Commentary: Can a "trafficker in poverty" improve the participation of impoverished Romani people?
The creation of the Romani Council of Ostrava has raised big expectations that are shared not just by local and national politicians, but also by Romani activists and experts. No one seems bothered by the fact that the chair of the Romani Council and the organizer of the elections that chose its officers is Vladimír Leško - or at least, no one will publicly say so.
Leško is a Romani businessman from Ostrava who until recently ran the kind of typical residential hotels for impoverished Romani people that gave rise to the term "trafficking in poverty". Magdaléna Karvayová, an activist who is an associate of the Romani Council of Ostrava and an expert on education, has said that "He no longer owns any residential hotels. They closed his down."
There is no doubt that Karvayová takes her assistance to the Romani Council seriously and that she considers a body of this sort to be important irrespective of who chairs it. Progress has to start somehow.
In order for Romani problems to finally begin to be solved - such as the segregation of Romani pupils in the schools - compromises will need to be made. That is a legitimate position that is appropriate.
That's what politics is all about. Nevertheless, what Karvayová is saying signals a discrepancy that is all but tragicomic: Leško no longer owns those residential hotels because they were closed by the very authority he now wants to work with.
Among other things, Leško wants to serve as a representative of the Romani people who want to solve their housing problems. Many are still residential hotel tenants.
A confusing mix of activism and politics
The basic question here is where the border lies between a consistent conceptual, moral stance that condemns and rejects "trafficking in poverty" and a political compromise, a pragmatic approach that acknowledges the tenet that "the ends justify the means". This mix of activism, defense of Romani children who are discriminated against and impoverished, high-level politics and "trafficking in poverty" is confusing, to say the least.
News server Romea.cz has reported on Vladimír Leško several times before. For example: "Vladimír Leško has admitted that he charges his tenants as much as CZK 4 500 per adult per month. He houses large families in the rooms of his residential hotels, which means the rent charged per room sometimes exceeds CZK 20 000 per month. In his residential hotels on Cihelní Street, for example, there are just a couple of common toilets, sinks and showers per floor as well as a single small communal kitchen. Several years ago, dysentery broke out in his facilities. At that time tenant Iveta Horvátová was living there with eight children, and for the one small room in which they all were forced to live, she paid Vladimír Leško CZK 17 000 per month. For prices approximating CZK 20 000 one could lease an apartment with five or even more rooms in Prague."
This was reported when Leško was running for the Romani Democratic Party (RDS) in last year's local elections. At that time there were unproven suspicions reported by the media that he was buying local Romani residents' votes.
Romea.cz also reported on Leško's objections to a 2013 demonstration against neo-Nazism in the town of Vítkov. As we wrote at the time: "According to several testimonies, several self-appointed Romani 'spokespeople', led by Vladimír Leško, came to the park on Husova Street where the pro-Romani assembly was underway and ordered people not to participate in it. Leško, who is the owner of several residential hotels in Ostrava, is one of those who exploits both his own people and the taxpayers by charging usurious rents for accommodation that looks like it came out of the Middle Ages (the state contributes through its housing contributions to the indigent). He is also one of the group of Romani people from Ostrava who issued a statement explaining why they did not support yesterday's event in Vítkov."
Of course, Leško has been covered by other media outlets. When he fought with the Ostrava authorities over the operations at one of his residential hotels, the media asked for his side of the story.
News server iDNES.cz quoted him at the time as saying the following: "I wonder who else would lease housing to these people. I am Romani myself, but I must say that many of our clients are crazy. They destroy the fixtures and they don't try to save on electricity or water because utilities are included in the rent. The costs incurred are very high, so it's not exactly extra-lucrative."
Residential hotels? What residential hotels? It's a conspiracy!
Leško himself does not see a problem with having previously been a residential hotel operator who is now supposed to be a representative of Romani people and see to it that they are able to access dignified housing. In recent remarks to news server Romea.cz, he first says that he never owned any residential hotels and that people are just gossiping, that they don't see the other side of this issue, and that he has always helped Romani people find decent, normal housing.
After that he becomes somewhat impassioned and admits that he did own some residential hotels, but says they were the best ones around and that all of the scandals about them only began after he banned all nonprofit organizations from accessing his properties. He says he does not support the work of nonprofits or what he calls their manipulation of impoverished, uneducated Romani people and the visibility they create so they can get big grants.
Leško then claims that the nonprofits have conspired against him, in particular, activist Kumar [Vishwanathan]. Yes, he admits he charged each tenant of his properties CZK 4 500 a month, but claims it was ultimately more advantageous to his clients to charge that amount, because while other landlords might charge them only CZK 4 000, those landlords wouldn't also cover the electricity bill.
Yes, Leško was until recently a "trafficker in poverty". Today he is a representative of the Romani residents of Ostrava who is recognized by the city, the Czech state, and some Romani activists.
This is a genuinely odd mix of combating "trafficking in poverty" while simultaneously legitimizing a representative of that business. Can such a Romani Council be considered reliable and representative?
I am of the opinion that it cannot. There is no doubt that at least some Romani activists, experts and politicians are making a sincere effort to change the situation of Romani people for the better in Ostrava, but I am not convinced about the Romani Council.
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