Central Europe Review Call forpolicy proposals...
Vol 3, No 18
21 May 2001
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Roma in CEE They Have a Dream
The state of Roma affairs
in the Czech Republic

Eva Sobotka

The International Romani Union (IRU) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have a dream, but their dreams differ. IRU hopes that recognition of the status of Roma as a non-territorial nation will improve their representation in the field of international politics and make the Roma population of 12 million in Europe feel recognised. The Czech Foreign Ministry, while in support of the idea, is steadily developing a two-stream rhetoric to address the Romani issue.

Nation without a state

The Declaration of Nation, which the Congress of International Romani Union approved at its fifth meeting in Prague last year (24 to 28 July 2000), clearly states that Roma have a dream of representation of a Romani nation at the international level, without the ambition of creating a state. It is the first time IRU made such a request since its foundation in 1971.

OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) Officer for Romani Affairs Nicolae Gheorghe, speaking in the Czech Senate at the last day of the Congress, expressed the idea that the democratic election of leadership would create a mandate and transform the IRU from a simple Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) into a different type of organisation.

The New Charter and structure of IRU adopted at the Congress in Prague—composed presently of a Congress, Parliament, Presidium, Court of Justice and a President—copy the structure of a state. However, the fixation of the Declaration of Nation on the idea of a mandate for a non-territorial Romani nation leaves many statesmen and stateswomen puzzled what IRU wants and what the requested representation of Romani nation is going to turn into.

As in the case of the recognition of Czechoslovakia at the end of the First World War, the lobbying of intellectual figures (such as T G Masaryk, Eduard Beneš and M R Štefánik) were the crucial factors in the game for recognition of nationhood and statehood. In particular, according to some historians, personal relationships and respect for Czech and Slovak leaders were an important factor in supporting the idea of Czecho-Slovakia. The international sphere offers the possibility of constructing realities through contact and lobbying, self-fulfilling prophecies of semi-confidential and confidential meetings, information and misinterpretation of their importance.

Actions and concepts

The lack of clarity in the concept of the nation in the theory of international relations, in practice, is substituted by a custom. No experience with the recognition of a non-territorial nation leaves open the question of the threshold that must be attained before a legally binding custom can be created. It will depend both upon the nature of the alleged rule and the opposition it arouses. Here, again, failure to act is as much evidence of states' attitudes as are their actions.

Lobbying of the European governments for Roma non-territorial nation recognition is on the way. IRU is holding regular negotiations with the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Rumours are being spread and confirmed that IRU systematically contacts the governments of EU states and lobbies for non-territorial status recognition. The Ministry has prepared two public documents on Roma, the "Concept of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Roma issue" and the "Memorandum of Recognition of Roma Nation," signed between the Czech Government and IRU in April 2001.

It is clear that the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs gives exceptional support to IRU, an organisation that just recently
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became a little bit more important than an NGO. Financial support for the Fifth Congress, donation to the OSCE Contact Point for Roma and Sinti are two of the vast number of examples. On the Czech domestic scene of the Romani issue, the Foreign Ministry hides its open support and claims to be only secondary in the communication. They reflect at the existing situation by offering a co-operative model to the existing international Romani organisations—the International Romani Union and the Roma National Congress (RNC).

Roma dream of non-territorial nation recognition, as specified further in the Declaration of Nation about the remedy for past persecutions such as Porrajmos (Holocaust) and "a world where the International Charter on Human Rights are laws, are peremptory rules, providing eligible rights." Clearly, the aspect of the human rights in the Romani issue is quite visible in the Declaration.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, however, dreams of some sort of first prize for a country that recognised the non-territorial Romani nation and shifts the Romani issue a little bit from the human rights discourse. The Czech citizenship of IRU President Dr Emil Ščuka is rather some sort of Czech or Central European snobbery than a step towards making this dream come true.


The Concept of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs towards the Roma Issue (CMFARI), finally made public, identifies five objectives:

  • Europeanisation of the Romani problem. This derives from the observation that the Roma live in all European states, thus the financial responsibility and support should come from across the continent and the criticism be directed at all states.
  • A call for an active information policy. This is more or less a public relations campaign for the Czech domestic Roma policy measures. The Czech Foreign Ministry evidently wants to export the Czech framework for Roma participation abroad.
  • Refusal of the critique on the situation of Roma coming from abroad. The CMFARI reads that the critique, overwhelmed by racial and discrimination discourse, does not show the real problematic aspects of the co-existence of Roma and non-Roma.
  • Refusal of exclusively human rights discourses in addressing the Romani issue. The CMFARI reads that the problem of the Roma in the Czech Republic is not a problem of human rights or minority rights, but mainly a social problem.
  • Communication with the recruiting Romani elite. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wants to consult the Romani elite before Romani leaders raise issues at the international organisations' forums.

The national interests of the Czech Republic are visible in the proposed concept. Reducing and shifting the criticism of the situation of Roma from human rights rhetoric to a more vague political platform, not embodied in any internationally biding documents, could be potentially harming for the Romani nation.

A social problem?

Clearly, the proposal of the Czech Foreign Ministry in many ways goes against the spirit of the Declaration of the Romani nation that embodies the human rights discourse, reminding of past discrimination and persecutions. CMFARI also stands against the EU integration process—in particular, against the political criteria defined in the Copenhagen Document—refusing to recognise the Romani issue as anything other than a social problem.

The document with the five ways spelled out above is rather an unpleasant surprise. In July 2000, Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Palous, speaking at the IRU Congress in Prague, said: "There is a long list of problems I can mention here: the discrimination against Roma of all kinds. The shameless acts of open violence against Roma. The intolerable position of Romani children within the system of education etc, etc. It is fair to admit here that the international criticism the Czech Republic has received in recent years is fair and justified."

If we compare Palous's speech from July 2000 to the language in the CMFARI document that was released eight months later—de-emphasising the human rights discourse in the Romani affairs—we remain puzzled over the policy development.

Eva Sobotka, 21 May 2001

Photos: ERRC/Claude Cahn

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