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Commentary: Czech antigypsyism, or, a report on the state of the country

Prague, 26.3.2013 23:57, (ROMEA)
František Kostlán
František Kostlán

I have been systematically reporting on the lives of people living in ghettos, the activity of the ultra-right, and the state of the media with respect to the topic of Romani people, including analysis and criticism. My experiences in doing this work, or rather the topics I have been involved with during it, are alarming.

Generally speaking, in all of Europe there is currently a movement away from humanistic ideals and solutions to problems based in those ideals. As a logical result, the societal atmosphere is worsening and hatred, intolerance, racism and xenophobia are rising. In the Czech context, what is primarily rising is antigypsyism, which often takes a racist form.

The situation in Europe

The number of violent assaults on migrants or their direct expulsion is rising in European countries, irrespective of the Schengen area and the agreements that are supposed to apply to all of its members. Unnecessarily strict, populist policies are being advocated that do not welcome migrants, refugees included. These policies are sometimes even directly intolerant, and their result is the de facto expulsion of asylum seekers who were ordinarily accepted just a few years ago by European countries.

The participation of populist, ultra-right parties in the parliaments of EU countries is rising, and in some states nostalgia for totalitarian regimes is growing. At first glance this is most appreciable, for example, in Hungary or Italy, but it also concerns other countries, primarily post-communist ones. We must bear all of this (and more) in mind, because what is taking place in the Czech Republic is part of today's European context.

The cause: Impoverishment and stereotypes

The cause of this state of affairs is, on the one hand, a rapidly deteriorating socioeconomic situation linked with a general decline in ethics and political culture, and on the other hand, ingrained models of behavior and ways of thinking (stereotypes). This leads to a search for those to label as somehow "to blame for worsening the situation". This search takes place among the most vulnerable, among those who are somehow different, who stand out, and who are unable to effectively defend themselves. This scapegoat becomes the "enemy within" against whom it is possible to fight and, by defeating the enemy, to "resolve the problem".

As part of this way of thinking, it seems correct to demonstrate against others and defame them. It seems correct to carry out a pogrom (or try) or to banish these people from a particular place.

Discrimination as part of the "solution"

During the 1990s, a series of 20 racially-motivated murders took place on our territory. During the past decade, open discrimination has been ubiquitous in all areas. Both of these events have moved society toward its worst aspects, and these fringe phenomena have now become part of the mainstream. Today, much of what was once labeled discriminatory or racist a few years ago is now being considered "correct", "customary", or even "desirable".

A public discussion is currently taking place only about discrimination in education, and only because the Czech Republic is being pressured by European institutions on the basis of a judgement from the European Court for Human Rights. The Czech Education Ministry was on the way toward establishing a good, inclusive school system under Education Minister Ondřej Liška, currently chair of the Czech Green Party (Strana zelených - SZ), but his successor, Josef Dobeš, cancelled all of the practical steps being taken toward that end and went the other way, ignoring these problems, not resolving them, and doing his best to push them out of the public eye.

Discrimination in housing is much less visible, but it results in unbearable living conditions for people, most of whom are living below the poverty line. This discrimination is very often part of the problem we call hate violence (or hate crime).

When researching the reasons people are being evicted from their homes, I have encountered cases where Romani people were threatened that their children would be killed unless they moved. In some cases people were directly beaten up repeatedly until they moved. In the "best" case, they were "only" threatened with their children being institutionalized.

No one is bothering to get involved with these cases. It seems that local authorities and the police are sometimes even more or less covert fans of this violence. With the exception of a few human rights activists, no one takes exception to the fact that Romani people are forced to move out of their housing because landlords are shutting off their electricity, heat and water.

Ostrava and Ústí nad Labem

The best-known examples of this discrimination recently are those of Ostrava and Ústí nad Labem. The Moravská Ostrava a Přívoz municipal department has completely brazenly, openly expelled Romani people from its territory in order to "cultivate the environment", as the municipality termed it in a recent statement.

Romani people have therefore had to move away from Přednádraží street (where only a few families remain), from Palackého street, and from a residential hotel in Božkova street (which the municipal department will close by the end of May 2013). No one is interested in where the people forced to leave will go. They end up either in residential hotels paying usurious rents and living in poor hygienic conditions, or they move in with their relatives in overcrowded apartments, or they end up directly on the street.

When the current Ostrava town councilor Lukáš Semerák (of the "Ostravak Movement") explained why he wanted to purchase buildings on Přednádraží street, as well as why he had purchased a building on Palackého street with Romani tenants whom he subsequently evicted, he said : "My sole intention is for that whole locality to be uplifted and for adaptable citizens to return to live there. Přívoz is one of the oldest parts of Ostrava and has a great history. Unfortunately, after the big floods in 1997, when the Hrušov quarter was affected by the water, the Romani people from there ended up on Přednádraží street. I regret that the quarter has become a garbage can.... We want to ensure a calm environment and help the management of the private Karel Engliš College, which is headquartered across the street from our buildings and will open its doors in September."

