Czech Romaphobia: Notes from the Last Decade

06 November 2006

Gwendolyn Albert1

One day in 1995 I picked up a local paper in the small South Bohemian town where I was living to see that President Havel would be unveiling a memorial to a WWII-era concentration camp for Roma in a place called Lety by Písek. The random news item and my subsequent visit to the site (which, to this day, remains desecrated by an industrial pig farm) opened my eyes to an aspect of life in the Czech Republic which is, to many not from here, a paradox.

As readers of Roma Rights are all too aware, this country of the "Velvet Divorce" – the separation from Slovakia which took place peacefully in marked contrast to the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s – is home to some of the most violent and virulent racism in Europe, focused largely (but not exclusively) on the Roma minority. While the last decade has brought a great deal of international attention to this issue, and most Czech officials have mastered the politically correct rhetoric required of them by the EU, the attitude of the average person in the street has not changed much. Most Czechs still do not want a Romani neighbor, son-in-law, or grandchild, and they are not shy about saying so.

Human rights groups such as the ERRC have documented skinhead and other violence committed against the Roma since right-wing extremism resurged here in the 1990s. The violence committed in the Czech Republic has been extremely brutal, often resulting in death, with off-duty police officers sometimes alleged to have been perpetrators. Brutality by on-duty police has also occurred and been prosecuted, with varying results; successful prosecutions have required a great deal of tenacity on the part of attorneys, and, even so, sentences have been light (often suspended or probationary only) when victims are Roma. Legislation against propagating intolerance has yet to be properly exploited by the courts; observers have long noted that, somehow, those demonstrating against neo-Nazis are arrested with greater frequency (and greater fanfare) than the neo-Nazis themselves. It is not clear that the police understand that laws against propagating racial hatred are meant to serve as a disincentive to extremism; rather, in the name of freedom of speech, public gatherings and other events here over the last decade have included rhetoric that would never be tolerated elsewhere on the continent, as recent convictions in Austria and Germany of Holocaust deniers have shown.

In tandem with the developing democratic pendulum swing of government from left to right, extremist political parties have also appeared cyclically on the Czech political scene. There has been progress on this front, and it is fair to say the Czech electorate, in contrast to either Poland or Slovakia, is becoming more sophisticated and less susceptible to either extreme nationalism or populism. The defeat of the ultraright National Party this year is a marked improvement over the situation 10 years back, when ultraright Republican Party parliamentarians poisoned Czech political debate with ugly racism aimed specifically at the Roma. However, the inventiveness of the National Party's pre-election campaign reached new heights this year and deserves a closer look, as it involved its own brand of Holocaust denial.

The facts about the Lety concentration camp are not disputed. In addition to those murdered directly there, two transports of Roma were made to Auschwitz from the camp, so its role as part of the Nazi conveyor belt that shipped millions to their death is clear. Last year an historic EP resolution addressing the situation of the Roma EU-wide mentioned the pig farm desecrating this Holocaust site. Survivors have been attempting to move it for more than 10 years now. In response to the EP pressure, Communist MEP Ransdorf told the Czech press in April 2005 that "…there have been rampant lies told about Lety. No real concentration camp was ever there." Two weeks later, Czech President Klaus said "…the victims of this camp were primarily connected to an epidemic of spotted typhus, not with what we traditionally conceive of as concentration camp victims." These comments demonstrate the sheer failure of the elder statesmen of the Czech Republic to acknowledge that it is immaterial whether the murder method was that of imprisoning people in inhumane conditions or shutting them up in the gas chambers: both methods achieved the perpetrators' aim. Morevoer, it is hard to imagine similar comments being made by a Czech president about those who succumbed to disease at, for example, Theresienstadt without prompting an international outcry.

In January 2006, the National Party erected a Lety "counter-monument" in the public parking lot at the former concentration camp site. The boulder bearing the inscription "To the Victims" – meaning the "real" victims of WWII, the Czechs – was accompanied by a media flurry and statements about Lety even more horrendous than Ransdorf's. NS spokespeople blamed the Lety prisoners for having caused the typhus to which they succumbed through their own "hygienic practices", a statement clearly intended to resonate with deeply rooted European stereotypes of the Roma as "dirty". Such statements would be laughable if not for the fact that tacit agreement with them is the norm, not the exception, in most of the Czech Republic, with the exception of a small circle of civil society organizations.

