Central Europeans, conspiracy theories and nostalgia for Communism

Illustrative photo: Siggy Nowak, Pixabay / CC0

Which Central Europeans are most likely to believe conspiracy theories? Which are most nostalgic for the communist regime or pro-NATO? The answers may well surprise you, say researchers at Globsec, a Bratislava-based think-tank focused on security and sustainability in Europe. Katarína Klingová and Miroslava Sawiris, two of the co-authors of the Globsec report “Generation Trends”, spoke to Radio Prague about what the data reveal about the complexity of regional perceptions of geopolitics. I began by asking them about orientation – East or West?

Illustrative photo: Siggy Nowak, Pixabay / CC0

Miroslava Sawiris, photo: Globsec
If we go section by section, the first section being Geopolitics – East or West. Where do you want your country to belong to? Looking at the graphs, we can see that there’s a general correlation – the younger respondents are more oriented towards the West, the older towards the East. But then Poland is an outlier, the exception. Could you explain the data there?

Miroslava Sawiris, Research Fellow at Globsec:

“Well, it’s not so easy to explain because there’s only so much you can read into the data. We tried to supply some kind of interpretation as to why the youth in Poland is not as Western-oriented as their counterparts in the V4 countries. It could have to do with a different historical experience, identity politics, or a resurgence of – I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘nationalism’ but some surge for their own place within Europe.”

“In the following graph, you will notice that the position of wanting to belong somewhere ‘in between’ is quite high. So the fact that the youth in Poland do not necessarily identify with the West straight away might not mean they are anti-Western. It may just mean that they think their country should belong somewhere else, identify with the East or West per se, but instead try to find a new kind of place for itself.”

More seniors in Slovakia (aged 65+) would prefer their country to be geopolitically part of the East than do their peers in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.

“But we are planning some new polling, and it will contain more qualitative questions which will provide us with more insight as to why these differences are so obvious. We can try to interpret the data, but that’s what they are – interpretations of that data.”

Another interesting finding there is that it’s young people in Hungary who are the most Western-oriented. In your report, you write this may reflect their dissatisfaction with the current illiberal tendencies’ there [under Viktor Orbán]. So that’s the kind of qualitative question you’ll be asking: why, exactly, they feel that way?

Katarína Klingová, phtoo: Globsec
MS: “Yes. Because these are interpretations – even then though we might believe they are reasons, there may be other factors at play that we don’t know of at the moment. So, we definitely need more qualitative data to interpret these ‘why’ questions.”

Katarína Klingová, Senior Research Fellow at Globsec:

“We wanted to go in-depth and analyse the data and perceptions according to the age groups of respondents. That’s why we named it ‘Generation Trends’. And this year we plan to do already the fourth version of the polling.”

“One of the reasons young Hungarians scored so high could be – in fact, I inquired about this with our colleague from Hungary – is they travel a lot, they study abroad. They really utilise the benefits of being in the European Union. In comparison to Slovaks and Czechs, they really utilise the possibilities of living and studying abroad. This could be one of the factors behind why they are more pro-Western.”

Moving on to the EU and NATO, support in the Czech Republic is the highest across the board. Any speculation as to why that might be?

Czechs aged 35–44 years old are the least likely of all age groups to believe that their country belongs in the East; only 1% of respondents think so.

KK: “In comparison to the data from last year, there was a huge increase in the support of the EU and NATO, especially among the youngest generation but also among the older one. We collected the data after the presidential election in the Czech Republic – and there had been a huge debate about the geopolitical orientation of the country, membership in the EU and NATO. For us, it reflects that young people, and Czechs in general, want to be in these international organisations. And they do not really agree with the discourse set by various politicians that there should be referendums about withdrawing from international organisations. That’s our reading of the data. We’ll see how that will be this year – whether that was something very topical and influenced by the time that we collected the data.”

Photo: Hans Braxmeier, Pixabay / CC0
Slovakia is the only member of the Visegrad Four (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia) that has adopted the euro. There was a rise in inflation along with that, and unemployment is also higher than in the Czech Republic. Are these also factors that you’ll be looking into in the next survey?

MS: “There will be more wide questions – and we are retaining the questions about EU and NATO membership – so if there is an economic reason behind why someone would want to leave the EU or NATO, we will pick up on those – if that’s what the respondents say. But if there is a prominent economic theme we haven’t pick up on before, because the questions were more of a quantitative nature, certainly that will be picked up on.”

Moving on to conspiracies – and this one really kind of stuck out -- Slovakia is the most ‘conspiracy-prone’ of the central European countries; the only one where more than half of respondents believe that world events are controlled are controlled by ‘secret groups’. And it’s quite a striking difference compared to the Czech Republic…

KK: “And your question is ‘Why’.

I think that’s always my question – what do you read into it?

Among Central European youth, Hungarians aged 18–24 are the most Western-oriented, with 69% saying their country belongs with the West.

KK: “Well, there are lots of disinformation, conspiracy websites that are active both in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia, but I think their reach is much bigger in Slovakia – more Slovaks are inclined to read such Czech sources as [legitimate] sources of information than are Czechs. For example, we found when we analysed the readership and viewership of the Czech version of Sputnik International in August, we found that over 40 percent of visitors to that website were in Slovakia. That could be one reason.”