Ústí nad Labem goes at this issue through the "ostrich method" of sticking their head in the sand. The town does nothing for people whose housing is taken away from them, or rather, it suggests that they move to residential hotels located outside the town limits entirely. The town councilors evidently want to get rid of their responsibilities by transferring them to neighboring municipalities. Here the racism is not as open as it is in Ostrava. Rather, the town is incompetent, unable to accept its responsibility and indifferent to the fate of its most impoverished people.

There is no work

Primarily in the regions where most of this country's Romani people live, the Moravian-Silesian and North Bohemian Regions, there is less and less of a chance of getting work. Many Romani people there were educated in the "special schools" because of the discrimination in the school system that has become so infamous.

With such an education as their basis, these people have negligible changes of becoming qualified for employment, and therefore much less of a chance of finding work in the first place. In addition, they are directly discriminated against on the labor market because they are Romani.

Deterioration of the social situation

The situation in this country is deteriorating in direct proportion to the government's policy of transferring responsibility for it onto the backs of the population as a whole. The cost of energy, fuel, groceries, rents, services and other basic needs is rising.

Everyone is becoming poor, but understandably this is borne worst by the most impoverished, starting with senior citizens and ending with people in the ghettos and the homeless. Unemployment continues to rise.

The conditions in which the most impoverished people live in socially excluded localities are rapidly deteriorating. However, because the vast majority of these people are Romani, some members of the majority society are applauding these developments.

Impoverished people in the ghettos are exploited by various mafias and "traffickers in poverty", often in collaboration with towns and villages. Some municipal politicians, for example, permit casinos and gaming rooms because part of their profits go either to the municipal coffers or directly into their own pockets. In other towns, politicians are closing down such places.

These gaming rooms are often owned by local loan sharks, who get back part of the money they loan to the impoverished at usurious interest rates by offering them video poker. Petty theft is rising, as are prostitution and drug use. At the same time, the effectiveness of or even the option of running integration plans or specific "inclusion programs" is declining.

The enemy within and frustration

The search for a scapegoat as an appropriate object onto which to project this role of the "enemy within" is an irrational phenomenon. After interviewing the "white" participants of anti-Romani demonstrations in the Šluknov district, I can say that most of them are not racists, but people frustrated by the fact that their standard of living is sharply declining and slowly reaching the level of the most impoverished around them. They define themselves in opposition to Romani people because it is the easiest thing to do:  It costs them nothing to call Romani people the enemy and many people love to agree with them.

This is why, for example, we witnessed the slogan "Gypsies get to work" at the demonstrations in the Šluknov foothills being shouted by the "whites'" who themselves have had not work for some time and who know there is almost no work for anyone in the region. When collecting material for an article on this topic, I overheard two young men participating in an anti-Romani demonstration in Varnsdorf who were chanting, along with everyone else, "Gypsies get to work, Gypsies get to work". One of them told the other that he hadn't had a job for at least six months. They then both came to the conclusion that "I wouldn't employ a Gypsy, normal people take precedence."

Politics, latent racism, extremism

The results of this frustration are dangerous, because latent racism comes to the surface during every deterioration in the societal atmosphere. During the past year the number of actions organized by ultra-right extremists has declined, but this is just the calm before the storm. Fascist, neo-Nazi and ultra-conservative militants are preparing for next year, when several elections will take place: The EP, the lower house, the Czech Senate, and local councils.

Every election is always an opportunity for the ultra-right to advocate its "ideas" and "solutions" to problems so that all of society hears them. This "advocacy" takes place in more than one way. The ultra-right today has several political entities collaborating with one another ad hoc or sharing staff. The most famous are the Akce D.O.S.T. and the Workers' Social Justice Party (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti - DSSS).

Akce D.O.S.T. was created against the intellectual background of ultra-conservatism, which is linked ideologically to the prewar Czech Fascist movement. Its ranks include people flirting with clerical fascism or with antisemites of a "Christian stripe", as well as various "nationalists" (nationalist chauvinists) from a wide variety of previous initiatives and small political parties. This initiative is backed by people close to former Czech President Václav Klaus, specifically, Petr Hájek and Ladislav Jakl. During the media's toying with the possibilities of Klaus's next political engagement, journalists have speculated that Akce D.O.S.T. might become part of a new political party run by the former president.

