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

Building the new wall C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
A Depressing Decade
Czech-Roma relations after the Velvet Revolution

Greg Nieuwsma

Part one of a four-part series on minorities in Central Europe.

One of the questions the beauty pageant jury asked teenager Magdalena Babicka a few years ago was: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"A public prosecutor," she replied, "so that I might cleanse our town of all the dark-skinned people."

The town to which she was referring was Usti nad Labem, and the dark-skinned people were Roma. Magdalena received a hearty ovation for her answer.

Several years later, in the spring of 1998, some of her fellow townspeople beat her to the punch when they announced plans to build a wall separating several apartment blocks occupied overwhelmingly by Roma from several houses with non-Roma residents across the street. Some officials preferred to call the wall a "sound barrier."

The incident typifies Czech-Roma relations of the past ten years. Czech public institutions have time and again taken measures to isolate the Romani population and resisted listening to voices of dissent.

The precedent-setting example came in 1993 with the Velvet Divorce. The split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia was hindered by relatively few issues, and even fewer issues lingered on after the separation was complete. One that did was the question of citizenship for the 300,000 Roma living on the Czech side of the border.

The issue can be traced back to the Holocaust, after which only about 600 Roma remained in what is today the Czech Republic. After the Second World War, Czechoslovakia resettled areas that had formerly belonged to Suedeten Germans, often with Roma from Slovakia. Other Roma came to the region for economic reasons. Today's population is largely comprised of the descendants of these emigres. Of course, they were not called emigres until Czechoslovakia split up.

Suddenly, there was a new issue of who belonged to whom. The resulting citizenship law adapted an older internal citizenship law from 1969 in which ancestry and place of birth played an important role. The new law also required applicants to be fluent in Czech, to have had a single residency for two years and a clean criminal record for five. Many Roma who had lived their entire lives in Bohemia and Moravia were excluded from Czech citizenship, and under the new Slovak laws didn't qualify for citizenship in that country either. Many were left ping-ponging back and forth between the two new nations, stateless.

The law inevitably drew international criticism and claims of discrimination. Human rights groups, such as the Helsinki Committee, voiced their disapproval and to some degree were heard, since in 1996 amendments to the law loosened restrictions.

However, the Council of Europe and even American lawmakers protested the clean criminal record requirement - the only one of its kind - which remained. US Senator Alfonse D'Amato, then chairman of the Congressional Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and CSCE Vice-Chairman Christopher Smith sent a letter calling the requirement of a clean political record "in effect, an ex post facto criminal penalty in violation of international human rights laws." Vaclav Klaus, Prime Minister at the time, countered by calling the letter "simplistic and inaccurate." His deputy foreign minister, Cyril Svoboda, told members of the Council of Europe that the government had no intentions of changing the law.

The Czech Government's handling of the situation was telling. A precedent had been set: if any change was to occur in Czech policy towards Roma, it would stem more from international pressure than any innate attempt at rectifying the situation.

Still, some - such as Ondrej Gina - have tried to facilitate change from within. The Romani leader was serving on the state Council for Nationalities and Ethnic Minorities, which issued a report to the Cabinet in the fall of 1997 recommending further changes to the citizenship law and calling for a new government mini-office that would mediate between Roma and the state. At the time, there were no Romani representatives in the government.

These proposals, along with Gina's support for measures aimed at reducing widespread racial segregation in schools and instituting job training programs for Roma, suggest that Roma leaders see integration as the path to follow.

Although this time Klaus supported the mini-office proposal, the citizenship law fiasco showed the Czech establishment's ideas to be somewhat different. Integration, it seems, was not high on the list. To have fewer Roma inhabitants was. It sent a clear message which would be periodically repeated: "We do not want Roma here."

That was the situation when TV Nova's Na vlastni oci (With One's Own Eyes) broadcast a report on Romani emigres in Canada, portraying their life there as comfortable and free from prejudice.

The report caught the eye of Josef Facuna, vice-chairman of the Democratic Romani Union in Ostrava, who has a niece living in Canada. "I asked her if it's possible to go into bars there," he said. "She says it is, because people don't know about Gypsies in Canada. They think we're Italians or Spaniards."

Facuna wasn't the only one whose interest was captured. The August 1997 broadcast provoked a mass exodus to Canada of asylum-seeking Roma. By the end of the year, Canada had received over 1000 official pleas for asylum, up from 189 in all of 1996.

Ostrava, the third largest city in the country, claims 30,000 Roma. Miroslav Holub, chairman of the Romani Initiative in Ostrava, estimated that a third of them would go to Canada if they could. Another estimate placed the number at about 60 percent.