Imprisonment of the Roma at the Lety camp may have happened when this country was a Nazi protectorate, but it is an historical fact that the immediate perpetrators of murder there were Czechoslovaks in charge of the camp management; the camp was ultimately closed by the Nazi command because of the typhus outbreak. It was communist-era Czechoslovakia that decided to build a pig farm on the site. When the farm finally became an issue in the early 1990s, the Czech authorities took half-measures, which ultimately satisfied no one: While President Havel worked to erect a well-intended (albeit criticized) monument, the Czech cabinet moved to speedily privatize the state-owned farm at a suspiciously low price, instead of removing it as per international agreements requiring Holocaust site preservation. This year, right-wing extremists attempted to leverage the rumored cost of moving the farm into votes.

Over the past 10 years, the record shows that, if anyone has been victimized in this country since 1989, it is indeed the Roma minority, and the perpetrator, sadly, has been the Czech majority. According to the World Bank, 50 % of the Roma men who were employed in the Czechoslovakia of 1988 were no longer employed a mere five years later. During the "Velvet Divorce" from Slovakia, the Czech state drafted tricky legislation attempting to deprive Roma of citizenship, leaving many in legal limbo. Czech educators oversaw the segregation of 70 % of Roma children into "special schools" for the mentally inferior. Czech Airlines marked Roma passengers on their flight lists, and when the Roma began emigrating, UK consular officials went them one better by pre-screening passengers flying from Prague and informing those who looked Roma that they would not be admitted into the UK. Czechs built a wall to block out the sight of their Romani neighbors in Ustí and Labem. They have been turning impoverished Roma onto the streets in increasing numbers, institutionalizing their children for parental infractions as insignificant as failing to buy a pram, and scrawling "Gypsies to the Gas" in letters large and small across this country.

The case of a Roma man who died under suspicious circumstances in Czech police custody in 2002 still waits before the European Court for Human Rights after the Czech courts failed to find any wrongdoing in the incident. Racially motivated crime rose from 17 reported incidents in 1990 to 402 in 2001; the perpetrators were overwhelmingly Czech. Czech skinheads have murdered and maimed, and when the victims were Roma, courts gave the perpetrators either suspended sentences or no sentences at all. And that skinhead violence has had deadly results not only for the Roma minority, but for foreigners and others who don't fit in here.

After a brief burst of hope at the start of the 1990s, Roma political participation today remains low. Unlike Hungary, which boasts not one but two Romani MEPs (both women), participation by Roma in the political process is all but nonexistent. There is a great deal of Roma organization in the nonprofit sector, where many young, educated Roma are quite influential, both men and women, but this involvement has yet to translate into influence in any significant sense. Few parties court the Roma vote or sense that including a Romani candidate in order to promote racial integration would be consonant with the lofty sentiments of the Czech Constitution or various EU documents. At local level, it is fair to say that politicians have a keen understanding of anti-Roma sentiment as a vote-getter, and they rely on this tactic with numbing predictability.

Many observers feel the "special schools" dilemma in the Czech Republic lies at the heart of the de facto segregation of the Roma from the rest of society in almost every area of life here. For years, educational psychologists employed by the public schools system, when examining Romani pupils, have come to the conclusion that as many as 75 % of them belonged in schools for the mentally disabled; these analyses largely argued that the children's difficulties with the Czech language were proof of reduced intellectual capacity. The "special schools" became de facto Romani schools, and Czech education became de facto segregated. This process largely promoted stereotypes of the Roma as inferior, and became a self-fulfilling prophecy: graduates from such schools could never attend academic high school and university, or even attain management level in some manual labor profession. Thus was created the Romani underclass, which today remains largely unemployed.

The European Court for Human Rights issued a disappointing verdict this February in the case of 18 Romani children from the Czech Republic who claimed their right to education had been violated by this discriminatory practice; the case is currently being appealed to the Grand Chamber. The public discussion prompted by the litigation, as well as EU accession requirements, led to the adoption of a new School Act, which came into force in 2005 and to which the government's defense attorneys repeatedly referred in Strasbourg. While the School Act did abolish the term "special schools", due to other legislative initiatives involving devolution of various matters to regional and local level, implementation of the legislation is now in the hands of school principals, who have been given very little guidance in how they could actually desegregate should that (randomly) happen to be their agenda.

The new law does not make it obligatory to reclassify the children according to their capabilities, nor does it specify exactly how such reclassification should take place. Implementation of the new law is taking place throughout the country sporadically – while in some places the integration process is showing results, in other places only the name of the school has been changed (from "zvláštní" to "speciální", which for all intents and purposes have the same meaning; the connotation of "zvláštní" is more like "strange" or "odd", while "speciální" is more obviously a foreign term and has a more "technical" feel) and no other changes have been made.

