Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe
8. Democracy, nationalism and pluralism
More than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union and the arrival of free elections in much of Central and Eastern Europe, the level of support for democracy across the region is mixed, especially in comparison with other regions previously surveyed by Pew Research Center. In sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, for example, support for democracy is more widespread.
In more than half of the 18 countries surveyed in Central and Eastern Europe, majorities or pluralities say they prefer democracy over any other form of government. But in Russia and Moldova, pluralities say a nondemocratic government can sometimes be preferable. And throughout the region, considerable shares say, “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.”
While support for democracy as the best form of government varies widely in Orthodox-majority countries in the region, ranging from 77% in Greece to 25% in Serbia, respondents in other countries more consistently express a preference for democratic government.
Adults in Orthodox-majority countries tend to express higher levels of national pride and are more likely to say their culture is superior to others. Indeed, for many Orthodox Christians, religion and national identity appear to go hand in hand; people in Orthodox-majority countries are more likely than those elsewhere to say one must be a member of the dominant religious group in order to “truly” share their national identity. For example, the vast majority of Russians say it is important to be Orthodox to be “truly Russian.”
There is no clear consensus in this part of the world about the desirability of ethnic and religious diversity. In Russia and about half a dozen other countries, majorities say “it is better for us if society consists of people from different nationalities, religions and cultures.” But in several other nations, including Poland, the Czech Republic and Armenia, the dominant view is that “it is better for us if society consists of people from the same nationality, and who have the same religion and culture.”
The survey finds that Orthodox Christians are more likely than Catholics to say they would be willing to accept Muslims as citizens of their country or as neighbors. However, Orthodox Christians express less willingness than Catholics to accept Jews as members of their family. And, overall, Orthodox Christians are less inclined to say they would accept a Catholic into their family than Catholics in the region are to say the same about an Orthodox Christian.
Both Jews and Muslims are more broadly accepted than Roma, an ethnic minority that has long faced high levels of societal and governmental discrimination in the region. Many people across Central and Eastern Europe say they would be unwilling to accept Roma not just as family members, but also as neighbors or fellow citizens of their country.
Generally, across the region, those who say their culture is superior to others and those who prefer society to be ethnically and religiously homogeneous also are less willing to accept religious and ethnic minorities as relatives, neighbors or fellow citizens of their country. Indeed, statistical analysis of the data shows these two factors – a belief in the superiority of one’s culture and the desire for cultural homogeneity – to be highly correlated with attitudes toward religious and ethnic minorities. In addition, people with less education also are generally less accepting of religious and ethnic minorities. And, even after controlling for other factors, Orthodox respondents are more accepting than Catholics are of Muslim minorities. By comparison, age, gender and level of religious observance are weaker predictors of attitudes on this topic.
Mixed support for democracy in Orthodox-majority countries
Support for democracy as the best form of government is far from unanimous across Central and Eastern Europe. Greece, often called the birthplace of democracy, is the only country where more than two-thirds of respondents (77%) say democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.
Attitudes are very different in Russia and Moldova, where pluralities of about four-in-ten or more say a nondemocratic government can be preferable to democracy in some circumstances, while about a third or fewer say democracy is always preferable. In most countries surveyed, roughly one-in-five or more adults say the form of government does not matter for someone like them; fully 43% of Serbians take this position.
Overall, support for democracy is less consistent in Orthodox-majority countries in the region than elsewhere. For example, support for democracy is higher in non-Orthodox countries, such as Lithuania, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, compared with the predominantly Orthodox countries of Bulgaria, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Serbia.
Respondents with less than a college education are less likely than others to favor democracy and more likely to say it doesn’t matter to them what kind of government their country has. But overall, support for democracy varies little depending on respondents’ age, gender or level of religious observance.
The survey also sought to determine how much trust respondents feel toward other people, asking a question that has been included in public opinion research around the world for decades: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”35
About half or more of adults in every Central and Eastern European country surveyed choose the latter option – that “you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” rather than taking the position that most people can be trusted.
