Associative Xenophobia in Europe: a New Old Trend

The war in Ukraine has produced a wave of xenophobia regarding Russia, Russians and everything associated with Russian culture. It is encouraged by opportunistic politicians, transmitted by the media and apparently broadly adhered by entire populations.

Spain, Madrid – 30 June, 2022: Latvian President Egils Levits speaks to the media at the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain. © Belish / shutterstock.com

November 14, 2022 00:59 EDT

On August 24, 2022, in an interview with Latvian radio, Latvian President Egils Levits called for the isolation of Russian-speaking residents of the country who do not support the political position of official Riga in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. “A section of Russian society [in Latvia] that is not loyal to the state” has appeared, said Levits: “Our task is to deal with that (section of society) and isolate it from society.” Official statistics indicate that about 37% of Latvia’s population is Russian-speaking. They are people of different ethnic origin, different languages and different views on the policy of their country.

Apart from the question of why anyone in a democratic society should consider isolating a group of one’s own citizens who hold an opinion different from the state’s, even on such a critical issue as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a more serious question arises. Why did President Levits single out a certain ethno-linguistic group as an object of possible reprisals? The fact that the next day his press service tried to interpret the Latvian leader’s words in the sense that all residents of the country must comply with the law adds little clarity here. Most likely, the man, who is president of the EU and of a state that is a member of NATO, made the statement based on a simplistic association between Russian speaking and Russia.

Associative xenophobia is a form of bias directed against persons one associates with a particular state and its policies. It is an old problem in Europe. Until recently, it was routinely applied to discriminate against Jews. A “new anti-Semitism” has emerged, directed both against Jews, who by association with Israel are deemed responsible for the policies of this country, and directly against Israel as a Jewish state. It is no secret that in countries such as France, Belgium, Britain and a number of others, there has been a clear correlation between outbreaks of violent anti-Semitism and the escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

Vladimir Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Has Made Russia a Pariah for a Long, Long Time


This phenomenon appears widespread. For example, a CNN poll conducted in September 2018 in seven Western European countries found that more than a quarter of respondents (28%) said that anti-Semitism in their countries was a response to the actions of the state of Israel. A third of those surveyed believed Israel was using the Holocaust to justify its actions. And a third of Europeans said supporters of Israel were using accusations of anti-Semitism to stifle criticism of Israel. Only one in ten said this was not true. 33% of the French claimed in 2018 that “Israel is more important to Jews than France.” In a Friedrich Ebert Foundation poll in 2021 13% of Germans said that Jews are responsible for the actions and policies of the State of Israel, while in Britain 14% believed that “association with Israel has made Jews less loyal to their country.”

Tracing the recent history of Russian xenophobia

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, associative xenophobia in Western countries, especially in Europe, has gradually spread to Russians and Russian speakers in general, regardless of their citizenship.

For example, European websites began to publish content presenting Russian speaking tourists as always drunk, noisy, thieving and behaving like  hooligans., This was actively promoted by the Ukrainian media, which built its policy of discrimination against Russians into a tool of psychological warfare.

At the same time, between 2015 and 2018, Ukraine and Latvia passed laws that sharply curtailed Russian-language education in national minority schools, causing sharp discontent among Russian-speaking residents of those countries.

Making Sense of Vladimir Putin’s Long Game


However, after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the situation changed fundamentally and took on a broader character, encompassing not only the domestic but also a diversity of public spheres. Unfortunately, no one has conducted a serious sociological research on the attitude of Europeans toward Russians and Russian-speakers. But there is a consensus that this attitude is more negative than the attitude toward Jews. To a large extent, this was facilitated by the Russian invasion itself, which caused a sharp decline in trust in Russia among Europeans. 

This had a direct effect on members of the Russian diaspora in Europe. For example, in Germany there have been cases of denial of service to Russian-speaking people in catering establishments. There have been cases of arbitrary treatment of Russian-speaking students at European universities. For example, Professor Martin Dlougy, who teaches at the Higher School of Economics in Prague (VSE), kicked Russian students out of classes and wrote on his Facebook page that “he will not teach Russians.” These are his personal sanctions.

