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.