At least in part, the high level of distrust of others seems reflected in respondents’ skepticism about democracy. On balance, those who say that “most people can be trusted” are more likely to support democracy than are those who say “you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.”36 For example, in the Czech Republic, Estonia and Poland, majorities among those choosing the former option support democracy, but democracy is favored by fewer than half of those who say that caution is warranted in dealing with other people.
Statistical analysis finds that even after controlling for age, gender, education, religious observance and religious affiliation (whether Orthodox, Catholic, etc.), levels of support for democracy in Central and Eastern Europe are closely linked to trust in others.
A third of adults or fewer in every country surveyed say they did volunteer work to help those in need during the preceding year. Bulgaria is the country with the highest share of people who have done volunteer work during this period (33%). Somewhat higher shares say they have donated money to charity in the previous 12 months, including more than half in Bosnia and Georgia (55% each).
Overall, people who say religion is very or somewhat important in their daily lives are more likely than others to say they have donated money to charity or done volunteer work in the previous 12 months.
Despite some public skepticism about democracy, the notion that voting gives people a voice in government is widely embraced across the region. Majorities in most of the countries surveyed agree with the statement, “Voting gives people like me some say about how the government runs things.”
This sentiment is strongest in Romania, where 86% of respondents agree. Even among people who express ambivalence about democracy more generally, majorities in most countries say voting gives them a voice in the government. For example, among Serbians who say the form of government does not matter to them personally, 68% still say voting gives them a say.
Confidence that voting provides a voice in government is much lower in the two most populous countries surveyed – Russia (53%) and Ukraine (42%). Even so, on balance, people in Orthodox-majority countries are about as likely as those elsewhere in the region to agree that voting gives them some say in how the government runs things.
Religious commitment makes a difference, though: Respondents who say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives see more value in voting than do people for whom religion is less important. In Russia, for example, a majority (59%) of those who say religion is very or somewhat important in their lives agree that voting gives them a say in how the government runs things, compared with 44% of those who say religion is not too or not at all important to them.
There could be many different reasons for this connection. One possibility is that this is part of a greater link between religious observance and civic engagement, such as volunteering or giving money to charity (see previous section of this chapter). This could also be related to the fact that religious people are more likely to express feelings of national pride (see see previous section of this chapter).
In an attempt to measure nationalist sentiment, the survey asked respondents a series of questions about national pride, cultural superiority and various aspects of national identity.
Majorities of adults in every Central and Eastern European nation surveyed say they are “very” or “somewhat” proud to be citizens of their country. But generally, respondents in Orthodox-majority countries are more likely than people elsewhere to say they are very proud of their nationality. In most Orthodox countries surveyed, about half or more of respondents say they are very proud to be a citizen of their country. Elsewhere in the region, only in Croatia (59%) do most people express the same level of national pride.
On balance, older people are more likely than younger ones to say they are very proud to be citizens of their country. In Poland, for example, 44% of respondents ages 35 and older say this, compared with 31% of younger adults.
In most countries, people who say religion is important to them are more likely than others to voice strong pride in national citizenship. This pattern is most apparent in Greece, Croatia and Romania; 57% of Romanians who say religion is very or somewhat important to them also say they are very proud to be Romanian citizens, compared with just 22% of Romanian adults who say religion is not important in their lives.
Another gauge of nationalist sentiment is the extent to which adults view their national customs and achievements as superior to those of other countries. To measure this, the survey asked people how much they agree with the following statement: “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.” Respondents in Orthodox-majority countries generally are more likely than others to say they feel this way.
In 10 of the 18 Central and Eastern European countries surveyed, over half of respondents completely or mostly agree with the statement. Seven of those 10 countries have Orthodox majorities, with levels of agreement strongest in Greece (89%), Georgia (85%) and Armenia (84%). Among Catholic-majority and religiously mixed countries, only in Bosnia (68%) do as many as six-in-ten adults say their culture is superior to others.
Again, highly religious respondents are more likely than their less religious compatriots to express nationalist views. In Armenia, for example, 87% of those who rate religion as at least somewhat important in their lives say Armenian culture is superior, compared with 65% of those who say religion is less important. In addition, respondents without a college degree are more likely than those who have a college education to say their culture is superior.
