It would appear that the relationship between the Czechs and the Romanies is much more complex than it is usually assumed and that it will possibly take a long time before this traumatic problem, one of the worst problems plaguing the current post-Communist Czech Republic, will even start being tackled properly. It seems that a large proportion of the Czech population is seriously biased against the Romanies and they are not ready to give them the benefit of the doubt or to accord them normal human dignity when referring to them.
There are a number of reasons for this, one of them being that modern Czech society, as it arose during the times of the "Czech national revival" in the 19th century, defined itself defensively against the outside (mostly Germanic) world as a narrow, homogeneous, enclosed community. The feelings of a close-knit community were strengthened during the decades of Communism. The Communist regime used inherent Czech nationalism to create xenophobic attitudes towards anyone who came from the outside world and/or who differed in any significant way from the accepted "collective" way of behaving within the "nation."
While it is true that many members of the Roma community in the Czech Republic behave in what the Czechs see as an anti-social way. The Romanies are a deeply scarred ethnic group: a seriously traumatised community whose originally "nomadic" way of life has turned out to be incompatible with the demands and the norms of modern European living. It could be said that many Romanies are reacting in a hostile, indeed almost pathological way to the demands of the majority Czech society: when allocated public housing, they often destroy it; many Romanies choose to live in squalor and to support themselves by petty theft becuase of this environment in which they live.
But, or so it would appear, the majority Czech community seems to be incapable of reflecting the plight of the Romany minority. Czechs seem to be incapable of assuming any other point of view than their own - they refuse to try to picture themselves in the position of Romanies in the Czech society: they insist that all the problems that the Romanies might be suffering from are of their own making and it is only up to the Romanies to deal with these problems. It is the Romanies who will have to "grow up" and simply accept Czech social and civilisational values.
Needless to say, such an attitude creates an impasse. It is very unlikely that the Czech-Romany problem will be solved in the near future, if the majority Czech society does not rapidly change its attitudes. The Czech government should be doing much more than it does at the moment, presently it just reluctantly follows the recommendations of Western organisations, while at the same time pandering to the overtly racist attitudes of many Czechs.
Czech prejudices are, in many ways, confirmed and strengthened by the disgraceful way in which the countries of Western Europe have reacted to the Romanies, applying for political asylum in the West. Most of the countries of the West have closed their doors to the Romany applicants, some of them have even imposed visas on travellers from some post-Communist countries, such as Slovakia, from which many Romanies tried to emigrate to the West.
Quite unprecedentedly, Great Britain has now moved its immigration officers to Prague Ruzyně airport, in order to be able to "weed out" dark skinned travellers to Britain even before they board the planes.
Such shocking measures are normally received by the Czech population as an official confirmation that their racist attitude towards the Romanies is correct: "Look," they argue, "if Western government do their utmost to keep the Romanies out, there must really be something wrong with them - we are right. And if the Western governments chastise us for our alleged racism, they are absolutely hypocritical - after all, they are behaving in exactly the same way as we are."
The Czech internet daily Britské listy has recently raised this issue again, of relations between the Romanies and the Czechs, publishing a highly emotional exchange of views. Hereby, we summarise this exchange. For me, as the editor of Britské listy, it was a shocking realisation to witness, on the basis of reactions sent to Britské listy, that Mr Josef Pospíšil´s [One of the orginal conrbitutors to this exchange, Ed] views seem to enjoy a wide support in the Czech Republic.
Britské listy has received approximately three times as many letters supporting Mr Pospíšil´s views, as compared to the letters condemning his views. (Those readers who have condemned Mr Pospíšil´s views mostly reside outside the Czech Republic.) Czech readers who support Mr Pospíšil´s views find his argumentation persuasive and civilised, while the arguments raised by Karolina Bánomová, a Czech Romany immigrant to Canada, have been condemned by them as provocative and outrageous.
We would be very interested in hearing CER readers´ reactions on this question, especially reactions to the arguments, tabled by Josef Pospíšil. If you write in, Britské listy will publish your contributions in Czech.
Send your contributions in here.
