Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 15
4 January 1999

Andrew Stroehlein C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C :
Populist, Xenophobic and Useless:
The Czech government's new regulations
for resident foreigners

Andrew Stroehlein

The Czech Interior Ministry has recently announced that, from the first of the year, the Czech Republic would only grant permission for residence - both dlouhodoby pobyt and trvaly pobyt - to foreigners who could demonstrate a clean criminal record in their home country. The provincially minded authors of these new regulations seem to be hopelessly unaware how flawed they are.

(cesky preklad v Britskych listech)

Don't for a second think that these rules are only aimed at criminals. These new rules will hit every foreigner living in the Czech Republic: businessman, English teacher and exchange student alike. Every foreign spouse of a native Czech will also be hassled to prove his innocence, prove that he or she is NOT guilty of crimes abroad. These will be people who have lived here for years, paid their taxes and contributed gainfully to the local community. Still, they will be treated like criminals - worse than criminals, actually, because at least criminals are considered innocent until proven guilty.

This is not the only reason these new rules are flawed, however. There are plenty of others.

For one, many countries, the USA for example, simply do not maintain national criminal registers as the Czech Republic does, because those other countries are not bureaucratic nightmare states where papers and documents are regularly considered more real then reality. (A relatively new national register exists for people wishing to buy firearms, which, if gun ownership were considered a privilege, is fair enough - though in the US, gun ownership is a right, not a privilege.) I cannot count how many times I have had to tell petty Czech officials that an American citizen does not have a "birth number" (rodne cislo) or a "citizens' identification card" (obcanka) only to receive blank stares of utter incomprehension. They cannot imagine, even for a minute, not living in a senselessly bureaucratic state. (A Social Security number is NOT mandatory in the USA, and plenty of people do not have one. Most Americans have a driver's license, but this card is for obtaining a privilege, not for the right to exist.)

Of course, like all poorly written laws and regulations, these new ones have a loophole. If one is the citizen of a state without a national criminal register, one will be able to make an "honest pledge" that he or she is not a criminal. You can easily see how murderers and rapists would crumble before the moral strain of such a pledge, so it ought to really help the Czech Republic fight violent crime.

This pledge loophole also assumes that every petty Czech official will know which countries maintain national criminal registers and which do not. Is the Czech Interior Ministry actually so anally efficient that it has compiled such a list? One has one's reservations. It is more likely the Ministry hasn't even thought about it.

Every question regarding these hopelessly impractical regulations begets further questions. For example, will the petty Czech official dealing with the foreigner actually know the difference between a real and a forged document from Tajikistan, Congo, Iraq or Haiti? Even with translation, one can hardly expect Czech officials to recognize fake documents from perhaps one hundred different countries. One very much doubts the Ministry has gathered sample documents from all these countries to reduce the risk of forgery.

More disturbingly, in many countries - presumably many of those the Interior Ministry is worried about - buying a clean bill of criminal health through bribery is as easy as, well, buying a clean bill of post-Communist health from the lustration authorities here in the Czech Republic (costing as little as 10,000 Czech crowns).

Why is the Czech government enacting this useless bit of regulation that neither aims at the right target nor can ever hope to be practically implemented? The reason lies not with the foreigners in the Czech Republic at all, but with the domestic population.

The government wants to be seen to be doing something - anything - against crime, especially organized crime which often has links to foreign mafias from places East. With these new rules in place, the government will be able to beat its chest to a rhythm of "Watch us tackle crime!" and they just hope that no one will notice that these are useless regulations.

If the Czech opposition parties were clever - a very big "if" - they would point out that no one will ever be able to show one statistic proving that these insane regulations actually help reduce crime. They would point out that they only waste time (both the state's and the foreigners') and encourage lying and forgery.

One must also point out the xenophobic nature of these regulations, aimed directly at the Blesk reader. "What's happened to the world, today," Granny shakes her head over her copy. "Another murder. Look at the blood in these photos."

"It's those dirty Ukrainians and Russians that are causing all the trouble," say the government. "We'll get rid of them for you, Granny."

So, rather than make laws that deal with crime (making the police force more than just the butt of jokes, creating a speedy and effective judicial system that citizens can rely upon, etc.), the Czech government has chosen an easy, yet ineffective course of action. It has decided to pursue this simplistic, xenophobic bit of impracticable regulation to play to the lowest common political denominator in society.

And ending on a personal note, I, as one of the thousands of those who will be instantly accused on 1 January with no possibility of proving my innocence (!), admit defeat. Czech bureaucracy 1: Stroehlein 0.

I think I shall return home - to Britain. As an American in Britain, I am used to living as a foreign resident abroad. Only in Britain, I do not have to deal with any Kafkaesque, proving-a-negative documentation just to live a normal, quiet life.

Andrew Stroehlein, 4 January 1999


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