People in Orthodox-majority countries more likely to see values conflict with the West
In 10 of the 18 countries surveyed across the region, roughly half or more of respondents completely or mostly agree with the statement “There is a conflict between our country’s traditional values and those of the West.”
Similar to feelings of cultural superiority, people in Orthodox-majority countries are more likely than those elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe to perceive a values conflict with the West. Nearly two-thirds of adults or more say this in the Orthodox-majority countries of Serbia (78%), Russia (73%), Armenia (71%), Greece (70%) and Georgia (65%). Across all Orthodox countries surveyed, a median of 59% agree there is a clash between their own traditional values and those of the West, compared with a median of 44% in other countries surveyed.
Most say respect for country’s institutions and laws is very important to ‘truly’ share national identity; fewer cite religion and family background requirements
In most countries, at least half of respondents believe that to “truly” share their national identity, it is very important to respect national institutions and laws, to speak the national language and to pay taxes. Smaller – but still sizable – numbers of respondents say that to be “truly Greek,” “truly Russian,” etc., it is essential to have a shared ancestry or family background, to have been born in the country and to belong to its historically predominant religious group.
Overall, people in Orthodox-majority countries are more likely than those elsewhere in the region to view their country’s dominant religion as an essential component of national identity. In Serbia, for example, 59% of people say it is very important to be Orthodox to be truly Serbian. By comparison, in the four Catholic-majority countries surveyed, about four-in-ten or fewer say one must be Catholic to be truly Croatian, Hungarian, etc.
In the same vein, people in Orthodox countries are more likely than those in other countries to say ancestry is very important for determining who truly belongs to their country. In most Orthodox countries surveyed, roughly half or more – including 78% in Armenia – rate family background as a very important factor to establish true membership in the country. Elsewhere, lower shares say sharing the country’s ancestry is very important, including 27% in Estonia and Lithuania.
Belarus stands out for having relatively small shares who say that each of the six factors mentioned in the survey is very important to truly share Belarusian identity.37
People in Catholic-majority countries more likely to favor living in homogeneous societies
Views across the region vary about whether it is better if society consists of people from different nationalities, religions and cultures, or whether it is preferable for compatriots to have the same background. In Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, which endured wars in the 1990s fought largely along ethnic and religious lines, most people say it is better to live in a multicultural society. But majorities in other places – including two-thirds or more in Armenia, the Czech Republic and Lithuania – prefer a more culturally and religiously homogeneous society.
Catholics are more likely than Orthodox Christians to say it is better if society consists of people of the same religious, national and cultural background. This is an exception to the broader pattern seen throughout the survey in which Orthodox Christians show more nationalistic tendencies than Catholics, such as a greater inclination to view their culture as superior to others. In part, this may be a reflection of the fact that Orthodox-majority countries like Russia and Georgia, where most respondents prefer a plural society, have significant Muslim minority populations, while Bosnia has a Muslim plurality and a large Orthodox minority.
In addition, Muslim minorities in the region are considerably more likely than members of other religious groups to prefer a religiously and culturally diverse society. In Bulgaria, for example, fully 72% of Muslims say they prefer a pluralistic society, a view held by 46% of Orthodox Christians in the country.
Respondents with a college education are more likely than others to prefer living in a pluralistic society. But there are no consistent differences in views on this question by gender or age.
Prevailing view in region is that Orthodoxy and Catholicism have a lot in common
In addition to trying to measure support for pluralism in principle, the survey included several questions about respondents’ attitudes toward different religious and ethnic groups, including different branches of Christianity.
Nearly a millennium after the historic schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, which occurred in 1054, Central and Eastern Europeans are more likely to view the two churches as having a lot in common than to view them as very different from one another. Fewer than a third of respondents in most countries say these two branches of Christianity are very different.
Overall, across the region, Catholic and Orthodox respondents have largely similar views on this question. But in two countries that have substantial Orthodox populations and Catholic minorities (Ukraine and Bosnia), higher shares of Catholics than Orthodox Christians say the two traditions have a lot in common.
