Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 18
25 October 1999

Jan Culik C U L I K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
Race Relations

Jan Culik

There is racism in the Czech Republic. It is mostly directed against the Romani minority: several thousand people who migrated from Slovakia to Northern Bohemia after the Second World War, during which the German Nazis had exterminated almost all indigenous Bohemian Gypsies.

In the 1950s, the Slovak Roma were lured to the western part of Czechoslovakia by a Communist regime that needed labourers for heavy industry. After the fall of Communism, the Roma were the first to bear the brunt of the economic crisis: most of them lost their jobs. Unemployment currently stands at about 18 per cent in the North Bohemia region, but amongst Roma it is between 70 and 90 per cent.

Many, if not most, Czechs have a problem with Roma. The Roma were originally a travelling people whose lifestyle was extremely unsuited to the staid conditions of life in the industrialised Central European region. Under Communism, the authorities exerted relentless pressure on the Roma, forcing them to assimilate to the majority Czech population. Stories circulated amongst Czechs that when Roma were given new state flats they tore up the floorboards and made camp fires in the middle of the room. There are housing estates in the Czech Republic (eg, Chanov) which have been practically destroyed by the Romani population. Many Roma have simply refused to conform to the standards of 20th century life. The Communist regime in Czechoslovakia gave the Romani abundant social welfare, but on the other hand could treat them particularly harshly. There were even attempts under communism to forcibly sterilise Romani women. According to a Charter 77 document, some seventy per cent of the population of Czechoslovak prisons was made up of Roma.

In response to this pressure the Romani community developed some pathological features of behaviour. The Roma gave up travelling but many of the assumed a hostile, antisocial attitude towards the powers that be and the majority population. In fact, they have developed what some authors have called a "slave" mentality: "If I cannot win over my oppressor directly, I will smile into his face and use roundabout, indirect, devious ways to achieve my aims to free myself." This is ironic as the Czechs themselves have been using similar tactics against their oppressors, albeit to a lesser degree.

In the eyes of the majority Czech population, Roma have a negative image. They are regarded as thieves and violent people who cannot be trusted. They choose to live in conditions of squalor. They refuse to work and they sponge off the state. They neglect the bringing up of their children and this is one reason their children frequently end up in schools for the educationally retarded. (There is, certainly, insufficient provision for children from Romani families in the Czech educational system). Every Czech is wary when he or she encounters Roma; Czechs are afraid of Roma. The more extreme elements of Czech society openly attack Roma in the street and the police sometimes appear to condone this. Open racism has been occasionally recorded as, for instance, when restaurant owners have refused to serve Romani customers. The Czech state will prosecute such instances of racism, but not very enthusiastically.

But it is true that many Czech Roma do chose to live in conditions of extreme squalor. This seems to be the result of the pressure from the majority population that has forced the Roma to give up their previous, travelling, rural way of life.

Many Czechs argue that they are "no racists" - allegedly, they get on perfectly well with other nationalities whose members do not steal, mug and behave anti-socially in large numbers, as well as with "civilised" Roma.

In the summer of 1997, the Czech Romani problem became an international issue. The Czech commercial television station TV Nova broadcast an unbalanced and badly researched documentary which implied that Roma could easily emigrate from the Czech Republic to Canada, where they would be able to live in something close to paradise. Many Roma fell for the propaganda. The programme sparked an immigration wave to Canada. TV Nova then broadcast another film, this time depicting Great Britain as a pleasant place for Roma to live, so Roma started applying in large numbers for asylum in Britain as well.

Unfortunately, it turned out that neither Canada nor Britain were terribly welcoming to the Roma. Both countries refused the asylum applications of most Roma. Canada imposed a visa regime for citizens of the Czech Republic, and Britain did the same for Slovakia. The British Embassy in Bratislava, Slovakia, is alleged to have examined the skin colour of Slovak visa applicants. In Britain, Czech and Slovak Roma met a wave of racism from the tabloid media and bore the brunt of quite severe racist attacks by British thugs in the southern English ports where immigrants are usually housed. Quite illegally, the British government is detaining the male heads of Romani families for unspecified periods of time. British Home Office minister Mike O'Brien went on Czech television, warning Czech Roma not to travel to Britain because they would not be accepted.

Under the terms of the European Agreement of 20 April 1959, refugees seeking asylum are allowed to enter the country where they wish to apply for asylum without a visa. However, in a move worthy of the Communists themselves, Margaret Thatcher transferred the responsibility for the bringing of unwanted persons into Britain onto the international carriers, especially the airlines. This controversial law is still in force. If an airline transports a person to Britain and that person is refused entry into the country, the airline must remove him or her from British soil at its own expense. As a result the airlines carry out immigration checks on behalf of the British authorities at the point of embarkation. This is one of the reasons why you are always asked to show your passport before you board the plane en route to Britain.

