The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Thoughts on Eastern Europe, Immigration and Crime.

 

I recently read THIS article on the Mail Online ['To East Europeans, Legal is Anything They Can Get Away With', written by Alexander Boot]. For those of you familiar with the Mail, it won’t come as a surprise that much of this article is couched in typical rhetoric  – right-wing, anti-Europe, anti-immigration etc -  although I suppose it could be worse, having also read THIS article a couple of days ago, about a website set up by the Dutch far right anti-immigration political party PVV which encourages people to report their complaints about ‘problematic’  East European migrants, with one PVV spokesman openly blaming central and east European migrants for a range of social problems including crime, alcoholism, drug use and prostitution.

 

In his recent article, Alexander Boot claims that the inclusion of East European countries in the EU has led to a ‘staggering influx’ of emigration to the UK, and East European migrants, we are told, statistically ‘contribute more than their fair share’ to the UK crime rate. Suggestions of a link between immigration and crime, attempts to present crime as an ‘alien import’ and to lay  the blame for increased criminality with immigrant communities are hardly new ideas, but have featured throughout human history, often becoming particularly prominent during times of economic hardship. Following both EU enlargements into the former communist block to date – in 2004 and 2007 – media organisations here in the UK (and elsewhere across Western Europe) published a number of alarmist stories predicting a ‘crime wave from the East’, something which I discussed in a previously published article HERE. During the recent economic downturn, we have seen a resurgence of articles linking crime and immigration published by some media organisations. It would perhaps, have been nice if Boot had provided some evidence to support his claim that East Europeans contribute ‘more than their fair share’ to UK crime, especially as a few years ago, this study, conducted by the UK Association of Chief Police Officers, concluded that contrary to popular opinion, increased levels of immigration from Eastern Europe to Britain had not fuelled a rise in crime, but that criminality among East European communities was in line with the rate of offending in the general population. Interestingly, preliminary research carried out in the Netherlands in 2005 also concluded that criminal suspects from central and eastern Europe accounted for only 0.81% of foreign criminals arrested. [1]

 

What particularly interested me about Boots’ article however, was his suggestion that the alleged propensity of East Europeans to commit crime was directly related to their experiences of life under communism, something which relates to my own research into crime in communist and post-communist Eastern Europe. Boot alleges that a sustained lack of legality and morality during the communist era caused a ‘cultural genocide’ in Eastern Europe. His article states that ‘a child growing up under a communist regime learns as he emerges from his pram that he must think one thing, do another and say a third… He’ll lie not because he’s a compulsive liar but because he wasn’t taught the concept of truth’. As a result, he argues, ‘intuitive respect for the law just isn’t part of Eastern Europeans’ psychological or cultural makeup … Legal is anything they can get away with, moral is anything that pays an immediate dividend’.

 

To an extent, many of Boots’ claims have been documented by those who lived under communism in Eastern Europe and many of his arguments are also represented in academic research into this topic. Many former communist block citizens have spoken about the existence of ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres under communism; about learning from an early age that certain topics could only be safely discussed and certain opinions could only be openly expressed within the confines of closed circles of acquaintances and this theme has been explored by scholars including Orlando Figes and Sheila Fitzpatrick. In addition, from the close of the 1960s, increasing economic deterioration and a sustained lack of respect for communist authority fuelled a burgeoning ‘second economy’ in all states across the socialist block, so that petty crime, pilferage, black market trading, graft and corruption became endemic. Economist Edgar Feige has claimed that, under communism, ‘virtually every citizen became a de-facto criminal’ by virtue of their involvement in a wide range of ‘petty illegalities’. [2] In effect, many illegal activities were essentially ‘de-criminalised’ by popular discourse, so that most people did not perceive themselves as ‘criminals’ despite openly acknowledging that they regularly broke the law. Many citizens expressed their lack of respect for formal law and subsequent studies have claimed that this exacerbated the moral failing of communism, something which contributed to its eventual collapse. [3]  However, my conversations about crime under communism suggested that, rather than leading to a ‘cultural genocide’, many individuals remained aware that their actions were legally and morally dubious, so developed a range of coping mechanisms which enabled them to justify and normalise their behaviour, even while acknowledging its illegality. In his study of law and social norms in post-communist Europe, Denis Gallighan describes this process as representing the ‘pathology of social norms’ – creating a situation where the norms by which people lived their daily lives were a significant distortion of and alien to true accepted values, as the result of social forces. [4] This is a topic that I explore further in my forthcoming book.

 

In the interviews I have conducted about crime under communism for my own research, many of the people I spoke to expressed the sentiment that, in the communist era, ‘we were forced into crime, to survive within the system’. In his article, Boot also attributes the widespread illegality that developed in communist Eastern Europe to the necessity for survival. This ‘survival thesis’ is an idea that has been widely promoted by former citizens of the communist block, many of whom admit that they engaged in a range of petty illegalities in order to circumvent the inefficiency and material shortcomings of the regime and provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their families. There is, of course, ample evidence to support the ‘survival’ theory, as the general economic decline during the latter decades of socialism was marked by increasing shortages of basic foodstuffs and consumer goods, with protracted waiting lists for ‘luxury items’ such as washing machines, cars and telephone lines which were in short supply. However, even under conditions of communist-era shortage, for the most part these were far from subsistence economies. For many people, involvement in the second economy tended to be more about relative deprivation; many transactions were motivated by the (modest) desire to improve ones living standards and have a ‘nicer life’ within the constraints of the socialist system. There were occasions where a willingness to engage in illegal activity could mean the difference between life and death – for example corruption in the medical sector was widely accepted and expected, so bribing a nurse or doctor could ensure access to scarce medication or allow a patient to ‘jump the queue’ to undergo an essential operation – but many people primarily used the black market to obtain luxury consumer goods, particularly in urban areas. In one Czechoslovakian survey from 1988 for example, a large majority (75%) said they used the black market primarily to purchase luxury or consumer goods, and it was widely recognised that refusal to engage in these petty illegalities would, in effect, mean relegation to the margins of socialist society. [5]

