Vol 1, No 13
20 September 1999
THE CZECH REPUBLIC, PART X
The Czech-Roma Problem:
The war of the hypocrites
One famous Czech-hater of the last century compared the Czech "national character" to that of a lackey, combining fulsome deference towards their superiors with vulgar and disparaging attitude when dealing with those unlucky ones who have been put at their mercy.
Obviously, this is too much of a stereotype: behavior of few Czechs can in fact be described as lackey-like. Nonetheless, the manner in which local mass media present the issues of Roma discrimination often reminds one of the old accusation.
Nova TV, the controversial, but still very popular television station, broadcast this gem of balanced and unbiased reporting in its main news program, Televizni Noviny, on Sunday, 12 September 1999:
Male announcer: Lately, we have often been discussing the prospect of entry visas (for Czech citizens) being introduced by the UK. Sadly, this danger persists and may even be growing.
Female announcer: Yes indeed, as Foreign Minister Kavan said today, 300 more Czech Roma left for Britain during August.
M: Exactly, and which is worse, none of them is likely to be granted an asylum anyway...
F: ...so that the only outcome of their exodus will be that the British will lose patience with us.
Later in the newsreel, Jan Zahradil, the Civic Democratic Party's (ODS) shadow minister of foreign affairs, hypothesized that "it is economic emigration or even some sort of holiday-making rather than an exodus caused by racial persecution," and his counterpart in the cabinet, Jan Kavan, informed that the British government is going to curb the influx of Roma by imposing harsher conditions on asylum-seekers. Summing up the topic, Iva Rezacova of Nova TV said in a reassuring voice:
Which means that the asylum-seekers will have to forget about a two-month vacation, complete with a generous cash allowance. Britain will no longer be a lucrative destination for asylum-seekers, the number of refugees will fall and visas will not be needed.
Not a sign of criticism towards the evidently double-standard approach adopted by the British government (a lackey is never openly critical of his masters), no opportunity for the other party to be heard (Nova TV is a station for an average Czech, not for the Roma, isn't it?). Analysis? Definitely not a buzzword in the station's news rooms.
To cut a long story short, being born a Roma (or, more precisely, being born looking like a Roma) is bad luck indeed in the Czech Republic (and elsewhere in the region). If you don't have a good memory for numbers, you need to remember just one figure - eighty percent. More than 80% of adult Roma are jobless, the chances that a Roma child, aged six, will be sent to a special elementary school for retarded students are about 80%, more than 80% of all prosecuted and convicted perpetrators of criminal felonies are Roma.
Roma boys and girls are often not admitted to clubs and disco parties (they have their own separate-and-hardly-equal clubs and discos), signs "Romy neobsluhujeme" (We don't serve/admit Roma) in Czech restaurants are no exception, and the owners of such outlets face minimal risks. The Roma are discriminated against in the media, the police is openly siding with the movement of fascist skinheads and the judiciary, as well as the state authorities, are undoubtedly prejudiced against them.
The general anti-Roma mood of the public is reinforced and further fueled by shallow and biased journalism as in the example quoted at the beginning of this article.
What makes the Roma so hated, after all?
One possible interpretation of this racial hatred is that the treatment of the Roma population is a mirror image of how Czechs themselves are perceived by Westerners, mainly by the Germans. The Roma thus take on the function of a scapegoat, a receptacle for the Czech frustration and inferiority complex.
Another theory links the Roma controversy with the halted process of EU expansion. As both sides, the Union and the Czech political representation, are opposed to the country's accession, escalating the conflict helps shift the blame for the Czech Euro-failure onto a third party, the "inherently racist" local population.
To deal with the problem (or, rather, to show the West that they were dealing with the problem), the present government created the post of Special Commissioner for Human Rights and the Affairs of Minorities, but the appointment of Petr Uhl, former outspoken journalist and a diehard Trotskyist, seems to be just another mistake: the new commissioner has failed to gain popular support for his cause and created a misrepresentation that the protection of human rights and the rights of minorities is a fundamentalist and strictly leftist agenda. Even more importantly, the populace seems to have struck a tacit understanding with its government: the West is playing with marked cards anyway, so we will just pretend that we love our Roma fellow citizens, and as soon as the crisis is over, everything will return to normal.
This development has maneuvered the Roma into a lose-lose situation. If they press for more reforms of racist institutions such as the police, calling on international partners for support, they will reap the wrath of the media which, no doubt, will brand them as opportunistic and treacherous. If they let up, it will only mean less resentment from the population at the cost of more institutionalized discrimination.
The West, with apparent hypocrisy, wants the Czech Republic to show quick results in solving a problem which will take generations to cope with, and it can expect hardly more than a show-case or two; domestically, the quoted coverage of the exodus by Nova TV, aimed both at discouraging the Roma emigration and exonerating Czech authorities in what is going on, shows that Czechs have finally learned how to play along.
Tomas Pecina, 20 September 1999
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