For a pupil from the former "special" schools to be reclassified into a more appropriate school, a parent or guardian must consent to the reclassification. However, most parents or guardians are not only unaware of this option, they are unaware that they themselves could instigate the reclassification, and therefore do not request it. The majority of Romani parents attended "special" schools themselves and therefore are of the opinion that this type of school is appropriate for their children as well, especially since when a Romani child does find him or herself in a mostly white class, the (almost all white) teachers are not able to make sure genuine integration occurs. It is not uncommon for white parents to take their children out of a school when the Romani enrollment increases, or for Romani parents to return their children to a school which will not challenge their child intellectually but which will be safer and more familiar because the child will not feel so socially isolated.

The defensiveness of the Czech Education Ministry surrounding this issue cannot be emphasised enough. The ministry recently objected to the proposed appointment of David Strupek, the attorney who represented the Romani children in Strasbourg, to the Government Human Rights Council, specifically because of that representation, a practice equivalent to treason in their eyes, to judge from the terms in which they expressed themselves. In the end, the Council voted to express its deep concern over the fact that Mr Strupek was ultimately not appointed to sit on the Council directly, but, in an embarrassing bit of horsetrading, was appointed merely as an alternate for another candidate.

The issue of Romani women being sterilised without their informed consent, both during the communist era and as recently as in 2001, is another in which ministry responses are defensive to the point of hysteria. Again, at a recent meeting of the Government Human Rights Council, the Health Ministry argued lengthily (and incorrectly) that the current Czech Government bears no responsibility either for sterilisations committed since the Czech Republic came into existence in 1993, or for those committed under communism. This is in direct contravention to the conclusion reached not only by the Regional Court in Ostrava in the case of Helena Ferenčíková last year, but also by the Czech Ombudsman, who said in his Final Statement on this issue last year that "the problem of sexual sterilisation carried out in the Czech Republic, either with improper motivation or illegally, exists, and ... Czech society stands before the task of coming to terms with this fact." (Final Statement, pg. 3.)

The Czech Republic is more fortunate than, for example, Slovakia (where human rights defenders raising the issue of sterilizations without informed consent were subject to criminal charges) in that the Czech Ombudsman decided to pass along the more than 80 complaints of such sterilizations he received to the Health Ministry and then review its response. The Ombudsman's Final Statement is worth reading, not only for the care it devotes to analysing the ministry's findings, but for its background research into the history of eugenics in Czechslovakia and the impact these theories have had on the development of Czech medical practice. The report describes the actions of pre- 1989 Czechoslovak human rights defenders, who were convinced that the "sterilization with benefit" policy under communism (in which financial or other incentives, some of them negative, were offered to Romani women in exchange for their being sterilized) was "a tool of inadmissible eugenic policy" (Final Statement, pg. 25). The Final Statement goes on to say (pg.68):

It is a major debt of Czech historiography that very little literature has been dedicated to the Czechoslovak eugenic movement so far and that treatment of this chapter of Czech history is not consciously worked with in society. Yet, specifically in connection with the theme of this report, it is entirely relevant to ask to what extent the unprocessed and non-reflected Czech or Czechoslovak eugenics may to this day influence ... the approach of the public to the issue of reproductive freedom of the individual, and in particular, to what extent it influenced practical social policy towards Roma before 1989.

Romani victims of this practice in the Czech Republic remain uncompensated and the issue remains undiscussed outside of the small circles of NGOs concerned. Hopefully the testimony of one of the victims, Elena Gorolova, before the UN's Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in New York on 17 August, helped raise the profile of this important issue.

In observing these developments and working to change them, it has often occurred to me that the "problem" that needs solving is not "the Roma", but the deeply roted xenophobia and racism of the Czech majority. In this respect I must say that hope is beginning to dawn. Despite low pay and dubious social prestige, the ranks of civil society are being joined by more and more Czechs who have decided to put their time and energy into combating discrimination and are joining forces with the small but dedicated group of Roma men and women who made it to higher education against the odds and are pursuing the same aims.

Recently, at a panel discussion following a documentary about the Roma in the town of Pardubice, a town official told those assembled: "Today people on the town council from the older generation vote for integration measures grudgingly, because they know it is 'politically correct', but the next generation will make such decisions wholeheartedly." I for one can't wait to see it happen.

Endnotes:

  1. Gwendolyn Albert is the Director of the League of Human Rights in the Czech Republic and a voting member of the Czech Government Human Rights Council.

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