The Russian invasion of Ukraine has laid bare the contradictory position of central and eastern Europeans within the racial hierarchies that structure Europe’s border regimes, argue Dr Charlotte Galpin and Professor Sara Jones

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, conflicting ideas about the country in the UK and across the West have demonstrated central and eastern Europe’s ambiguous position and the continued impact of 20th Century European history. 

The borders drawn on our maps have changed significantly in post-socialist Europe. A number of countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union, or so-called ‘satellite states’, now form part of the European Union, or – like Ukraine – have association agreements in place. 

But racialised identities and imagined borders, while in flux, continue to be shaped by historical memories. 

In the second half of 2021, refugees fleeing violence in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraqi Kurdistan began to appear at the Polish-Belarus border, inspired by false promises of safe passage to the EU by Belarussian authorities. The response of Poland’s Government was to violently push them back into Belarus. The refugees have since been trapped at the border in freezing conditions and denied access to humanitarian aid. 

There was a precedent for this hostile reaction. In response to the wave of refugees coming to Europe from Syria in 2015, Hungary’s Government erected a 150-kilometre-long barbed wire fence along its border to Serbia.

We might assume that these are typical knee-jerk reactions of ethnonationalist and anti-immigration governments that have risen to power in several central and eastern European countries in recent years – notably the Law and Justice leadership in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary. 

However, Putin’s war in Ukraine shows that the situation is more complex.

Following the Russian invasion, the Polish Government almost immediately opened its borders to Ukrainians, promising to accept one million refugees.

Other central and eastern European countries followed suit – including Romania, Moldova, Hungary and Romania.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov explained the decision to welcome Ukrainians: “These are not the refugees we are used to… these people are Europeans. These people are intelligent, they are educated people.” 

The perceived ‘Europeanness’ of Ukrainian refugees is linked – implicitly or explicitly – with assumed whiteness. 

David Sakvarelidze, former Ukrainian deputy prosecutor, told the BBC of the emotion of seeing “European people with blond hair, blue eyes, children being killed”.

Those fleeing Ukraine who are not white have met with a quite different reception. As reported in Byline Times, black Africans living in Ukraine have been turned back from the borders of neighbouring countries, especially Poland.


Nationality and Borders in the UK

The UK Government’s response to the potential wave of refugees fleeing the war zone has been markedly different. 

It was only with considerable delay that the decision was made to relax visa regulations to allow close relatives of Ukrainians settled in the UK to join them. The Home Secretary rejected calls for visas to be waived completely, claiming that Russian troops were “seeking to infiltrate” Ukrainian forces and there were “extremists on the ground” in Ukraine. 

Such statements echo rhetoric around the supposed threat posed by refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Home Office minister Kevin Foster, in a since deleted tweet, suggested that Ukrainians might come to the UK as seasonal workers.

The idea that Ukrainians could come to the UK to pick fruit points to assumptions about migrants from the region being low-skilled: the stereotype of the Polish plumber and the Romanian cleaner. It contrasts starkly with Petkov’s assertion that the refugees are “educated people”. 

Such assumptions are fuelled by a popular press in the UK that has engaged in a long-standing assault on central and eastern European migrants, representing them as a threat to UK workers and wages, to the welfare system as benefit ‘scroungers’, or to security through the idea of “eastern European criminal gangs”. 

Xenophobia against migrants from the region also played a significant role in the Brexit campaign. At the same time, there is little recognition of central and eastern European history or culture within media narratives.

These differences show how eastern Europeans in the UK and elsewhere in the West are not always considered ‘white’ or ‘European’. 

Boris Johnson’s description of Putin’s “barbaric venture” as a violation of “every principle of civilized behaviour between states” incorporates Ukraine into colonial ideas of “civilised Europe”.

Yet, in a widely criticised interview, CBS journalist Charlie D’Agata described Ukraine as “relatively civilised” and “relatively European” in contrast to Iraq and Afghanistan.

D’Agata’s comments are a further example of racist representations of the Middle East and Africa as ‘uncivilised’ exactly because they are ‘un-European’. But they also suggest that Ukraine is viewed as only “relatively” meeting those criteria.

Central and eastern Europeans in the West occupy a place ‘in between’: viewed as ‘not quite white’ and ‘not quite European’, but at the same time ‘European enough’ in dehumanising rhetoric about Middle Eastern or African refugees.

Cold War and post-Cold War discourses that describe central and eastern Europe as a ‘buffer zone’ between Russia and the West ignore the suffering of these countries under authoritarian rule and Soviet influence. 

During the Cold War, central and eastern Europe was described as part of the ‘Second World’. The idea that the region is somehow more ‘backward’ than the West (the ‘First World’), but more ‘developed’ than the Global South (the ‘Third World’) has persisted – as the discussion around Ukrainian refugees shows.

Recognising the historical experiences of central and eastern Europe faced with Russian and Soviet imperialism is imperative if we are to respond sensitively and humanely to the Russian invasion.

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