Not long after the first enthusiasm about "The
Velvet Revolution" in the Czech Republic, thousands of foreigners resident
in this country have had a chance to witness something they thought was
happening only in the most backward regimes. In January and February 1995,
thousands of police officers have been sent out to the streets of Prague,
blocked the streets, pubs and metro exits in a proclaimed effort to "clean
the city". On occasions as many as 2,000 residents have been arrested for
the crime of not having their identity cards with them, and as punishment
some foreigners have been deported. Reportedly, the police were ordered
to target primarily the local Romanies (Gypsies) and darker skinned foreigners.
The raids included restaurants, pubs and other public hangouts. The
strategy of the police was to send someone into the restaurants in advance
to check the layout of the space, so that all exits could be blocked. The
police had a list of facilities to be targeted, mainly places where foreign
mostly American residents gather. Following the daily arrests, during the
nights the police were using helicopters with spot lights to locate those
whom their spokesman labelled as "unfit people", involving the homeless,
the unemployed, and all "such people". Police spokesman Petr Link dismissed
the complaints about the behaviour of the police. He said: "Of course we
were using helicopters, but not on the foreigners, we used them on unfit
persons. We were just trying how it would work out on parking lots where
there are a lot of homeless people and others." Link repeatedly referred
to the homeless and unemployed when he defended the new policy of policing.
He said: "On one side people are calling on us to get rid of unfit people,
and then we start doing it and others say that we are inhuman. But those
who criticise it are only the homeless, for instance, and such people."
The new policy, and this jargon, should not have come as such a surprise
to the foreign community in Prague, in light of the growing exclusionist
tendencies within Czech society. Last year the Czech Parliament passed
a citizenship law which severely discriminated against the Romany population
in the country. The law requires that all those who apply for Czech citizenship
(after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia) must have a clean criminal record
in the past five years. This was mainly aimed at the local Romanies, many
of whom have been convicted of petty offences such as theft and pick-pocketing.
The Romany population is severely marginalised in Czech society, with the
highest rates of unemployment and poverty, and anti-Romany sentiments among
Czechs are extreme. Most polls show that Czechs consider Romanies second-class
citizens and trouble-makers who do not deserve the benefits of equal treatment.
Similar sentiments prevail against the homeless and even against the
unemployed, who are considered suspicious and deserving of exclusion.
Czech citizenship law has drawn some decided criticism
from the Council of Europe, which has threatened to block the Czech entry
into the EU in the near future unless the law is reversed. Czech President
Vaclav Havel is also against the law and against the practices of discrimination
taking off in the Czech Republic, but he has been overridden by the dominant
forces of the Czech self-proclaimed "Thatcherist" right-wing government
headed by Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus.
The worrying questions are concerned with where the homeless and the
unemployed are taken, and what rights they have that can be enforced while
they are in police custody. Czech independent governments have an appalling
record in the treatment of minorities; the most startling example of discrimination
was their expulsion of approximately three million Sudeten Germans from
the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to Germany, with their property confiscated.
Even today, the Czech right-wing government is refusing to restitute property
to Sudeten Germans, because of the fear of their return to the country
and becoming citizens. Together with the Germans, Czechs (this time together
with Slovaks) have also expelled thousands of Hungarians since World War
Two. The significant thing is that the same sentiments can be discerned
today in the Czech populace, and that the present Klaus government is in
many crucial ways similar to the post World War Two Government headed by
the National Socialist politician Eduard Benes, who issued decrees governing
the mass expulsions.
The discrimination in the Czech treatment of national minorities is
in certain ways more dangerous than that in the Balkans or in other parts
of the world where there are open military conflicts and where parties
are accused of "ethnic cleansing". It is more dangerous because it is quiet
and hidden, but systematic, and represents a continuous deprivation of
marginalised people of their human dignity and civil rights.
The Czech Republic has received considerable benefits
from the West in terms of investment and public and political support for
its "breakaway" from Communism. However, if Western governments are to
retain the standards of respect for human rights with which they have been
conducting their domestic and foreign policy for decades, then they must
recognise the need to force post-Communist regimes to show respect for
national minorities, even if breaches of human and civil rights are not
marked by civil conflicts such as in the Balkans.
The Czechs must be reproached more decisively and, if necessary, sanctioned
by the international community, if they continue to refuse to change their
treatment of Romanies, and if they do not reverse the blatant exclusion
and stigmatisation of the poor and the unemployed. These practices, to
a certain extent characteristic of the so-called "high Manchester capitalism",
have long been abandoned in the West and are generally considered intolerable
in the democratic world. A closer look into the current and the emerging
policies and laws of the Czech conservative government reveals that these
democratic standards may be in the process of being questioned by the rogue
governments capitalising on Western tolerance and their ambition to expand
Western influence further east.
The jargon of "unfit people", "only the homeless
and such people", "unemployed and the like" suggests that there is something
worthy of reprimand in being homeless and unemployed, and reveals values
and a way of thinking in Czech Government officials which democratic Europe
must be shocked with. While the reduction of unemployment and the provision
of housing for the homeless are among the main targets of social policy
measures in most West European countries, in the Czech Republic the government
is increasingly applying an old and well- remembered solution: exclusion.
Surely it is easier to engage in power-politicking with the population
which is already heavily infected by the virus of chauvinism and racism,
especially against the Romanies, than to provide social policy directives
which could have a real impact on the problem. While it is probably fair
to say that it should remain within the discretion of any government to
devise its social policy to cope with its problems, it certainly ought
to be the concern of the entire European community of citizens when rogue
governments inflict blame and punitive measures on those whose problems
they are supposed to address.