These high statistics were enough to scare some of those working within the existing framework for social change. Current Minister of Culture and vocal human rights supporter Pavel Dostal pointed out that Roma with the means to relocate to Canada are the successful ones that the community needs. "They provide a model for human behavior," he said, "They are a positive influence on their community. It would be a disaster if they left."

Emil Scuka, chairman of the Romani Civic Initiative, agreed. He called for Roma to remain in the country and cooperate with Czechs in order to solve their problems, rather than emigrate. Again Romani leaders were calling for integration. And again government officials had other ideas. In the week following the Nova report, Marianske Hory, a town near Ostrava, responded to the interest in emigration by announcing that the town would pay for two-thirds of the airfare in exchange for the flats of Romani inhabitants. Mayor Liana Janackova explained: "We have two groups of people, Gypsies and whites, that live together, but cannot and do not want to. So why can't one group take the first steps towards finding a solution? I don't think it's racist, we just want to help the Gypsies."

Not everyone did want to help. Floods which were ravaging the region had left thousands of Roma, as well as Czechs, homeless. A temporary housing project was planned for Romani victims in a neighborhood of Ostrava, but local residents sent a petition with 1200 signatures protesting the move. Ostrava official Jiri Jezersky explained: "The Gypsy families usually cause problems and terrorize other people. They tell their children they should rob cars, they spit at people and they don't use garbage cans, which leads to problems with rats."

Jezersky's sentiments are common ones among Czechs and not wholly untrue. More than half of Roma attend schools for the mentally handicapped, and their subsequent lack of education combined with unemployment rate estimates which range between 70 and 90 percent ensures that petty crime rates also soar. And if these petty criminals are ever caught, they are disqualified from citizenship, leaving them back at the beginning of what is rapidly becoming a vicious circle. It is no surprise that the TV Nova documentary caused such an interest in emigration.

However, the report failed to tell the entire story. It neglected to mention, for example, the difficulties of obtaining refugee status. Josef Klima, the Nova reporter who put together the story, did not speak to any Canadian immigration officials, because he was put off by the bureaucratic difficulties he encountered at getting his film crew into the country. He did, however, interview Canadian immigration lawyer George Kubes, who represented several Romani families in Canada and whose clientele skyrocketed after the waves of asylum seekers arrived.

Canada, suffering from problems of its own such as unemployment, decided it couldn't handle the influx and imposed a CDN 75 visa restriction for Czechs wishing to visit Canada. But, it did not leave everyone out in the cold. After granting refugee status to a group of Roma in April 1998, the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board released a 30-page statement stating that Czech Roma suffer from discrimination in all areas of life. It also claimed that the state was unable to provide them with sufficient protection against racially motivated attacks. Once again, international pressure was on the Czech government to address its treatment of minorities.

But, in at least one respect the international influence foreign governments and human rights organizations were placing on the Czech Republic could not help: anti-Roma violence was on the rise. Skinheads attacking Roma was not a new story. The first high-profile court case came in 1993, after Tibor Danihel, a 17-year-old Romani boy, was chased into a river in the south Bohemian town of Pisek by a group of armed skinheads and drowned. 14 people were accused and initially acquitted in the case, although the case got tied up in several years of appeals following a complaint from the Ministry of Justice.

A similar incident occurred in 1998, but this time it was a 26-year-old woman, Helena Bihariova, who was chased into a river. Eliska Pilarova, a journalist who jumped in the river in an attempt to save her, was later awarded the Czech Medal for Heroism, and Bihariova's funeral was attended by First Lady Dagmar Havlova.

The acts of the Ministry of Justice following the Pisek trial and the high-profile publicity following Bihariaova's murder seemed to suggest a growing concern for the safety of Roma by the Czech government, but still the violence did not stop. In 1998, four skinheads beat Milan Lacko and left him in the road, where he died when a truck ran over him. The prosecution drew criticism from Roma rights advocates for trying the accused for murder. They were acquitted, because the injuries they inflicted did not cause Lacko's death, the truck did.

To make matters worse, people had seemed to lose interest. "I don't want to say the verdict is wrong or right," commented Markus Pape of the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), "the main problem is that so little attention was paid to the case."

In addition to anti-Roma violence, there are other legal issues which have come under criticism. In a document submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in late February of 1998, the ERRC claimed that "the [Czech] government has yet to enact legislation... expressly prohibiting racial discrimination." ERRC representative Claude Cahn explained that "discrimination and racially motivated violence are not the same thing, and Czech law is equipped to handle the latter but not the former."

In keeping with the Czech governmental pattern, the Ministry of Justice dismissed the international criticisms. "I cannot think of any kind of discrimination that would not be covered by the law as it now exists," said Vladimir Voracek, a spokesman for the Ministry.