Czech Romany testifies in New York
On 17th April, 2000, a Forum for Dialogue, discussing the situation of Romanies in the Czech Republic, took place at Columbia University in New York. The Forum was jointly organised by The Czech Center, New York, the East European Center, Columbia University, the Public Interest Law Initiative and the Centre for the Study of Human Rights.
The Forum was addressed by Erica B. Schlager, a specialist in international law for the US Helsinki Commission. Her contribution was published in Czech and in English in Britské listy here. Another person, testifying at the Forum, was Karolina Bánomová, a Czech Romany who has been granted asylum in Canada. Her talk was published in Britské listy in Czech here. Here is an English summary of her talk:
Karolina Bánomová: An Association of Czechoslovak Romanies in Canada was founded in August 1998 as an independent organisation. It is our task to preserve Romany tradition, language, folk lore, culture, our identity and our values, cultivated for centuries.
There are now some 1500 Romanies from the Czech Republic in Canada. All of them have been given refugee status, next year we will apply for Canadian citizenship. We are accommodating ourselves very well to local conditions. Most Romany children are doing very well at school, they have no problems with English. Several Romany girls are studying at university and many children go to secondary school and have good academic results.The accomodation of the Romanies is at a high level. The Romanies do not destroy their housing nor do they have problems with their neighbours. There is no Romany crime. Romanies in Canada do not create any particular problems.
Because Canada is a multicultural society and all citizens have the right to start from the same level playing field. This year, the Czech Romanies in Canada want to stop relying on social secuurity and want to set up their own businesses: in the construction industry, in fast food and in setting up restaurants. [...]
Why do Romanies leave the Czech Republic? The exodus is caused by an unfavourable political situation, not by social problems, as most Czechs think. The unfavourable political situation is accompanied by the degeneration of morals, lack of respect for law, growing economic criminality - the hatred of most citizens against Romanies is a consequence of all that.
"This US government spokesperson is racist"
In Britské listy of 28 April, 2000, Josef Pospíšil reacted in this way to the views expressed at the forum:
[Erica Schlager´s speech] is naive, affected, manipulative, one-sided, ridicuously full of pathos, alibistic and Romo-populist. Of course, it is also politically correct.
The law on acquiring Czech citizenship does not contain a single reference to the Romany ethnic group. But the law did use to contain limitations regarding citizens with a criminal record. If Ms Schlager wants to tell us that this is racist, she herself is racist because she is slandering the Romany minority, maintaning that the Romany minority consists primarily of criminals. [...] She could use the same logic and argue that if dirty people, people infested with lice, or drunk people are banned from visiting public baths, such a regulation is racist. It is also strange that we are being criticised by an employee of a state [the US] which is almost hysterically careful when screening tourists who want to visit America, not speaking about the granting of American citizenship. [...] I doubt whether anyone with a criminal record would be granted American citizenship. Those damned American racists - have you noticed how they infringe the human rights of those Romanies who like to travel overseas?
I am glad that our courts do not regard international human rights norms as part of their decision making and that they observe our - Czech - laws. I am very glad that they are not imitating America where judges quite seriously deal even with demands for a million dollars´ damages for the psychological trauma experienced by a child who in Disneyland entered the actors´ changing room and discovered that a Mickey Mouse costume was hiding a sweaty male [...]
As far as the Romany exodus is concerned, I am afraid that it is these Romany exiles who created artificially all the international criticism aimed at Czech "racism". But since the Western countries are quickly introducing visas [against the citizens of Central Europe], this shows that Romanies are not a welcome export.
The Lety concentration camp controversy is an artificial journalistic bubble. [There is a pig farm on the grounds of former concentration camp in Lety in the Czech Republic, where many Romanies died during the second world war, JČ.] The proposal that a functioning agricultural establishment should be moved elsewhere only because there used to be a concentration camp in the same place is wrong, stupid and unnecessary. There are many places where people were tortured and killed and a memorial does not have to be exactly on the spot where crimes had happened. And also, the camp was not exactly on the spot of the pig farm. Or are we pagans and do we worship sacred places?
With regards to the Matiční Street problem [where a wall was erected between antisocial, mostly Romany population, non-payers of rent, and other tenants, JČ], these non-rent payers were on the whole fraudulent parasites and criminals, who live off the taxes paid by other people. [...]Would Erica Schlager like a nice flat in Matiční Street in Ústí?"