In most countries surveyed, considerable shares declined to answer this question, perhaps in some cases due to unfamiliarity with one or both of the Christian traditions or with the historic differences in their beliefs. In Hungary, where there are very few Orthodox Christians, 34% fall into this category. And, in Russia, where there are few Catholics, 28% could not or would not answer the question.
Even though many people in the region say Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have a lot in common, fewer say the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches should be in communion again.
In nearly every country, well under half of adults favor reunification of these two branches of Christianity. In most countries, roughly a third or more either say they don’t know if Catholics and Orthodox Christians should reunify or refuse to answer the question, perhaps in part reflecting a lack of knowledge about the historical schism or displaying its relatively low level of relevance to daily life today.
In most countries with substantial Orthodox and Catholic populations, Catholics are considerably more likely to favor communion between their two churches. For example, in Ukraine, 74% of Catholics favor the two churches being in communion again, compared with 34% of Orthodox Christians.
Support for the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches reuniting is rare in Russia (16%), where 48% did not provide an answer to the question.
Theological and historical differences aside, Orthodox Christians and Catholics throughout the region are overwhelmingly willing to accept one another as neighbors and as fellow citizens of their countries. But the survey reveals limits to this mutual good will. In most countries, roughly one-in-five or more among both Orthodox Christians and Catholics say they would be unwilling to accept people from the other church as family members, with Orthodox Christians generally less willing to accept Catholics as relatives than the other way around.
In fact, a majority of Orthodox Christians in Georgia (59%) say they would not accept Catholics as family members; the same is true of about a third of Orthodox Christians in Greece, Russia and Serbia. About a third or fewer of Catholics in most countries surveyed say they would be unwilling to accept Orthodox Christians in their family, and only 3% of Ukrainian Catholics say this.
Roma widely rejected
The survey also explored sentiment toward a few smaller religious and ethnic groups in the region – Roma, Muslims and Jews. In general, respondents are less willing to accept people from these three groups as family members, neighbors or fellow citizens than they are to accept Catholics or Orthodox Christians.
Roma are, overall, the least accepted of the groups. Majorities in most of the 18 countries surveyed are unwilling to accept Roma as relatives, and roughly half or more of respondents in 10 countries say that they would not accept Roma as neighbors. Across the region, a median of 31% say they would be unwilling to accept Roma even as fellow citizens. Rejection of Roma is particularly widespread in Armenia, where a majority is not willing to accept Roma as citizens of their country.
Feelings toward Roma are similar among both Orthodox Christians and Catholics across the region.
Who are the Roma?
The Roma, an ethnic group believed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent more than a millennium ago, probably number in the millions across Europe, though precise figures are unavailable.38 Also called Sinti, Kale or Gypsies (a term some embrace but others find offensive), they historically are associated with a nomadic culture, though most now live in settled communities.39
Unlike many other ethnic “diaspora” minorities, Roma lack communal awareness of a historic homeland or unique religious tradition, according to the British linguist Yaron Matras, editor of the journal Romani Studies. Matras has written that Roma are “a nation without a territory, without a state, without a written history, without a particular religion of their own, and without a social framework that is regulated through formal clergy or institutions of worship.”40
Indeed, while many Roma take on the dominant religions of their countries, they have long lived on the margins of European societies and as targets of government suspicion or repression. Even after the Holocaust, in which they were among the victimized groups, European countries have passed laws aiming at their assimilation or deportation. Matras’ 2015 book “The Romani Gypsies” chronicles many of these laws. In the 1950s, for example, the Bulgarian government forbade Roma from traveling and forced unemployed Roma into state employment. Hungary made them carry black ID cards, different from the red ones given to other Hungarian citizens. In the 1960s, Czechoslovakia pressured nomadic Roma to settle and assimilate, destroying Roma settlements and moving their residents to other regions of the country.41
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and as membership in the European Union has expanded to countries like Bulgaria and Romania, Roma populations are believed to have risen in the West. In part, this may be because Roma have been able to move to Western European countries through the EU’s freedom-of-movement provisions.42
Catholics less willing than Orthodox Christians to accept Muslims as neighbors or citizens of their country
Across Central and Eastern Europe, somewhat fewer people reject Muslims as family members than reject Roma, although majorities of both Catholics and Orthodox Christians (medians of 63% and 61%, respectively) say they would be unwilling to accept Muslims as family members. Regionally, more Catholics than Orthodox Christians say they would not accept Muslims as neighbors or as fellow citizens.
