This editorial was published on April 28, 2022, in Czech language in the daily newspaper “Lidovénoviny”.
By Václav Klaus and Jiří Weigl.
Czechia – Ukrainians in their hundreds of thousands, or rather millions, are seeking refuge from war abroad, in huge numbers also on our territory. Our still-lasting memories of the Soviet invasion and occupation more than fifty years ago, the authentic feelings of compassion and solidarity with those suffering, but also fears of a possible escalation of the war, have given rise to an unprecedented degree of sympathy for refugees from this war-torn country. Russian aggression against Ukraine has been resolutely dismissed by a significant majority of our fellow citizens, even by those who are otherwise very sensitive to propaganda slogans and black and white perception of the world.
The war has entered its third month and more than three hundred thousand Ukrainians, mainly women and children, have arrived on our territory. Czech politics and society did not expect such a sudden migration surge. No one had anticipated that war would have actually broken out in Eastern Europe and no one could have been prepared for a mass exodus of Ukrainians. And yet, the government and the media are convinced that our country is doing well, that we can be proud of our hospitality, solidarity and kindness, which is in stark contrast to the public fears of mass migration from the Middle East a few years ago. Commentators explain this difference by the fact that these are refugees from war, not economic migrants, and by the cultural proximity of Ukraine to the Central European milieu.
The Czech public and especially Czech politicians are positive about this Ukrainian wave of mass migration. They have positive expectations as regards its consequences and do not seem to expect any problems. We do not share these views. This short-sighted point of view is not entirely surprising among a general public that has been subjected to intense propaganda, but the government’s enthusiastic “wir schaffen das” attitude cannot be accepted.
What is particularly striking is the ill-founded notion spread by government politicians and media opinion makers that the hundreds of thousands of people coming to us from Ukraine have decided to become the new Czechs. It is implicitly assumed that the majority of these refugees will stay in our country for a long time or even settle here permanently. They see it as our task to make it possible and easier for them to fulfil their intention. The proponents of these views are already looking forward to those arriving hereto fill vacant jobs, to save our pension system with their contributions, to offset ongoing depopulation of the countryside and border areas. Because they are Slavs, their integration will be easy – they naively claim.
These illusions are not justified and the problems that will inevitably come should be taken seriously. The inflow of three hundred thousand Ukrainian migrants – in addition to the two hundred thousand who have lived in our country in recent years, mostly to work – will be an enormous demographic change, unprecedented in the thousand-year history of the country. Even the German minority of several million, existing here in the past, did not emerge in our country so quickly. It was created gradually, over many centuries, and for the most part, evolutionary. It was an individual rather than a mass migration. Even so, Czech-German coexistence on our territory ended tragically.
Ukrainians are coming to us today not primarily because they have decided to become Czechs, but because they are fleeing the war and because they are heading to a place where – in their eyes – it was easier and better to live in the past than in their home country. Like all mass migrants, they have arrived with the expectation that they will continue their current way of life in peace and in better material conditions in the Czech Republic. We have only a very vague idea of their way of life, their traditions and characteristics. Yet, it is expected that these people will live as we do, which cannot be true. Moreover, five per cent of the population is a sufficiently large minority to influence the life of the country in their own image and to have the power to assert or even enforce their possible demands or needs.
We haven’t heard from Czech politicians that they are being prepared for the emergence of a strong, perhaps soon to be politically organized minority on our territory with the possible domestic and foreign policy implications that this will have. Until the beginning of the war, the Czech public had only very limited information about Ukraine and the local customs there. The prevalent opinion was that Ukraine was a poor and extremely corrupt country. In addition, most people did not really distinguish Ukrainians from Russians. The idea of a five per cent Russian minority on our territory would be a cause for great concern for most of our citizens, and especially politicians. In the case of Ukrainians, however, it is politically incorrect today to ask questions of this kind.
The Ukrainian society today, its traditions and way of life are very different from ours. It is there that we should look for the roots of the not very good conditions in Ukraine before the war – of chaos, corruption and criminality. With the masses of refugees today, some of this is undoubtedly coming also to us. The situation will change even further when the fighting stops – we can expect families to be reunited and thousands of men who have lived through the war and its horrors to arrive here. Do we have any idea how we are going to take care of them, how we are going to integrate people with such experience into our everyday lives?
In Western Europe, we see how mass migration brings the problems and conflicts of migrants’ distant original homes into a new, completely unprepared setting. Are we aware of the fact that, by means of our future Ukrainian fellow citizens, we will become firmly connected with the European East, its customs, traditions, historical conflicts and mistrust between peoples and ethnic groups?
All of these potential risks have not been discussed. With punishable naivety, our government is encouraging the mass resettlement of people to our country, even from parts of Ukraine where no fighting has taken place. Is there any reason for this? Politicians and public opinion leaders are competing over who will show more “courage” and willingness to make sacrifices. Last but not least, they are openly planning to “steal” from the war-torn Ukraine hundreds of thousands of their most capable citizens, the very people this country will need most after the war.
There is an overwhelming desire to integrate refugees into Czech society as quickly as possible and to settle them here permanently. Examples of this include the hasty inclusion of Ukrainian children in Czech schools,or projects to build apartments for refugees, which are not intended as temporary humanitarian aid but are planned for the long-term life of these people on our territory. All this is happening in a situation when our country is facing extraordinary, not short-term, economic difficulties after Covid and because of rising inflation.
We believe a sensible policy towards the victims of the Ukraine war should be primarily based on comprehensive short-term assistance to its victims and on creating long-term conditions for the refugees to be able to return as soon as possible and in as large a number as possible to their homeland, which will need them. Efforts to permanently settle Ukrainians en masse in our country are an irresponsible game with human destinies.
Translation from Czech provided by the Václav Klaus Institute.