Analysis: The Czech town of Varnsdorf is cursed by its populists
Czech Vice Prime Minister Babiš has concentrated public attention once again on the northern Bohemian town of Varnsdorf, which was the scene of pogrom-like marches on Romani-occupied residential hotels in 2011. This year Babiš has become the king of the Varnsdorf populists, freely continuing the legacy, for example, of Czech MP Ivana Řápková and of local neo-Nazis.
Just as none of those people ever brought the town a solution for the broken coexistence between its various groups, all the Vice PM has done is to generously add fuel to the fire. Varnsdorf is a town whose leadership has undergone some difficult tests.
The same goes for its residents. All of them.
By that I mean those living on Kovářská Street who are socially excluded Roma, majority-society people, and those vegetating in the municipally-owned residential hotel that the town has run for years, receiving additional income from the state in the form of housing benefits paid directly to the town in its capacity as a landlord accommodating impoverished tenants. Social reconciliation between these groups has collapsed in Varnsdorf.
This is most apparent in the direct contact between people living on Kovářská Street, the Romani families and the long-term residents from the so-called "majority society". A couple of years ago, this was also evident in the area around the Sport and T.G.M. residential hotels, where people were afraid to walk during the evening.
Why, though? The situation in Varnsdorf was average a decade or more ago, at least for a location where the public administration needed to solve the problem of social exclusion and poverty.
Several hundred impoverished Romani households lived there, but the town of 16 000 could have managed to effectively address that. It's not easy, but it is possible and dozens of examples of other Czech towns prove it.
The answer is that Varnsdorf has experienced a gigantic failure of the public administration, at all levels. The greatest failure has been at the level of the local leadership, but the failures have been accelerated at both the level of the Regional Administration and the Czech Government.
"Gypsies to the gas chambers"
The crowning problem in this town is its concentrated populism, which has grown to extreme dimensions. This ideology has found fertile ground among its mayors, whether Martin Louka (2010-2014) or the current Mayor Stanislav Horáček and Vice-Mayor Josef Hambálek.
Both current top representatives of the town have expressed great appreciation through the media for the recent visit by Czech Vice PM Babiš and have even defended his scandalous remarks about the concentration camp at Lety. The Czech Vice PM represents the current peak of the pure populism that politicians have been deploying against the citizens of Varnsdorf for several years now.
It works! People there are standing up for Babiš - his visit has earned the appreciation of the majority society, who consider it a success.
Czech Labor Minister Michaela Marksová traveled to Varnsdorf to see the problem of its destroyed coexistence with her own eyes so she could contribute to solving it, but because she and others have not visited the town in order to surf its wave of anti-Romani sentiment, most locals have not appreciated their visits. The devastation of public opinion in Varnsdorf, however, began long ago.
It's difficult to say when precisely it began, but that is not the most essential matter now. When we recall the anti-Romani demonstrations of 2011, during which riot police had to use shields to fend off the rocks that hundreds of Varnsdorf residents were throwing at the Romani-occupied residential hotels, and during which thousand-strong demonstrations included entire families marching with their children, people from whom we ever more frequently heard chants of "Gypsies to the gas chambers", it is clear that there was fertile ground for aggressive populism in Varnsdorf even back then.
This was not just the case in Varnsdorf, either. The same atmosphere also grew in neighboring Rumburk under the auspices of then-Mayor Jaroslav Sykáček.
It was he, in that fateful year of 2011, who authored the fairytale that Romani youths had assaulted some poor white youths and injured them. What did it matter that the police later proved that the incident was a scuffle in which the Romani people were not the main aggressors, but that it was just a skirmish between two peers that was then taken up by others in the early morning hours?
After that, the pogrom-like marches on buildings inhabited by Romani people and the anti-Romani demonstrations could no longer be stopped. Who was convening them?
Side by side with Regional Councilor Jaroslav Foldyna, the main convener was Josef Mašín, a nationalist radical from Rumburk who was closely connected with the Workers Social Justice Party (DSSS). Foldyna also moved his events into Varnsdorf, where he was soon overshadowed by that professional liar, Lukáš Kohout.
What did it matter to locals that other people were laughing at them? They were glad to attend the demonstrations convened by these actors, because the speakers incited them against Romani people.
It did not take long for Řápková to show up there too. She brought her know-how on how to intimidate anybody who is just a little bit different, tactics she had tested as Mayor of Chomutov with her "Lifebuoy" action.
By the way, those who were elected to the Chomutov town council after Řápková are currently gradually ameliorating the consequences of her subversion of social cohesion there - her peeping, her spying, and her public vilification of the people whose social benefits she confiscated through collections for debts worth less than CZK 1 000 (EUR 37). Martin Klika also made his way to Varnsdorf with his "zero tolerance" program, the failure of which to "resolve" ruined coexistence can be followed, for example, in the towns of Duchcov, Karviná and Litvínov.
The public anger concentrated against Romani people led the citizens of Varnsdorf to attend a public meeting in the local cinema at the end of the summer of 2011. Mayor Louka publicly promised that the town council would seriously involve itself in problems of coexistence, and the problems the citizens were talking about were recorded on large pieces of paper hanging up around the stage, as were proposals for their resolution.