"All people are born equal"
Karolina Bánomová reacted to the above text by Josef Pospíšil in Britské listy of 24 May:
Motto: "All individuals are born free and equal with regard to their dignity and their rights." (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)
A single article is enough and we know what your thinking is and to what category you belong. We have run away from people like you to Canada. You should be given a study stay in Canada so that you and others like you would learn multiculturalism.
With regards to the Czech citizenship - you are comparing two incomparable things! We Romanies are not foreigners, applying for Czech citizenship! We have lived there for over 700 years. Our grandfathers fought for Czechoslovakia in the Second World War, they contributed to building it after the war and we were born there, we do not need to ask anyone humbly for our citizenship! The children of Czech Romanies, born in Canada, acquire Canadian citizenship automatically. That is how it should be even in the Czech Republic. [...]
It the practice, adhered to by the Czech courts which ignore international laws on human rights which will be the greatest obstacle for accepting the Czech Republic into the European Union. Do you know that the Czech constitution (Article 10) says that ratified international human rights covenants by which the Czech Republic is bound, have preference before local law? [...]
Mr Pospíšil, you narrow the whole problem to the problem of Romany guilt. Those who know the problems existing between the Romanies and the Czechs, know that Czech society must abandon its monocultural way of thinking and must adopt a multicultural way of thinking, like most of Western Europe.
You seem to ignore the fact that the Romanies are forced to look at graffiti saying "Gypsies should be gassed" and "We want a white Europe". 33 Romanies have been murdered since the fall of Communism in the Czech Republic.
Only the Romanies themselves are to blamed for their lot
Josef Pospíšil responded with an article, entitled "I am not a racist, I am just a pragmatist," which was published in Czech in Britské listy on 1 June, 2000. As BL editor, I commented "This is an article which could well be used as a justification why Romanies should be granted asylum in the West." - As a result, Mr Pospíšil´s article provoked an avalanche of supporting e-mails from the Czech Republic. Only after some of these supporting e-mails were published in Britské listy of Friday 2nd June, a few letters, condemning Mr Pospíšil´s argumentation were received, but most of them came from readers in the West.
Here is an English translation of Mr Pospíšil´s article, which has received a great deal of all-round support from readers in the Czech Republic:
Dear Ms Bánomová,
I have read both of your ridiculous articles, published in Britské listy on 24 May and on 28 April. I pay homage to your capability of demagogically mixing half truths and lies [...]
First, a few remarks on your speech in New York.You say that Romanies in Canada behave well - "they are studying (by the way, when mentioning university, do you really mean university or "high school"?), they are not destroying their flats, have no problems with neighbours, there is no Romany crime, Romanies in Canada do not create any problems."
Why does this not apply in Bohemia? The British Home Office Minster has described the activities of your fellow-citizens in England quite differently from you.
So - either you are lying, or your elite has moved to Canada. Now you must be really afraid that the rest of the Romanies might arrive as well. Such Romanies who have brought a totally new crime to the Scandinavian countries - one of the most cowardly and repellent crimes which did not use to exist there at all - the crime of mugging old people who live on their own. [...]
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You write: "The year 2000 is very important for the Romanies in Canada, they want to cease relying on social security and want to found their own businesses." - Why do they not do the same thing in the Czech Republic, where eighty to ninety per cent Romanies are unemployed? Do you think that racism is to blame, foul air or just an overall "bad mood"?
Your are also saying that the exodus of the Romanies from the Czech Republic is being caused by "an unfavourable political situation, which is accompanied by an overall degeneration of morals, growing economic criminality and, as a consequence, a growing hatred of most citizens against the Romanies." Well, I have read much rubbish in my life and this takes a prime place. Why is not the hatred against the Romanies the result of acid rain?
