Now these countries are being asked to take handfuls of refugees from Africa and the Middle East in the name of European solidarity. The result is consternation. A former Estonian foreign minister, Kristiina Ojuland says (disgracefully) that migrants are a threat to "the white race.” Latvian nationalists equate the arrival of migrants from Europe’s southern borderlands with the “illegal immigrants” of the Soviet era—meaning the residents of Latvia, who are either non-citizens or hold Russian passports.
This reaction is deplorable and plays straight into Putin’s hands. For a start, all the ex-communist countries face declining populations. They risk getting old before they get rich. Migrants work hard, generate wealth, create jobs, pay taxes and stimulate economic growth.
Of course there are short-term costs. For linguistic and cultural reasons it is easier to integrate Ukrainians and Belarusians than, say, Syrians. Welcoming new arrivals into a society requires work. Public services (health, education, and housing) need to be adjusted to cope. Western mistakes in handling immigration offer abundant lessons. It is also true that Communist and Nazi persecution of minorities made the region much less multi-ethnic and multi-cultural than it used to be. But surely that is not a legacy which free countries now want to cherish?
Refusing to take part would be unconscionably wrong. The short-term burden that the ex-captive nations are being asked to bear is minuscule compared to what other European countries are doing (and incomparably less than the many hundreds of thousands that other small countries such as Lebanon and Jordan are coping with).
Even if these adaptation costs were high, which they are not, they should be paid uncomplainingly for purely practical reasons. NATO and EU allies have contributed to the security of the new member states. They have sent their troops to exercises, contributed to air policing, supported sanctions against Russia for its war in Ukraine, and put up money for structural funds which have modernized public services and transformed infrastructure. Now they are asking for help.
It will not improve the willingness of countries such as Italy to take future Baltic, Polish and other requests seriously if public opinion there revolts against accepting even a sliver of a Europe-wide problem. A world where selfishness rules will be bad for small, weak and poor countries, especially if they live in a bad neighborhood.
Then there is history. Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and others know what it is like to risk death to flee a fate that is even worse. Now others are in the same position—escaping barbarity in Eritrea, Syria and other countries of a kind which would make even Stalin’s henchmen blench. They deserve solidarity. Yes, some of the migrants may be just in search of a better life. And so what? Many people from what we used to call “eastern Europe” did exactly the same not so long ago.
It is a matter of lasting shame for Britain, Sweden and other countries that our governments sent anti-communist refugees to their death at Stalin’s hands after 1945. I hope that future generations will not look back with similar horror on the mean-minded, selfish and self-defeating stance nowadays of people who—above all—ought to know better.