The months to come demonstrated that those proposals remained on paper only, and once again - for how many times in a row? - undermined the citizens' faith that the mayor (or anybody else) was capable of solving the problems of coexistence or was willing to solve them. I spent a great deal of time in long negotations with the mayor at that time, I stood by his side in the cinema, and I did my best to convince the citizens that the town could cope with the situation.
I rewrote all of the citizens' proposals on the computer in the mayor's office, I added more proposals to them, I offered suggestions to the mayor about how it would be possible to introduce them into practice and how to finance them. I also offered him the service of designing projects and facilitating the use of projects that were working in similar situations in other towns.
The mayor basically duped me, just like he duped the citizens of Varnsdorf. For a long time I believed he would actually solve the problem.
Populism as the norm
This is far from a complete enumeration of all the nicks and cuts that the life of that town has experienced. There are dozens of them, of varying significance.
This failure to solve problems and this populism have become the norm in Varnsdorf, created by local and national authorities and politicians. Whoever doesn't look beyond the borders of the region, or who doesn't want to look that far (or at least at the town of Krásná Lípa, whose integration programs represent the opposite of the segregation in Varnsdorf) runs the risk of succumbing to this norm.
Babiš didn't have to know any of these details. All he had to intuitively know was that in Varnsdorf, in exchange for a few spicy sentences, he would get many votes.
He fulfilled his mission in just one day. He got what he went there for - although now it seems it wasn't enough for him, so he has continued through his shameful, xenophobic insults against all Roma, made directly during his theatrical visit to Lety.
Babiš also seems to have taken votes away from the current leaders of this populism in the Šluknov area, especially at regional level (and that's what the Regional Administration election campaign is all about). Naturally, he is not concerned that because of his very high position, he is continuing to bolster animosity, antigypsyism and hatred.
None of this has anything to do with the fact that there actually is a big problem with coexistence in Varnsdorf, one that was first never addressed for years, and then was actively co-created by the municipality - even as it kept constantly stating that it was not its place to resolve these problems, but that of the national Government. There do not exist and have never existed in Varnsdorf any actual social integration programs - on the contrary, the local council first created and still runs the offending residential hotel there and for many years has received income from the state through it.
To this day there is no club for children and youth in the town, with the exception of one room located directly at the residential hotel itself, and the municipal social workers function as a surveillance service, nothing more. The Czech Government has also not contributed to resolving this - especially its social reforms of 2011 were a blow to impoverished municipalities and people.
The Government unsystematically uprooted the support provided through benefits, reduced social work in the municipalities, and deprived them of the capacity to address social issues by reassigning such jobs to the Labor Office. Essentially, the Government resigned itself to not fulfilling the Strategy for Combating Social Exclusion it also adopted in the crucial year of 2011.
By so doing, the Government confirmed that it was not very interested in problems of social exclusion and abandoned the field, which was left open for populism of all kinds. This has succeeded better in the Ústecký Region than anywhere else, because many places there have problems with socially excluded localities and coexistence, and there are also many local and regional movements and parties that co-create these problems and stoke them through xenophobic outbursts, with the leading example being the Severocesi.cz party ("NorthBohemians.cz").
What can be done?
I would not presume to probe the conscience of each and every citizen of Varnsdorf who marched there in 2011 under the slogan "Gypsies to the gas chambers". Nor will I probe the conscience of those who, in 2016, are applauding Babiš for "finally telling it like it is".
I also wouldn't probe the conscience of those who have joined the nationalists. Or even just the rancorous antigypsyists.
I have the feeling that in Varnsdorf today it's just easier to become spiteful, especially if you live on Kovářská Street. From the interviews with the angry people of Varnsdorf, however, it is also not always clear to me how they have formed their extreme opinions or on what basis - frequently the basis is not their own direct, personal experience of conflict with a Romani person there, but somebody else's stories from the media.
It's not easy to figure out - not even for a citizen of Varnsdorf - where the reality about Romani people living on that street ends and the myths begin. Coexistence there is actually tragic - but why?
From my own visits there, and from social workers, I know that there are different kinds of Romani people living in Varnsdorf, and most of them are decidedly not dangerous, or so-called "inadaptables", and they are, just like the "white majority", victims of these populist, unsystematic politicians who co-create the problem there (and elsewhere) instead of solving it. However, at the same time, I see that dozens and perhaps even hundreds of Varnsdorf residents have not succumbed to this populist massage and are able to look at the problems in their town with detachment.
So what can be done?
Elect a mayor who will stop surfing the populist wave and will begin to actually solve problems. The residents there who have not just sat on their hands, but who have done their best to aid the improvement of coexistence there, should be bravely highlighted - perhaps the people from the Schrödinger Institute, or the staffers of some of the nonprofit organizations, or just the active citizens, even though they are now in the minority.
Those people must join forces. They need to get Babiš and all the other populists, with all of their crappy moves, out of power in Varnsdorf so they will no longer add fuel to the fire.
The author is the Director of the Institute for Social Inclusion.
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