, thus dissecting the region from global colonialism and the postcolonial Global South.
In Hungary, right-wing publicists such as Márton Békés, cite Gramsci’s critique of hegemony and African postcolonial authors. With that they draw an imaginary dividing line between “colonizer” and “non-colonizer” countries, running along the Iron Curtain and reinstating Cold War geopolitical divisions. In Poland the leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, recently reminded “us” that when Poles decided to enter the EU “they did not agree to be anyone’s colony”. He said that the EU demands of Poland to reject their entire culture and ensured that “we will defend our identity, our freedom, sovereignty”. And he added that Poland won’t allow the EU to “terrorise it”. This was a response to European Parliament resolution in 2010 that linked reception of EU funds to good democratic behaviour.
In another example and as a response to a proposal to ban the ritual slaughter of animals, right-wing publicist Rafał Ziemkiewicz opposed this with anti-colonial arguments saying that “Imperial nations want to colonise us. We have been given the role of an idyllic colony, to provincialise us”. In Hungary, the 2018 closure of the CEU (Central European University) and the political campaign against George Soros was also built on ideas of a foreign threat of the “globalists” and more specifically critiqued the “self-colonizing” and “liberal-leftist comprador elite”.
In both examples, anti-colonial as well as racist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic arguments intersect on both the Right and among the opposition in both Hungary and Poland.
Political opposition responses
The political opposition often mirrors government-led discourses of coloniality. In 2017, during the upgrading of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant in Hungary which is funded by Russian loans, the Hungarian Green Party (LMP) countered the project by arguing: “we will not become a Russian colony” and “Russians go home”, also referring to the 1956 and 1989 revolutions. Recently, Hungary signed an agreement to open a campus of Chinese Fudan University in Budapest, which will make it the first Chinese campus in the EU. This has sparked opposition and public protests were held in the capital against “Chinese colonization”. The Budapest opposition mayor also renamed some streets around the planned campus to “Uygur Martyrs’”, “Free Hong Kong”, “Dalai Lama” and Chinese Catholic cardinal “Xie Shiguang”.
While the main focal point of the government and the opposition’s anti-colonial criticism has been “anti-communism” and “supporting the West”, these sentiments also echo the broader colonial-racial “yellow menace” (sárga veszedelem) discourse.
In Hungary, liberals and conservatives reproduce non-colonial exceptionalism, while leftists offer little critical reflection about local colonial heritage and contemporary racial exclusions. The murder of George Floyd in the US induced a striking Eastern European reception, but it was largely divided in two distinct discourses: Western-centric mimicry of Black Lives Matter, such as in “Roma Lives Matter”, or far-right and alt-right “All Lives Matter” and even “White Lives Matter”. The leftist portal Új Egyenlőség (New Equality), led by Zoltán Pogátsa, promotes the Nordic social democratic model without any meaningful criticism of European racism and colonialism, rarely historicizing Hungarian specificity. Accordingly, leftist critique remains largely Eurocentric.
In Poland, the opposition to the government is often lumped together as the “Liberal-Left” and their arguments are practically indistinguishable from the Right. The Liberal-Left reinforces Western-centric, and often racist, narratives without engagement with racism, coloniality or decolonial critique.
Practically indistinguishable from the Right
Left critiques of capitalism and any mentions of socialism often get shut down as naïve glorification of the past or a political utopia that nobody wants to return to. The only way forward, the broken record goes, is Western liberal democracy. In left circles in Poland, not least in articles published on the platform Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), there are polemics published in defence of liberalism. As one author argued (in Polish) a few years back at the height of anti-government protests: “any weakening of relations with the liberal West means shifting Poland to the East” and that means “pushing Poland to the political peripheries, falling out from the central game, one that seems worthwhile even when it is in crisis”.
More recently, during a Facebook webinar organised by Stowarzyszenie Kongres Kobiet (Women’s Congress) in celebration of two decades since the publication of Agnieszka Graff’s important book “Świat bez kobiet” (“The World Without Women”) prominent Polish feminists including Magdalena Środa ticked all the civilizational boxes familiar among the liberal-left opposition in Eastern Europe: clash of civilisations, Polish backwardness, the need to catch-up, and a linear idea of progress void of any critique of the West.
Although liberal feminist scholars have rightly pointed out that the anti-colonial frame employed by the Right empowers illiberal populism as it serves as a metaphor for Western arrogance, this is usually dismissed by the Left as a misplaced equation of gender egalitarianism with colonisation. By doing this, the opposition actors overlook legitimate critiques that could be discerned from an anti-colonial/decolonial perspective of Western dominance beyond what the right-wing actors are appropriating.
Ultimately, this marginalises any attempts for decolonial critique and leaves the opposition stuck in a position of tired flag-waving, reducing the European liberal project to equality, freedom, and liberty while ignoring its long (colonial) violence and neoliberal racial and gendered exploitations. The limited engagement with race and racism in both Poland and Hungary thus offers little to challenge the right-wing racist narrative that sells itself as “anti-/de-colonial”. In fact, as the liberal concept of gender, colonial victimization has too been employed within government-led “culture wars” as a “symbolic glue” to unite the white-supremacist Right.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German translation is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more texts, artworks, and conference information on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de
Kasia Narkowicz is a lecturer at Middlesex University since 2020. Prior to that, she was Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Gloucestershire and has previously held research posts at the University of York, University of Cambridge and Södertörn University in Sweden. Her PhD explored conflicts around race, religion and gender in the public sphere in Poland. She works on Islamophobia, Central and Eastern Europe and the intersections of race, gender and religion. Her current project “Health, social, economic and cultural impacts of COVID-19 on migrant essential workers in the UK” is mapping the impact of Covid on Polish essential workers.
Zoltán Ginelli is a geographer and historian of science. His research is in the geographies of knowledge, the history of geography, and global and transnational history. His main focus is on the historical relations between Eastern Europe and the Global South/Third World in the 19th and 20th centuries, including topics such as development and regional planning, (post)colonialism and racism, Cold War foreign policy, and travel writing. He lectured at various universities and colleges, and worked as an assistant researcher in the “1989 After 1989” and “Socialism Goes Global” projects at the University of Exeter (2015–2019). His current project “Postcolonial Hungary” explores Hungarian semiperipheral colonial history from a world-systemic perspective. He is curating the exhibition “Transperiphery Movement: Global Eastern Europe and Global South”, and finishing his book based on 7 years of research about the global history of the quantitative revolution in geography.