The wall in Matiční Street was designed to separate noisy, antisocial, notorious non-rent payers from normal tenants. Nothing more and nothing less. If there were so many Romanies among the Matiční Street people, as you are saying, so that in your view this was racism and apartheid, you yourself are giving the worst possible references to your own ethnic group. The Matiční Street wall was no more racist that the wall of a hospital quarantine ward or a wall of a prison. The inhabitants behind the wall have found themselves there as a result of their own irresponsibility, as a result of the fact that they did not observe law or principles of hygiene.
The ratio of blond people to black-haired people was not determined by the powers that be but by the individual action of each prisoner, patient or non-payer of rent. You would have to accuse the hepatitis virus of racism as well, since it is prevalent amongst your kind. You are intelligent. Influence your Romani fellow citizens. Explain matters to them. The good name of the Czech Republic abroad was damaged in the case of Matiční Street by hired hacks and moralistic know-alls. If these people were to spend a single night in Matiční street, they would undoubtedly recommend an even higher wall. [...]
You must understand that if your ethnic group behaves on the whole in an anti-social manner, our ethnic group will assume a generally negative attitude towards your ethnic group. Nothing will be solved by attempts to outlaw our negative attitude towards your ethnic group if you do not change your ways.
There is a way in which you could attract esteem and admiration of the majority - you should cultivate exceptionally good individuals amongst yourselves. When there is a Romany footballer in the First Football League, once a Romany scientist receives a Nobel Prize, once people want to buy books and CDs by Romany authors, once gifted Romany actors are seen on Czech TV screens - the introduction of a Romany newsreader on Czech TV is just a sad joke - then you can be proud of yourselves. But quotas and directives will not solve this problem. [...] As far as I know, even the Czech police discriminates against the Romanies because one of the conditions for being accepted for a police training course is to be able to swim. Discrimination at every step, is this not true? Whose fault is this? Of the racist water or of the apartheid Archimedes law which applies only to the whites?
You write: "People in the Czech republic must abandon their monocultural attitudes and must become multicultural." Good. You have given your tasks to the white people. We know now what we must do. And what - in your view - will the Romanies have to do? Nothing? Everything they are doing is absolutely right? Should they not at least start thinking about their current attitudes? [...]
I am afraid you have not escaped to Canada from people like me. You have escaped before your reputation, which was created in the Czech Republic by people of your ethnic origin, people like you. And thanks to emigrating you have been given a chance to start anew. I wish you well. However, I advise you - do not spoil it for yourself even in Canada. Of course Canada is victim to political correctness, so it is impossible to publish the truth there, but not even in Canada are people blind and deaf and retarded. [...]
Your write "we have suffered in Bohemia for 700 years".[...] Your moving statement how your grandfathers fought in the Second World War has confused me a little - on whose side did they fight? I am interested in the Czech airmen in Britain, in the Tobruk rats [A reference to the nickname for the British army in North Africa, the Desert Rats, Ed], maybe I have missed some of your people who have reached Prague from Buzuluk in the East. I really do not know where arises your entitlement to these achievements you have appropriated for yourselves. Do not tell us that you contributed to the building of Communist Czechoslovakia after the Second World War, a wise person does not boast of this.
If you have Slovak citizenship and a criminal record, I really do not know why you think that the Czech Republic, where you momentarily find yourself, should automatically and happily accept you and do all the bureaucratic papework for you. I am not comparing the US asylum law with the Czech citizenship law, but it seems to be inappropriate if a citizen of the United States, which is a country hysterically attentive to its immigration policies, criticises another sovereign state for not wanting to receive criminals. If you do not know what I am talking about, ask me. I will be glad to explain.
I am fascinated how you keep using the concepts of human rights and basic freedoms. I understand that some Negro languages lack the expression for "maintenance" - and, if I am informed correctly, the Romany language has no expressions for a "coat hook" and "cutlery" (why)? How do you say "obligation" in the Romany language? Do you have such a word? Is it used often?
If a referendum was held whether the Terezán concentration camp [located to the north of Prague, Ed] should be knocked down and a pig farm built in its place, I would vote against such a decision. If a pig farm had been erected on the spot of the Terezán concentration camp [where Jews were killed] in the past, I would be sorry, but there would be no point in moving the farm elsewhere now. How would it help the dead? You would only harm the pigs.
