The Czech Republic is showing signs of a new wave of agitation against Roma. For months now, hardly a week has gone by in which neo-Nazi groups have not marched somewhere in the country and – actively supported by “normal citizens” – chanted slogans like “black pigs”, “against multiculti” and “Gypsies to work”. Such demonstrations with this frequency, geographical extent and above all with the participation of the population are unprecedented in the Czech Republic. Banal provocations are sufficient to turn the latent enmity towards the Roma harboured by many Czechs into open aggression.
From latent racism to open aggression
When in late June in České Budějovice, a sandbox altercation between a Czech Roma child and a “white” child escalated into a vociferous quarrel among dozens of parents, several hundred Czechs – led by a group of neo-Nazis – marched on the Máj prefab housing estate in order to take revenge on the Roma there. Street battles ensued, and it was only thanks to police intervention that no blood was spilled.
Similar scenarios played out during the summer in Ostrava, Duchov, Vitkov and other locations across the Czech Republic. More will follow: A total of 13 marches for the “rights of all decent citizens” have been scheduled between now and the end of the year by the “Czech Lions” movement, which was founded only this past summer. The movement around Pavel Sládek Matějný, who is known for his contacts with German neo-Nazis, among others, is a splinter group of the extreme-right Workers’ Party for Social Justice (DSSS) and intends, according to its own self-concept, “to take a firm stand against multiculturalism”.
The Czech Republic’s domestic intelligence service BIS warned in late July that anti-Roma sentiment among “normal citizens” could pose a greater security threat to the country than do right-wing extremists.
Ghettoisation instead of integration
The extent of the aggression is new, but the causes have long been known. For years, Czech and international non-governmental organisations have warned of an escalation of long-suppressed blatant social grievances.
Approximately one-third of the estimated 250,000 Roma in the country live in ghetto-like housing estates with an unemployment rate of over 90 per cent, crime, extortion and drugs. There are more than 400 such Roma ghettos in the Czech Republic. In the majority society, by contrast, there is a stubbornly persistent conviction that the Roma are merely freeloading, and that they draw more social benefits than other Czech citizens from which they can live comfortably without having to work.
As a result of the segregated education system, young Roma have minimal opportunities to break out of their “socially excluded communities”, as the ghettos are referred to officially. Every third Roma child attends a “practical school” for the mentally disabled. Despite repeated international appeals, for example from the European Court of Human Rights, this state of affairs has hardly changed.
Politicians, especially at the communal level, have not only passively observed these developments, but have actively supported them – criticising the non-governmental organisation Romea, for instance. In its report on the condition of the Roma minority in the Czech Republic published in mid-September, Romea describes, among other things, how Roma in various municipalities have been selectively displaced to outlying areas in overcrowded, overpriced accommodation with untenable sanitary conditions. The most striking examples are the cities of Ustí nad Labem and Ostrava. With such signals, Romea contends, politicians are encouraging a further division of society rather than striving for social cohesion.
The silence of the politicians
With the exception of the Greens, who last week definitively condemned the anti-Roma demonstrations, no political party in the Czech Republic has taken a position on this issue. In the affected communities, too, condemnation of the marches and positive signals addressed to the Roma both remain absent.
“I don’t know why I should express myself politically on any opinions,” responded Vitkov’s mayor, Pavel Smolka, in early August to a question posed by Respekt magazine on whether he would distance himself from the organisers of the planned neo-Nazi march in his town. Four years ago, Vitkov gained doleful notoriety when a two-year old girl suffered life-threatening injuries in the brutal fire-bombing of a Roma family’s residence.
“Mayors bear the main responsibility for allowing the situation to escalate,” says Miroslav Tancoš, chairman of the recently established Roma Democratic Party. “They harbour many prejudices and don’t show the population any positive examples of hard-working Roma.”
In the election campaign as well, an awkward silence prevails over the obvious question: What can be done to combat the escalating anti-Roma sentiment in the country? “It’s quite strange that none of the big parties have addressed the pogroms and the rise of the extreme right,” says political scientist Jiři Pehe. The Greens are the one exception. Party chief Ondřej Liška raps in a campaign spot: “You can change a lot with your vote, finally begin to integrate the Roma.”
By contrast, Tomio Okamura, one of the country’s populist politicians, suggested that the Roma should return to the lands of their ancestors, e.g. India. Okamura is chairman of the new populist party Úsvit (“Dawn”), which according to polls could enter the Chamber of Deputies after the elections on 25-26 October.
While most Czech politicians have ignored the volatile mood in the country with a view to the upcoming elections, alternative media have spontaneously taken shape as well. The platform Blokujeme.cz (“We are blocking”), for example, has organised counter-demonstrations consistently since June in the places where racist marches have been announced.
“We refuse to passively monitor the situation in which hatred stemming from a lack of information and social frustration is rising day by day,” the initiative writes on its web site. “We are calling on the government, politicians at all levels and above all civil society: Let us stop this series of anti-Roma marches!”
The Roma enter politics
Among the Roma minority themselves, an increasing radicalisation can be observed in response to the growing aggression. This is obvious in particular in Ústí nad Labem and Ostrava, the two cities with the largest proportions of Roma in their populations, writes the Roma news site Romea.cz.
Other Roma warn of a further escalation of violence. “To call on people to attend counterdemonstrations only makes the situation more volatile. We have to sit down at the table and have a dialogue,” says Miroslav Tancoš. This is why he founded the Roma Democratic Party this year. “Without political representation, we can’t achieve anything in the Czech Republic,” he says.
A total of 20 members of the Roma minority are contesting seats the parliamentary elections on 25-26 October – more than in all previous parliamentary elections. Nine of them are on the candidate list of the Greens, who, in addition to their own two Roma candidates, have also made places on their list available to candidates of the Party of Equal Opportunities (SRP).
“We’re not making policy for the Roma, but with the Roma. Their candidacy is the only way for them to achieve equality of opportunities in society,” says Green Party Chairman Ondřej Liška.
Greater engagement in politics by the Roma is also an important signal for the majority society, contends Lucie Horváthová, one of the Green Party’s two Roma candidates. “It shows people that the Roma can contribute to solving problems from various perspectives,” says Horváthová in an interview with the newspaper Romano vodi.
There are no easy solutions to the integration of the Roma minority, which has been postponed since 1989. Social problems can only be grappled with by taking consistent, non-populist and above all serious steps. A basic prerequisite for this is a dialogue with the Roma minority, who in the past have often felt that decisions were being made “about us without us”.
With regard to the recent anti-Roma marches, initiatives like Blokujeme.cz are an optimistic sign. If right-wing extremists try to seize the public space, an “uprising of the decent” is called. The symbolic effect of Blokujeme.cz could thus be far greater than its supporters’ number on the internet platform (just under 200).
Civil society initiatives on their own are insufficient, however. Czech politicians cannot leave society alone in the struggle against extremist aggression and on its way forward to a multicultural self-concept; they must finally make the Roma question a political issue in the positive sense.
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks also appealed to the Czech authorities along these lines. This should be an unmistakable signal that the Council of Europe will not tolerate any expression of hatred, said Muižnieks on Wednesday against the background of the current situation in the Czech Republic.
Silja Schultheis is a freelance journalist and has lived in Prague since 2001. She works for ARD Radio and Czech Radio, among others.