Conference Summary "National Identities in CEE – Reflection of EP Election"

The international interdisciplinary conference National Identities in CEE – Reflection of EP Election built upon the research project National Identities in CEE and, in cooperation with the Anglo-American University in Prague, reflected upon the various issues related to national identity - particularly in light of the recent election to the European Parliament, which provided ample material for study. The first panel comprised of four presentations; the second panel, focusing on the young generation, provided a floor for the panelists' reflections as well as fruitful discussion with the audience.

Opening the first panel, Daniela Chalániová (AAU), using online sources for her analysis (especially web and Facebook), focused on Czech political parties in their campaign prior to the EP elections in her presentation. According to her findings, the Greens’ campaign, for example, was to a great extent built in opposition to the campaign of the Dawn of Direct Democracy. Despite being conducted on a humorous note, the campaign itself was not very sophisticated and relied on stereotypes of European nations, eventually even reaching a “populist bottom” when it associated an anti-EU stance of particular politicians with their supposed positive stance towards Putin’s Russia. The parties opposing European integration used symbols in their campaign as well. For example, in their spot, the party “No to Brussels – National democracy” pictured a snake, a metaphor for “the evil Brussels”. People with extreme rightist political affiliation gathered in a Facebook group called “Truth without censorship”, which depicted the EU as fascist and totalitarian in nature. The Free Citizens’ Party invited its voters to upload pictures of them expressing their support for the party. Even though engaging voters, the party to a large extent relied on shortcuts when describing the EU (such as using the widely known “banana” cliché, etc.). According to Chalániová, in some respects the campaign resembled the USA Republicans (in their emphasis on the right to carry a gun etc, for example). She argued that this election did not quite amount to a protest election in the Czech Republic, as it took place rather soon after the Parliamentary election. Chalániová ended with the conclusion that in 2014 there were fewer eurosceptic and radical campaigns than in 2009, though the results can nevertheless be summarized with the statement “ignorance won”.

In her presentation, Eva Eckert (AAU) talked about the situation of the Romany language in the Czech Republic. Although there is a government strategy of integration of Roma people, proposing improvement of the situation until 2025, the Czech government has been subject to criticism by the Amnesty International as well as the Czech NGO People in Need for being reluctant in finding solutions to the situation of the Roma minority. Eckert argued that the recognition of the Romany language on a par with the Czech language would contribute to the process of shaping the identity of its users. However, majority of Roma parents still prefer to abandon Romany language in favor of Czech. Given that only a language which the speakers actively want to use, can serve as an element of identity, this raises a question: what is the point of trying to maintain and support the language? In the current situation, Romany is a subordinate, hybrid language of people excluded from the mainstream, which is to a large extent complicated by the fact that it is not unified and cannot be easily standardized. To sustain it; to improve the status of the Romany language so that it is part of a desirable identity, it needs to be studied, taught and standardized. Under certain circumstances and in certain territorial areas, Romany language could possibly substitute Czech, like e.g. Polish in the area of the Czech-Polish borders. The problem is that the Roma people have created a pressure for this to happen. Another major obstacle in this endeavor is the majority society discourse in the Czech Republic, which is built around the idea of one resurrected, unified nation and thus hinders the development of the status of the Romany language, because “the ideology of the Czech standard language” is framing the space. By way of conclusion, when it comes to the situation of the Roma minority, Eckert asserts that the Romany identity will likely remain a negative ethnic identity on the sidelines, with Romany language serving as the language of protest. In terms of the Romany population, its assimilation will likely continue to take place more often than their integration since the latter requires a change in attitudes that are very engrained.

Alena Chudžíková (CVEK) dealt with the role of the Roma minority in constructing national identity in Slovakia, especially focusing on the role of political parties in the process. In her research, she subjected various materials published by Slovak political parties to critical discourse analysis and came up with the conclusion that Slovaks construct their nation and define themselves by maintaining positive group identity; this is achieved through intergroup comparison especially with the Roma and the Hungarians, using the classical distinction between “us vs. them”. Currently, the main emphasis is on the Roma minority. Political parties illustrate the issue by pointing to the high level of criminal behavior among the Roma people and suggesting that they “ask too much”. Hyperboles and downplay are regularly used to depict the Slovak nation as a morally superior compared to the Roma who “do not work”. This can be illustrated for example by a quote by the Prime Minister Robert Fico, who, giving Roma people “a special status”, labeled them “our fellow citizens”, effectively excluding them from the Slovak national majority. The Roma are also often construed as a threat, most recently when the possibility that they (being “illiterate and incapable”) will “take power over municipality” was raised. In Slovakia, the political discourse largely penetrates the public one and thus has a very real effect on social norms.

Lukáš Lehotský (FSS MU) spoke about the electoral success of Marián Kotleba, the current governor of the Banská Bystrica region. The question this phenomenon raises is whether this development indicates a rising level of nationalism in the Slovak society or whether the votes for him merely amounted to an expression of protest. In his campaign before the EP election this year Kotleba and his “People’s Party – Our Slovakia” spoke in favor of the reform of the EU and the need to change the unfair social system which redistributes money towards “asocial parasites”. He strongly emphasizes traditional values, supports the denial of right to entry to Slovakia for foreigners and declares the need to make the immigration rules stricter.

The issue of young people's low level of engagement in civic life and participation in politics dominated the second panel. Ondřej Horák (COV) opened the discussion with remarks about ways to increase the interest of young people in politics and public affairs. It is not necessarily political activism that is needed, he argued, but rather a higher level of civic activism. As Leonie Liemich (FES) pointed out, political participation is preceded by a general interest in public affairs and our perceptions with regard to what is right and wrong in the world around us. Jan Husák (ČRDM) quoted Benjamin Constant, suggesting that it may be the case that politics is just one of the people’s interests and therefore full political participation might be an unattainable goal. He also stressed that young people's engagement does not necessarily have to immediately amount to high politics, but rather that civic participation may eventually become a channel for political participation. Michal Vít (EUROPEUM) mentioned the methods of engaging young people in political affairs used by Fidesz. Attractiveness of far right parties lies in their ability to offer a certain sense of inclusion, which the leftist parties to a great extent are not able to offer. The discussion was concluded on a positive note: there is nothing like a complete failure when it comes to supporting civic participation of the young people. Ondřej Horák pointed out that even though the original purpose of any activity may not be fulfilled and no results may be immediately visible, this process of engagement is nevertheless crucial due to its often invisible yet important implications for public life as such.

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