Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
Extremist Acts Galvanize
Roma Population

by Stanislav Penc and Jan Urban
The year 1998 may mark a turning point in the Czech Republic's rising racial tensions, fueled by a growing extreme-right political and street movement. Statistics compiled by the Documentation Center for Human Rights in Prague indicate that a racially or ideologically motivated incident occurs in the country every other day; since 1990, 21 people have died as a result of such assaults. While the main targets are the nation's 300,000 Roma (in a country of 10 million people), individuals labeled as leftist non-conformists, and dark-skinned students and tourists from abroad are also among the victims of racial attacks.

The Czechs were shocked in the summer of 1997, when hundreds of Roma  applied for asylum in Canada, Great Britain, and France, arguing that they were faced with intolerable racism. Fearing a refugee wave, Great Britain and France sent 190 Roma back to Prague between October and January. In May, however, Canada startled the Czech Republic with its implied acknowledgment and criticism of Czech racism by granting asylum to several Czech Roma families on the grounds of discrimination.

Not since the 1989 revolution has the Czech Republic received so much press. This time, most of it is negative, focusing on racism and the rise of right-wing political extremism. It was only in 1996 that the Czech government instructed the Ministry of the Interior to educate the nation's police forces to recognize racially motivated violence, and to give it preferential attention. Many skinhead and neo-Nazi groups--some registered with the Interior Ministry as civic associations--gained at least silent support from the police for keeping Roma at bay. According to the Documentation Center for Human Rights, these groups have frequent contacts with militant neo-Nazi groups in Western Europe, Russia, the United States, Canada, and South Africa. In the past few years, some Czech skinheads under investigation by police in connection with racially motivated violence against Roma went into hiding with the assistance of neo-Nazi groups in Germany and the United States.

On the political level, extremism finds expression in the Republican party, which received 9 percent of the vote in the 1996 election and has been a galvanizing force for anti-Roma and xenophobic sentiment. The party's leader, Miroslav Sladek, a former Communist-era censor and an effective street-smart populist, has gained infamy--and popularity--for his vitriolic verbal attacks against Roma and Germans.

In the last two years, the Republicans' propaganda has become much more sophisticated and overt. During the June parliamentary election campaign, billboards advertised the party's opposition to affirmative action for Roma. That campaign, which featured more than 200 billboards across the country, is estimated to have cost more than 20 million Czech crowns (around $650,000)--a far higher amount than any financial resources the Republicans have publicly reported. The party's financing system has come under increased scrutiny: two months before the June elections, former party members accused Sladek of extorting part of their salaries for funds under his personal control. Many questions about the financing for Sladek and his lieutenants remain unanswered--for example, where he got the money for two lavish villas in the Czech countryside.

In many ways, the Republicans express in a parliamentary forum what a growing number of skinheads are expressing on the street, though the relationship between the two groups is not as public as it once was. In the early years of the Republican party after the 1989 fall of communism, skinheads served as its bodyguards and as a security force for party leaders at public rallies. The relationship was open and celebrated. As recently as April 1996, skinheads marched through the town of Svitavy holding Republican party flags and chanting slogans such as "White Czech lands" and "Czech lands to Czechs." Two organizers accused of hooliganism at that rally defended themselves in court by arguing that while stones were thrown at the apartments of Roma families, the intent of the march was to support the Republicans' election campaign. In another incident, after Sladek was held by authorities for allegedly inciting racial hatred by making derisive comments about Sudeten Germans, several busloads of his supporters were awaiting him on the date of his release. Party officials made sure that a Republican flag-waving group of skinheads stepping from one of the buses was hidden before television and newspaper photographers could record its presence.

There are numerous signs that 1998 could be a turning point, and not only because the Czech Republic is going through its first genuine public debate about racism and right-wing extremism. In May, two Roma brothers--who were pardoned by President Vaclav Havel after they engaged in a scuffle with Sladek when he used particularly foul language in comments about the president and his wife--became heroes in the Roma community. For the first time, some Roma are launching their own educational and social initiatives, many of which seek new means of cooperation and debate with the majority society. In northern Bohemia, in the Chanov suburban ghetto of Most--notorious for piles of garbage and lack of hygiene--Roma on their own initiative recently launched a neighborhood clean-up campaign.

"We want to show that we can take care," organizers told surprised journalists. But until more pronounced change comes, the Roma remain in the dangerous position of scapegoats for extreme right-wing propaganda.

Stanislav Penc is director of the Documentation Center for Human Rights in Prague. Jan Urban is publisher of Transitions.

Copyright © 1998 by Transitions magazine

Reprinted by the Patrin Web Journal with permission.
Posted 17 March 1999.

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