I do not want to talk about the fraudulent behaviour of Czech banks or of Klaus´s Civic Democratic Party. Let that be the subject of criminal investigation. Since we are talking about the Romanies, in this debate the Czech Commercial Bank or the Civic Democratic Party are irrelevant. A few years ago, it was not Václav Klaus or a director of a Czech bank who tried to steal a purse from me at Wenceslas Square in Prague. It was a Romany woman, asisted, I am alost sure, it was dark, by a Romany man. I may be forced to subsidise the white collar perpetrators of banking and political frauds by my taxes, but so am I forced to pay for the Romany unemployed, the Romany "disabled" pensioners, the children of Romany prostitutes in childrens´ homes.
I am not racist, I am just pragmatic. I am sincerely sorry for the decent Romanies, suffering for the sins of the indecent ones. But sort it out amongst yourselves and do not reproach us with this.
You should not despise my views, you should despise those people who have made me hold such views. And rather than despising them, you should try to persuade them to change their ways. We are your mirror, Ms. Bánomová. And if you are crooked, the mirror will show this. But this is not our fault.
Should this debate be kept hidden from international view by keeping it in the "secret" Czech language?
As a result of these discussions Václav Pinkava is taking me to task for washing Czech dirty linen in public (see the Britské listy of 5 June, 2000):
I have had enough. Britské listy keeps saying that it is important to criticise inferior journalism. All right then, let me do it as well. Far too many negative and disgusting examples of freedom of speech are now highlighted in Britské listy. I am told people who oppose the views of Mr Pospíšil are not writing to Britské listy. Is this not maybe because sensible and decent people have on the whole decided not to continue giving prominence to the racism of various self-appointed white people? When somebody defecates in public, why should we step into the excrement and spread it around? And why should we argue that this excrement is typically Czech?
Jan Čulík wrote in Britské listy: "I will translate Mr Pospíšil´s text into English for the Central Europe Review and will ask readers for their reactions. Of course, I do not know whether this might be counterproductive since various Western government organisations form their policies on Central Europe based on articles published in CER."
No serious journalist, knowledgeable of the situation in the West who really has the right to criticise others for their suuperficial tabloid behaviour, would write such a thing. This is disingenous. You really do not know whether this might not be couterproductive? You have disappointed me deeply. You know very well, but you cannot control yourself.
Do you know what a tabloid journalist is, Mr Čulík? It is a journalist who does not bother about the consequences of his actions because he just wants to make a big noise. Hypocritically, he argues that the public has the right to know what underpants the Queen wears.
Are you sure that Mr Pospíšil really exists? What if Mr Pospíšil is the product of a disinformation department of some East European secret service and you have become its puppet? Isn´t your article going to be fictitious? [...]
Britské listy is becoming ever more tabloid.For instance, recently you repeated conventional views on a ticklish sexual topic, with hypocritical arrogance.
Jan Čulík´s reaction: Even if we do accept Mr Pinkava´s view of the world and assume that Mr Pospíšil is a product of some East European Secret Service Department, the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his writing from a considerable number of Czech readers seems to imply that the topic of today´s article is a real problem.
I find it hypocritical to hide problems within the confines of a "secret" national language, such a Czech. I see no reason why they should not be discussed within a proper international context, where they can be properly examined.
I believe it would be unethical if a journalist tailored what he/she writes according to possible political impact of his articles. Anyway, modern society is so complex that the impact of journalism on society is basically unpredictable. That is why it would be even more unacceptable to write to write in order to influence some desired aims.
This article, which Václav Pinkava criticises for "expressing conventional views on a ticklish sexual topic, with hypocritical arrogance" criticised a recent programme on Czech public service television, which mocked the new social democratic law, making it sexual harrasment at the workplace a criminal offence.
The programme interviewed a number of women, most of whom said that sexual harrasment in the Czech republic does not exist and the new law is unnecessary, and a number of (aging) men who were unhappy about the new law and implicitly expressed their worries what might happen if women have the right to defend themselves in court against unwanted sexual advances. Amongst views expressed were pronouncements such as "Why do we have to accept all this rubbish from the United States - hamburgers as well as the anti-sexual harrasment legislation."
Jan Čulík, 4 June 2000
The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.