Vol 1, No 12
13 September 1999
C Z E C H R E P U B L I C:
Blood and Land, Us and Them
Questions of race, ethnicity and nationality have plagued the young Republic. The strong feeling of Czech identity creates a tight group, which often defensively closes itself off to outside influences and adopts a suspicious attitude toward anything considered non-Czech. This includes not only foreign students and businessmen in Prague, Roma citizens and Germans in general, but also emigre Czechs who left the Czech lands some years ago: against those who are not part of the collective, national "we."
This xenophobic tendency in Czech society is more than just a knee-jerk reaction of the man in the street. It is deeply rooted in every-day language, a natural extension of which is the style of writing in the daily newspapers. Through the use of such language, the Czech media elite re-enforce the bonds that link the national community--and keep out anything foreign. (more)
National identity, xenophobia and language are all linked, and nowhere is this more evident than in relations between the mainstream (Czech) population and the community that is felt to be separate from it: the Roma. This is an issue which has most frequently captured the headlines in the West. The Council of Europe, the European Commission, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Human Rights Watch, the US Department of State and the US Congress have all formally pointed to the plight of the Roma in the Czech Republic at one point or another. In December 1997, the international organisation Human Rights Watch issued a report saying that the human rights of Roma in the Czech Republic continued to be violated.(1) The US Department of State's 1998 report on human rights declared that, "Roma suffer disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, interethnic violence, discrimination, illiteracy, and disease. They are subject to deeply ingrained popular prejudice..."(2)
So many notable, even notorious, incidents have taken place between Czechs and Roma in the past few years, and it would be worth briefly mentioning at least some of them.(3)
One of the key episodes was certainly the controversy surrounding the Citizenship Law which came into effect at the birth of the Republic on 1 January 1993. That law made an official distinction between those citizens of the former Czechoslovakia who were resident in the Czech lands and those who were officially classes as "Slovaks." The first group received automatic citizenship in the new Czech Republic, but the second group had to apply for citizenship. An obscure and previously disregarded 1969 law designating citizens as either "Czech" or "Slovak" suddenly took on staggering importance. On the stroke of midnight on that New Year's Eve which summoned in 1993, about 100,000 Roma living in the Czech Republic (out of total of perhaps 250,000) were instantly without citizenship.
The Roma had been officially designated as "Slovaks" back in 1969, because many of them or their parents had moved from Slovakia to the Czech lands to occupy the lands vacated by the expelled Sudeten Germans. The Czechs thus replaced one ethnic group it could not tolerate with another.
Of course, Slovakia in 1993 did not want to consider the Roma in the Czech lands as its citizens either, so this group of Roma was stateless. Applying for citizenship in the Czech Republic was a frighteningly difficult process for this group. Every person had to show a clean criminal record for the previous five years, which, given police harassment of Roma as well as their low social standing, was difficult for many.
Suspicions emerged that the law was made deliberately to rid the country of the Roma. Several years of bureaucratic hassle and international condemnation followed. The Council of Europe and UN High Commissioner for Refugees have repeatedly criticised the law for its discriminatory impact on Roma.
In 1996, the law was amended to allow waivers of the five-year rule on a case-by-case basis, but the citizenship problem continues to be a sore spot: thousands remain stateless, without any rights or benefits of citizenship. Those convicted of criminal acts are often expelled from the country--sent to Slovakia, a country that doesn't want them either and where they have no ties.
On the darker side of the Czech/Roma issue is the radical right Skinhead movement and the wave of racist violence that has been sweeping the Czech lands since 1989. The violence has claimed at least 15 Romani lives and untold injuries--quite often permanently debilitating ones.
In 1993, for example, Tibor Danihel, an 18-year-old Rom, was forced by Skinheads into a river, where he drowned. As often happens after these incidents, Romani witnesses were afraid to testify for fear of reprisals, and the case was delayed for years. Three Skinheads eventually received light sentences for "negligence" ranging from 22 to 31 months. Human rights group protested, and only after the justice minister became involved, was the case reheard. The 1998 retrial resulted in sentences of 7 to 8 years.
Still, violence on Roma is something one can read about every week in the Czech newspapers. In September 1997, a gang of men broke windows and shouted "Gypsies to the gas chambers" in front of a Romani home in the market town of Domazlice; the incident brought on an epileptic seizure by one woman in the house, and she died of suffocation. At the beginning of 1998, two Romani homes in North Moravia were firebombed. In February 1998, Skinheads threw a Romani woman into an icy river, where she drown. The prosecutor refused to treat the case as a racially-motivated murder. In May 1998, a Romani man was beaten and thrown into the path of a heavy goods lorry, which ran him over, killing him. Those convicted only received suspended sentences. Assaults on foreign students with darker skin have also led to serious injury and death.
But this is just a tiny sample of the daily violence--not a comprehensive list by any means. The documentation of racially-motivated crimes is the work of several domestic and foreign organisations, and despite the fact that most such crimes are never reported out of fear, these organisations are kept disturbingly busy.
The lower courts have been generally unwilling to enforce hate-crimes laws which increase sentences for racially motivated violence. Although the higher courts occasionally reverse their decisions, the lower courts are generally seen by Roma and Skinhead alike as anti-Roma. Skinheads act knowing full well that the law will treat them kindly.
But perhaps even more troubling in the long run is the deep-seated racism in the general population of gadje (the Romani word for settled whites). This is learned at an early age. For some Czech children, it is not the Bogey Man who will come and get you if you don't eat your porridge, it is the "Gypsy in the Celler."
That racial fear is only re-enforced in the Czech child when he goes to school and sees what happens to his Romani classmates. One by one, the Romani children are sent to "special school" for the mentally retarded, where they comprise 60% of the students, even though Roma make up only 2 or 3% of the population. The school system does not take into account the needs of their Romani pupils who may speak only a bit of Czech and who generally come from the poorest of families. Bullying of Romani pupils by other pupils is commonplace in later school years.
Rather understandably, Romani parents have no faith in the Czech education system and often keep their children out of it. This, unfortunately, furthers the vicious circle of a lack of skills, poorly-paid work and or crime which anchors the Roma in their difficult social position.
Roma are also discriminated against in the workplace. What most employers and employees in the Czech Republic had known for years, the US Department of State found in its 1997 report: "Some employers refuse to hire Roma and explicitly ask local labour offices to refrain from sending Romani applicants for advertised positions. Most Roma are qualified only for low-paying jobs as manual labourers, since very few complete secondary education."(4) Unemployment among Roma according to that report and government reports is as high as 70%, though it was ranging from 3 to 7 percent for Czechs.(5)
Despite Czech officialdom's desire to sweep the Roma issue under the carpet, many international organisations continue to pressure Prague to address the problem properly. The European Commission's report of 4 November 1998, for example, sharply criticised this persistent problem and suggested that the Czech/Roma issue could be one of the barriers to the country's entry into the EU. Perhaps this will stir officials to act, but there seems to be little popular will to do so, as many Czechs are simply tired of the whole issue.
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