There are relatively low levels of rejection of Muslims among Christians in countries that were part of the 1990s Yugoslav wars. In Bosnia, for example, just 8% of Catholics and 12% of Orthodox Christians say they would be unwilling to accept Muslims as neighbors.
Relatively few reject Jews as neighbors, fellow citizens
Overall, Orthodox Christians are about as likely as Catholics to say they would be unwilling to accept Jews as family members, neighbors or citizens.
Level of education, nationalism tied to views of minority groups
Overall, people with more education are more likely than others to say they would be willing to accept Roma, Muslims or Jews as relatives, neighbors or fellow citizens. For example, in the Czech Republic, a majority (62%) of those with a college education say they would be willing to accept Jews as family members, compared with 49% among those with less education.
Respondents’ views of ethnic and religious minorities also are linked to their feelings of cultural superiority. Across the region, people who say their country’s culture is superior to others are less likely to say they would be willing to accept ethnic and religious minorities as relatives, neighbors or fellow citizens. The difference in opinion between the two groups is especially large in Greece, where 31% of those who completely or mostly agree that their culture is superior say they would be willing to accept Jews as family members, compared with 70% among those who disagree that Greek culture is superior to others.
- This survey question was first used by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1948 and was gradually adopted by other social scientists. See, for example, Uslaner, Eric M. 2015. “Measuring Generalized Trust: In Defense of the ‘Standard’ Question.” In Lyon, Fergus, Goldo Möllering and Mark N. K. Saunders, eds. “Handbook of Research Methods on Trust: Second Edition.” ↩
- This finding is consistent with the premise of “social capital theory,” which posits that social trust plays an important role in supporting effective democratic governance. The degree to which social trust and attitudes toward democracy are correlated and evaluated cross-nationally has been the subject of some debate among scholars, as different methods of measuring social trust produce varying levels of correlation. On social capital theory and the relationship of democracy to civil society, see Putnam, Robert, with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nonetti. “Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy.” 1992. On the question of correlations between social trust, political trust and attitudes toward democracy, see Zmerli, Sonja and Ken Newton. 2008. “Social Trust and Attitudes Toward Democracy.” Public Opinion Quarterly. ↩
- Many scholars have posited that Belarus has relatively low levels of nationalism – or perhaps competing narratives of national identity – and that Belarusians were less concerned with independence after the Soviet era than were inhabitants of other former Soviet republics. See Silitski, Vitali. “Still Soviet? Why Dictatorship Persists in Belarus.” Harvard International Review. Also, Ioffe, Grigory. 2007. “Culture Wars, Soul-Searching, and Belarusian Identity.” East European Politics and Societies. ↩
- Scholars have noted the linguistic and DNA evidence linking Roma to the Indian subcontinent. A study from 2012 using genome samples traced the Roma populations to northwestern regions of India. See Mendizabal, Isabel, Oscar Lao, Urko M. Marigorta, et al. 2012. “Reconstructing the Population History of European Romani from Genome-wide Data.” Current Biology. ↩
- Council of Europe. 2012. “Descriptive Glossary of terms relating to Roma issues.” ↩
- Matras, Yaron. 2015. “The Romani Gypsies.” ↩
- Matras, Yaron. 2015. “The Romani Gypsies.” Also see Renard, Stanislas, Alexandru Manus and Philip Fellman. 2007. “Understanding the Complexity of the Romany Diaspora.” Online proceedings of the seventh International Conference on Complex Systems. ↩
- Matras, Yaron. 2015. “The Romani Gypsies.” ↩