It has recently been revealed that Czech Airlines (CSA) were marking passenger records of Roma (Gypsies) with the letter "g". This is undoubtedly institutionalised racism, but it was prompted by British law. It was done at the request of CSA's London agent David Thomas because British immigration law penalises the transportation carrier for importing undesirables to Britain. Yet British Home Office minister Mike O'Brien was able to say on Czech TV that there was no racism in Britain.

The problem of Maticni Street

Some time ago, the town councillors in Usti nad Labem, a North Bohemian industrial town, made a not very well thought out decision. They moved most of their "antisocial cases", ie, the tenants in community-owned housing stock who refused to pay the rent, into one particular area of Maticni Street, thus creating an "anti-social" ghetto.

Most of these families, although not all of them, were Roma. Most of them were unemployed. They scraped a living by rummaging through garbage: they brought large amounts of garbage into the street, searched through it for items that had some value, and abandoned the rest on the spot. This was a sanitation hazard which many other inhabitants of the street found rather difficult to cope with. The anti-social inhabitants of Maticni Street also refused to respect other local byelaws such as the requirement for silence during the night.

The Usti nad Labem city authorities were unable to force the rent non-payers of Maticni Street to abide by the law and so, in order to protect the interest of law abiding people nearby who were suffering from the noise and smell, the authorities decided to build a wall dividing the anti-social part of the street from the normal one. The wall was not designed to ban entry for anyone to anywhere, - its purpose was to cut down the relentless noise. Unfortunately, the wall in Maticni Street has now become a simplified, stereotyped symbol of racism in the Czech Republic.

While there undoubtedly is racism in the Czech Republic and in many other countries (see above), it is highly unlikely that the building of a wall in Usti has been motivated by racism. The wall is the result of the clumsy handling of the problem of anti-social behavour.

Difficult questions arise: how do you deal with anti-social behaviour if is predominantly comes from an "oppressed" minority? Should the right to behave differently include the right to behave antisocially if it is an expression of the rebellion of a minority population against the majority?

There are successful Roma who have integrated into Czech society, even they do occasionally suffer from racism. There are some Roma, however, who have deliberately used an anti-social way of life as an instrument of protest against the majority Czech society. International agencies seem to be on their side.

Recently I witnessed the change of atmosphere on a Prague tram when two young Roma got on. They wore their dirty, ethnic clothes as a sign of defiant protest. They arrogantly pushed their way through the white passengers on the tram. They spoke at the top of their voices, absolutely disregarding anyone else. Nobody else spoke. There was an atmosphere of intense hatred, emanating from both sides.

The recent EC Report on the Czech Republic condemns the building of the wall in Maticni Street as an example of racism and criticises the Czech Republic for institutionalised racism. Institutionalised racism there might be in the Czech Republic, but is the wall in Maticni Street really a manifestation of it? Would the EU authorities put up with the incredible mess that can be seen in Maticni Street - heaps of uncleared garbage which are constantly growing as more and more is brought in - if it was in a street in Brussels?

One rich Rom living in the Czech Republic has recently built his own wall, dividing his own property from his noisy and messy (Romani) neighbours. Will he also be vilified for racism by the international media?

Rather than indulging in hypocritical, politically correct posturing, it should be admitted by everyone that Czech - Romani relations suffer from serious and complex problems, and that these must be tackled from both sides of the divide.

Jan Culik, 17 October 1999

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britske listy.


The Romani monthly cultural newsletter Amaro gendalos (Nase zrcadlo) -- in Czech and Romani.

Radio Prague have a quite comprehensive website on Roma in the Czech Republic: Romove v Ceske republice (in Czech).

The Anti-Defamations League's Worldwide survey of skinhead movements (also known as "The Nizkor Project") has a report neo-Nazi activity in the Czech Republic.

A site dedicated to the Czech film on a Romani theme: Marian.

The Budapest based European Roma Rights Centre (in English).

Other Articles by Jan Culik in CER

Reminiscing Revolutionaries, 18 October 1999

The Educated Poor, 11 October 1999

Pricking Havel's Bottom, 4 October 1999

More Moribund Manouevring (Further TV Nova Tales), 27 September 1999

Mixed Czech Nuts, 20 September 1999

Nova TV: The saga continues, 13 September 1999

UK: Central Europeans Keep Out!, 30 August 1999

Czech Public TV: The yellow-bellies, 23 August 1999

Zelezny Pulls the Plug on Czech TV Nova, 16 August 1999

Czech Media and Civil Society: A survey, 16 August 1999

Czech Revival: No Pulse 99, 9 August 1999

Princess Diana, Al Fayed, the CIA and a Czech Spook, 2 August 1999

Nova TV: Commercial success or embarrassing failure?, 2 August 1999

Book Review: Martin Fendrych's Jako ptak na drate, 26 July 1999

A Concrete Example of Muddy Thinking in the Czech Press, 19 July 1999

Press Freedom under Threat, 12 July 1999

Corruption at the Czech Law School, 5 July 1999

The Czech Malaise, 28 June 1999



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