Ján Kuciak, photo: Matej Grochal, CC BY-SA 4.0
KK: “A second reason is that we in Slovakia have had a long debate about media literacy and the quality of education here, and we think one reason behind the difference is media literacy is higher among the young and general public in the Czech Republic. The topic I think is much more discussed there.”

KK: “One of the things very typical among Slovaks is that they follow and have similar perceptions to their leaders. A year ago, an investigative journalist [Ján Kuciak – working on a corruption story linked to Italian organised crime] was shot dead along with his fiancée, and not even two weeks on you had representatives of this country spreading disinformation narratives about his death, spreading conspiracy theories that the [subsequent] biggest protest since 1989 were organised by foreign agents, that the right-hand man of George Soros was sent to Slovakia – that was actually published by the Czech [disinformation site] Aeronet first and then disseminated in Slovakia very quickly.”

Slovaks aged 45–54 years are the most conspiracy-prone, in contrast to Czech youth aged between 18 and 24 years.

MS: “Yes, I agree. Another thing the research has suggested – and again, we can’t say it’s a total correlation or that one causes the other – but with the negative perceptions of the EU and the West, there seems to be a link between that and the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. It was in the case of the Czech Republic where we found that the age groups who tend to view the EU and the West negatively are also the very same age groups that tend to believe in conspiracy theories.”

Photo: Daniel Diaz Bardillo, Pixabay / CC0
MS: “And if you overlay these tendencies and look at the data in the bigger picture, then in the V4 countries, Slovakia is the one that has the lowest support for the EU and NATO in the region. And at the same time, it’s the one which has the highest tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. So, this is something we need to look into in more depth and see whether there may actually be some definitive link between these two things.”

KK: “An additional factor behind it could be that the Slovaks are the leaders in the ‘do not know’ column, whether it’s the younger generations or older, they aren’t sure whether Slovakia has some benefits out of being an EU or NATO member. They don’t know who conducted the 9/11 attacks – a significant portion of young people don’t know whether it was the American government or Al Qaeda terrorists. So it shows that there is a lack of media literacy; we have a bad educational system that doesn’t really cover recent history and political developments. It also shows that Slovakia as a state is lacking in strategic communications, in explaining the benefits of EU and NATO membership to its citizens.”

On average, 28% of Hungarians aged 18–24 years “do not know” whether secret societies aim to establish a totalitarian world order, who conducted the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or whether Jews control governments.

MS: “I think it is ‘undecided’ in relevance to the questions we were asking specifically about conspiracies – if you agree whether ‘secret societies’ and groups control world affairs. The people who said they ‘do not know’ are the people who simply don’t know what to think of it. Whether it’s true or not. But I think the important thing about that question is that if people have no opinion, they are quite easily…”

KK: “Manipulated.”

MS: “Yes.”

Lastly, is the question about 1989, the collapse of communism and whether that was a good thing. It’s quite striking how all across the various age groups, the Czechs have quite a high percentage thinking it was a good thing – the lowest being 75 percent, among seniors (65 and older). Again – why?

Illustrative photo: OpenClipart-Vectors, Pixabay / CC0
MS: “Well, it may have to do with their historical experience of the totalitarian regime, and again with the educational system, which probably communicates this to younger generations, especially those 18-24 years old who couldn’t have experienced it themselves. That’s what I’d think. Because if you look at Slovakia, basically the percentages are much lower even if the general trends are similar.”

And in this regard, Hungary is the outlier – the only country where the generational trend is reversed.

MS: “I agree, it’s totally striking – the difference between let’s say Czech youth and Hungarian youth in their perception, but it’s not because the Hungarian youth would be pro-communist or something. It’s the fact that they just don’t know, again, what to think [in this case] of the fall of the Communist regime. It may have to do with the educational system. That something is not being communicated to them. It’s such an important historical event, and they don’t know what to think of it, basically.”

What was surprising for you, personally, if anything, that came out of these surveys?

KK: “For me, personally, it was the conspiracy theories – how widespread it is in Slovakia. Really, the majority of Slovaks – every second one – believes in conspiracy theories. That was a shocking finding for me. Very positive was the increase in support for the EU and NATO among the Czechs. We’ll see whether that will stand this year as well. Another interesting thing for me when it comes to conspiracy theories or disinformation narratives was that it’s not only the young that are susceptible to them. So, all campaigns or communications cannot just be directed at the young. We need to talk to older generation as well and think of their vulnerabilities. They might not be on social media … But somehow they are not prepared for this modern world, where so much disinformation is being spread.”

MS: “I totally agree –and when we looked at the data set, another thing which came out of this is that, and it’s not in this report, but it’s not just people who only have a basic education who tend to believe in conspiracy theories. You will find plenty, even a large proportion, who have a university education. So, there isn’t necessarily a correlation between education level and tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. That was quite surprising.”

“Generation Trends – Central Europe: Mosaic of Perspectives” https://www.globsec.org/publications/generation-trends-central-europe-mosaic-of-perspectives

KK: “That was another area where Slovakia was an outlier. Basically, with most of the conspiracy theories question we asked, respondents with a university education were much more prone to believe and agree with them than people with an elementary education.”