Obstacles have been artificially created for the development of business related to Russia and Russian citizens, regardless of whether this business is under European sanctions or not. There is information that waiters and receptionists in hotels refuse to serve Russian-speaking people or serve them below any level of service.

President Zelensky’s lobbying

In August – September 2022, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia and a number of other countries announced the abolition of tourist visas for Russians, regardless of their political views. This effectively threatened the stay of oppositionists in these countries, including opposition journalists, as well as ordinary people in general holding a negative view of Putin’s regime. To a large extent, this practice has been encouraged by Ukrainian lobbying. President Volodymyr Zelensky explained his position in the following terms: 

“Whichever kind of Russian … make them go to Russia. They’ll understand then. They’ll say, ‘This [war] has nothing to do with us. The whole population can’t be held responsible, can it?’ It can. The population picked this government and they’re not fighting it, not arguing with it, not shouting at it. “Don’t you want this isolation?” Zelensky added, speaking as if he were addressing Russians directly. “You’re telling the whole world that it must live by your rules. Then go and live there. This is the only way to influence Putin,”” he told The Washington Post on August 8, 2022.

For Vladimir Putin, Survival Is All That Matters


Estonian Prime Minister Kaia Kallas tweeted on August 9: “Stop issuing tourist visas to Russians. Visiting Europe is a privilege, not a human right.”The theoretical dispute as to whether the ban on Russians entering Europe discriminates on the basis of citizenship, an action that runs counter to Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or whether it is a normal practice, has not ceased until now. However, as early as August 2022, Estonian authorities began to practice mass cancellation of tourist Schengen visas for Russian citizens, including those issued in third countries.

Meanwhile, article 32(1) of the European Regulation No 810/2009 (Visa Code) states that neither the nationality nor ethnicity of a person can be a reason to refuse a Schengen visa. Moreover, if the refusal of a visa is motivated by a particular nationality, the court of any EU state is obliged to overturn the decision to refuse. However, the new reasons for visa refusal, not mentioned in the quoted document, require a full legislative cycle, including a qualified majority in the EU Council and the European Parliament. 

Nevertheless, a number of countries stopped allowing Russians with Schengen visas to enter their territory on September 19. That means they are placing a collective responsibility on Russian citizens for the actions of their government. Moreover if we take into account repeated statements by the European media that elections in Russia have long been rigged, this decision becomes even more questionable. In Israel, for example, the responsibility of all citizens for the actions of the government of their country, despite free elections, is not assumed. Thanks  to secret ballots no one knows who has supported any particular candidate or party.

A massive injustice affecting millions of innocent people

However, this reasoning has had little effect on the position of many people in Europe regarding the responsibility of all Russian citizens for the actions of their government. And yet there are almost one million Russian citizens living in Europe. This attitude even affects other Russian-speaking people who are not citizens of the Russian Federation. These people already outnumber Russian citizens by a wide margin. The number of people included in the Russian-speaking diaspora in the world is estimated at 25-30 million. Germany alone has about five million Russian speakers, a number significantly greater than the population of 1.5 million Jews in all of Europe. No one has inquired about their views on policies discriminating against Russians, but it is now evident that quite a large number of people in the world, including politicians, hold them responsible for Moscow’s actions.

In fact, we are dealing with the above-mentioned phenomenon of associative xenophobia, which is gradually spreading from eastern to western Europe and to all democratic countries. The so-called “new anti-Semitism” is now accompanied by the “new Russophobia”. Behind both is the desire to sweep people of certain origins “under one roof,” to make them in the eyes of public opinion responsible for the actions of the countries with which most Europeans associate them.

A look at the discussions in the Baltic, Finnish, or Polish segments of the Meta’s social network (Facebook)  gives a clear idea of how the “new Russophobia” is becoming increasingly popular in those countries. This trend is similar to  the phenomenon previously identified in Fance and the UK as the “new anti-Semitism,” link to the of aggravation of tensions in the Middle East. 

History has certainly seen other examples of the attribution of collective responsibility. Many of them ended in tragedy. People who try to revive these traditions today — no longer politicians only, but also ordinary European people — do not usually associate them with past events. It does not even occur to them that the new level of risk they are creating in Europe may be significantly higher than those they believe they are fighting today.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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