The DSSS is continuing the activity of the neo-Nazi Workers' Party (Dělnická strana - DS), which was dissolved by the Supreme Administrative Court. The very same people with the very same ideas about politics and the world are involved in the DSSS, which closely, openly collaborates with the German neo-Nazis. Their methods are demonstrations and the publicity they generate, as well as their own publicity which is primarily carried by new media and public broadcasters (mainly Czech Television, which very often considers the promotion of intolerance to be part of freedom of speech).

The DSSS pointedly exploits the frustration described above to score points in places where many Romani residents live together. They terrorize local Romani residents during their actions and humiliate them, or at least try to. Their events are attended by the street fighters who accompany all of the neo-Nazi initiatives as they rise and fall. We can name the most recent ones, the Autonomous Nationalists (Autonomní nacionalisté) and National Resistance (Národní odpor).

The street-fighting part of the ultra-right makes no secret of its racism. During our work we have described many cases in which the main violent offenders were precisely people from these neo-Nazi initiatives. Neo-Nazis, ultra-conservatives and other ultra-right extremists are differentiated to a certain degree with respect to their ideological starting points, but they all share a hatred of gays and lesbians, immigrants, Romani people, and any sort of difference at all.

Because of the frustration described above, and because of the various skills these frustrated people are abusing for these aims, the ultra-right has managed to strengthen its instrumentality in the political arena. While brutal violence still turns many people off (although fewer than it used to), the ideas espoused by the intellectuals in Akce D.O.S.T. and the anti-Romani invective spouted by DSSS leaders is finding more and more sympathetic, willing listeners.

In last October's elections to the Regional Authorities, the DSSS won 4.37 % of the vote in Ústí Region, and unheard-of rise. Whoever is rejoicing that the neo-Nazi street fighters' activity has been suppressed is doing so prematurely. It is the DSSS leadership in particular that momentarily wants a decline in street fighting so the party can have a greater chance of succeeding in politics. In any event, prior to all of the elections next year, we expect a return of their malevolence at full strength.

What is to be done?

People's frustration will not start shrinking until the prospects for their lives become acceptable. That won't happen until the politics change. Instead of ideological recipes (at the moment everyone on both right and left is looking through rose-colored glasses) there is a need to seek solutions that facilitate improvements to the social situation and inter-ethnic coexistence. Without a conscious, open improvement to coexistence between non-Romani and Romani people, the well-worn stereotypes will always reliably float to the surface during every frustrating situation.

When improving politics, this is not just about the area of taxes, even though that area is understandably very important. As we already know, the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD) have already begun to play the Civic Democrats (ODS) and TOP 09 in this regard and are not interested in reducing VAT, giving various absurd excuses.

The approach taken by the state toward education must radically change. There is also the total lack of a much-needed law on social housing. There is also the need to change several regulations in the Civil Code before they take effect on 1 January 2014, such as the option for landlords to evict a tenant within one hour after a single offense, to end a lease without finding substitute accommodation for the lessee, or to demand a deposit from a new tenant of up to six months' rent. That last measure targets Romani people and impoverished people in general. Here I would ask experts to let me know if I have forgotten about or ignored anything with respect to this legislation.

It is also necessary for democratic politicians to start taking a stand against specific racist, xenophobic enterprises and sentiments of that sort in general, instead of engaging in the populist shouting that they have to date. The cowardly policy of this government has been to abuse these sentiments in order to better cover up their own problems and scandals, and this approach must be radically changed. Here we must recall the long silence from Czech Prime Minister Nečas, Deputy Prime Minister Schwarzenberg and other ministers on the events in the Šluknov district. Of the mainstream political parties, the only one who was and is capable of this is the Czech Green Party, whose active support for human rights is consistent and long-term.

Publicity in the media

Both the nationwide and the new media (online) have stopped fulfilling their social role, which once was best captured by the witticism that "journalists are the watchdogs of democracy". Today most journalists are watchdogs for their employers, ensuring they make the highest profits possible no matter the cost. The price being paid is that they are directly assisting the deterioration of the societal atmosphere through reporting that is neither ethical nor objective, sometimes tendentious, and obviously intentionally anti-Romani. Politicians (and not only they) therefore lack a corrective force to move them from populism toward the more customary norms of behavior, including a more customary approach to human rights.

In order to change this societal atmosphere, which would start with a change in the posturing of politicians at the state, regional and local levels, as well as a change in the work of the media, we must essentially continue to publicize all the events related to these topics. The so-called "alternative media", such as Deník referendum or Romea.cz, as well as some centrist media who have not yet betrayed their mission, must continue to critically draw attention to the bad behavior of politicians and of most mainstream media outlets. Without this, the desired change for the better will never come.

František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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