 

However, it is far too simplistic to claim that experiences and attitudes developed in response to communist rule translate – in effect – to a predisposition towards illegality in the post-communist period, or that such behaviour has subsequently been ‘imported’ into the UK. A recent report published by the Migration Policy Institute demonstrates that between 2004 and 2010, of the estimated 1.5 million East Europeans who travelled to work in the UK, 70% were aged 18-35 – meaning that a large number would have been born and/or largely raised after communism collapsed – well educated and skilled, while numerous UK employers have praised the honesty and hard work ethic they have experienced when employing workers that originate from central and eastern Europe. Of course, there have been cases of known criminals from Eastern Europe moving westwards after the iron curtain was lifted, and establishing criminal operations in their new countries of residence. Historically however, migrant communities have often been restricted to the socio-economic margins on arrival in foreign lands, and studies into crime among these communities suggest that many who do turn to crime use it as a ‘crooked ladder of mobility’ – so it is not enough to consider their previous experiences of legality and criminality, but we also need to consider their experiences and the conditions they find themselves living in post-emigration.  During the current economic crisis, with many media outlets blaming East European migrants for job losses and evidence that many individuals have struggled to establish new lives here in the UK (with reports of many migrants returning home, or sleeping rough in appalling conditions after failing to secure employment), factors which could increase the likelihood that they will turn to crime, for ‘survival’, perhaps drawing unlikely parallels with the communist era. Meanwhile, with newspaper headlines continuing to link East European migrants to high levels of criminlity, research by the Institute of Race Relations published in May 2011 shows that eastern Europeans in the UK today face increasing threats of racial violence.

 

Besides, Boot concedes that not all former communist block citizens are ‘criminally inclined’; there are, he concedes, ‘numerous exceptions, people endowed with the mind, courage and moral sense to reject the spiritual poison of communism’, many of whom have ‘found themselves in the West, where they become hard working, law abiding citizens’. As the author was born and raised in Russia before emigrating to the US (and then the UK), then presumably he is counting himself among this ‘exceptional’ group.

 

 

[1] Weenink, A and van der Laan, A, ‘The Search for the Russian Mafia: Central and Eastern European Criminals in the Netherlands 1989-2005′, Trends in Organized Crime, Volume 10, (2007), 57-76

[2] Feige, E, ‘Underground Economies in Transition: Non-Compliance and Institutional Change’ in Feige, E and Ott, K (eds), Underground Economies in Transition (London: Ashgate, 1999), 18.

[3] See, for example, Clark, J and Wildavsky, A, ‘Why Communism Collapses: The Moral and Material Failures of Command Economies Are Intertwined’, Journal of Public Policy, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1990), pp. 361-390 and Grossman, G, ‘Subverted Sovereignty’, (Center for German and European Studies, University of California, 1998)

[4] Gallighan, G, ‘Legal Failure: Law and Social Norms in Post Communist Europe’ in Denis Gallighan and Marina Kurkchiyan (eds), Law and Informal Practices: The Post-Communist Experience, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

[5] ‘Problem nejen moralni, ale i ekonomicky’, Hospodarske noviny, 20 January 1989, 8-9

 

 

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February 10, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. When the Daily Mail speaks of Eastern Europeans they often mean Romanians or illustrate there story with a Romanian related image – for example Romanians queueing outside the British Embassy for a visa even though accession negates this. Romanian, in turn, is often used as a shorthand for Roma.

    Therein lies a real issue.

    Two dedicated police operations, Operation Golf I and Golf II, were set up after 2007 specifically to look into “organised crime” from the accession countries of that year. The organised crime being investigated were Roma gangs in one form or another, often petty criminals/street crime and indeed remembering there is a work permit requirement for A2′s but no restriction on movement, there was a spike in criminality associated with this group.

    UKIP made a point of showcasing these criminality statistics in its European election literature even if the stats they used were two years out of date.

    The issue here is that there is a group that distorts the crime statistics associated with Eastern Europeans although this is not an issue of communist legacy per se.

    That said there is also a get rich quick mentality on the part of at least some Eastern Europeans (although predominantly a Southern thing) that can mean a playing fast and loose with the rules that I do believe is more a legacy of communism or at least the experience of it in the Black Sea region.

    Comment by Percepied | February 10, 2012 | Reply

  2. Hi Percepied,

    Thanks very much for reading and commenting. I agree that statistics can be interpreted and presented (or mispresented) for political purposes, such as the example you mentioned. A lot of the UK media also tend to focus very much on talking about Polish migrants, Polish workers etc (as Poles are probably the single biggest group from central and eastern Europe to migrate to the UK since 2004). And yes, the environment that existed under communism also produced professional criminals, with some realising they could ‘bend the rules’ for considerable personal gain, and this is something that did continue in the post-communist period (this is something else I explore in more detail in my forthcoming book!). But I don’t belive that most east European migrants are ‘predisposed to crime’ due to their experiences under communism, as Boot seems to suggest.

    Comment by kellyhignett | February 10, 2012 | Reply

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