Several months later, the north Bohemian town of Usti nad Labem announced its plans to build the four-meter-high wall partitioning off the section of Maticini Street that was mostly inhabited by Roma.

Rampant unemployment, according to some sources approaching 100 percent, plagues Maticini Street. The street is paved in garbage and apathy, and there are complaints about the stink and the noise. "It's just a mess because nothing was done for years, and now it's like this," explained 39-year-old resident Vasil Imrus. "It's nonsense to build a wall."

Others use harsher words. "That's exactly the way local governments solve Romani problems, to separate people," said the vice-chairman of the Romani Initiative, Ivan Vesely. "It is terrible, crazy; it can't be possible. Segregation, definitely not."

Predictably, the proposal initiated another wave of international criticism. US Representative Christopher Smith spoke out against it, as did the Council of Europe. Usti nad Labem Mayor Ladislav Hruska countered by asserting that "as mayor, I am not ruled by foreign demands, but consider the priority to be the social demands of the town's citizens who obey the laws of the Czech Republic." By mid-September 1998, external pressure had led the town to re-think their plan, and a 1.8-meter high ceramic "fence" was proposed instead.

Even the national government was spurred to action, and led by President Havel and the Cabinet, passed a resolution in May of this year opposing the plan, saying that it promoted racial discrimination. The local government ignored it.

Construction had been set to begin in early September before Prague stepped in at the last minute to halt the procedure. The construction permit was revoked, according to one Usti nad Labem official, because the proposed wall would violate environmental laws and human rights statutes.

But local support was ultimately strong enough to ward off national and international protest. After Romani residents and activists managed to block the first attempt to erect the wall in the first week of October by physically dismantling it, the wall went up under heavy police protection in the early morning hours of 13 October (see photo). And as the first reports of life in divided Usti nad Labem reach the public, the results are not surprising. The wall has only succeeded in further dividing the town and satisfying no one. Locals on the outside are admitting that the wall is ineffective and are calling for increased measures of segregation. "It doesn't work. It doesn't stop noise and there are two gates so the gypsies can come and go," says Eva Kombertova, 53, who owns a business nearby.

Though the wall seems to be firmly in place, opposition on a federal level remains. President Havel has acknowledged the symbolic importance of the wall and the negative impact it has had on the Czech Republic's image internationally. Though the national government's opposition can rightfully be seen as a sign that the establishment is finally waking up to its racism, it can also be seen as too little too late. There is little evidence that the government is ready to take real measures to integrate Romani minorities with Czech majorities. Most changes that have occurred have been under international pressure rather than as a result of a genuine attempt to purge the its own demons.

In order for the Czechs to attain EU membership, advances will have to be made. But a recent decline in interest in the EU means that these international pressures are not quite as immediate a concern. And given its domestic track record, the country is unlikely to see much change from within.

Even if the government were to make some kind of commitment to incorporate Roma into Czech society, integration is no easy task. There are matters beyond the reach of policy and social programs. Though integration seems to have a good measure of support among the Romani leadership, it is unclear how far down the social scale that support extends.

Monika Horakova, the first Roma to hold a seat in Parliament, points out that certain aspects of Romani culture go against the grain of integration. "Roma are not able to think for the future," she says. "This is a cultural difference. We live from one day to the next and don't think of tomorrow." This is why, she suggests, it is often difficult for Roma to hold down jobs, and they are thus perceived as lazy. "This Romani characteristic is never met with understanding," she explains.

Another aspect of Romani culture which is at odds with integration is cooperation with non-Roma, or gadjo as they are referred to in the Romani language. Countless years of animosity between Roma and gadjo have built up a system of defense mechanisms, as cooperation with the outsiders doesn't fit. Non-cooperation, in turn, serves to reinforce negative stereotypes of Roma among the gadjo.

Horakova concedes that Czech attitudes towards Roma are not the only thing that needs to change. "If we want to be integrated, then we must accept the principles of the majority system, because if you don't accept it, you look like a fool."

It is seemingly a contradiction to defy a cultural tradition in order to improve the state of that culture but one which apparently must be swallowed if the stalemate between Roma and Czechs is to be broken.

President Havel said that Roma serve as "a litmus test not of a democracy but of a civil society." Josef Facuna, a Romani leader from Ostrava reported the results of this test best when he said: "I've lived in Ostrava for 42 years. At least during the totalitarian regime, I knew that I would work eight hours, come home and go wherever I wanted. But not now. Now, I'm afraid that someone will beat me up."

Greg Nieuwsma, 25 October 1999



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