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August 12, 2022



Commentary: Czech President Zeman's racism and Romani people

8.11.2018 7:04
The Facebook social networking site was flooded on 2 October 2018 with photographs of Romani people at work in response to the insulting, racist remarks made about them by Czech President Miloš Zeman. (Collage:
The Facebook social networking site was flooded on 2 October 2018 with photographs of Romani people at work in response to the insulting, racist remarks made about them by Czech President Miloš Zeman. (Collage:

Miloš Zeman loves to talk about things he does not understand - that's to say, he believes he understands them, but he expresses his judgments, for the most part, on the basis of a superficial view of the matter. Sometimes he even makes arguments repeating the opinions that are expressed by people on social networks, where everybody says whatever comes to mind without needing to become more familiar with the subject.

Zeman just knows the economic perspective

As far as politicians go, Zeman is one of the best in the area of economics, we cannot deny that. He deserves a great deal of credit for ending the "banking socialism" of former Czech Prime Minister Klaus in the 1990s.

The error with Zeman begins whenever he assesses matters of a non-economic character, because he is incapable of looking at events and matters in any other way. It's as if there is no moral or societal dimension for him, no perspective that would be cultural/anthropological, or psychological, or sociological.

That incapacity helped him with his recent "provocation" (as he calls it) about Romani people. In the first place, this was not a provocation, but a display of the racism that aids Zeman in maintaining favor with his voters.

Zeman's populism knows no borders, as our years of experience with his behavior have demonstrated - he is capable of anything. If we were to react to each and every distasteful thing he does, we would do nothing else, but once in a while it is good to take issue with his negative deviations.

The suffering of Romani people during communism

Romani people, according to Zeman, did not suffer "as much" as others did during communism. It is difficult to say what he means by this.

Does he mean they had jobs? Everybody here had jobs then.

"I am decidedly no friend of communism, but during communism Romani people had to work. Most of them worked as ditch-diggers, and if they refused to work, they were designated as work-shy and went to prison. In addition, there was a kind of system where the Romani labor platoons were led by Romani men who had natural authority, so if somebody on their team didn't work, they slapped him around. It's a very humane method that worked most of the time," Zeman said of the Romani people who were of a productive age during the communist era of normalization in Czechoslovakia.

So as long as a Romani person who was not working could avoid imprisonment for parasitism, or as long as a Romani person was forced to work by being slapped around, then that Romani person did not suffer as much as everybody else who worked according to these communist concepts? Zeman's notions, as we can see, are absurd, but non-thinking voters are charmed by them.

In those days everybody was employed because they had to be - otherwise they risked imprisonment. However, very few people worked more than four hours a day, because there was over-employment here.

The number of people employed by enterprises, most of the time, was higher than necessary for the work they were tasked with - exactly because everybody had to be employed. The symbol of those days and of many cartoons was the ditch-digger leaning on his shovel.

It was the communists who weaned all of us, black and white, away from doing honest labor. The communists also forcibly assimilated Romani people, destroying their culture to a great degree, including their awareness that the Romani people are their own nation.

The communists artificially kept Romani people at the lowest social rung on the ladder - even Zeman himself says they mostly worked as ditch-diggers (frequently also as asphalters, pavers, etc.). Romani children automatically attended the "auxiliary labor schools", unlike the white children.

Many Romani women were sterilized without being aware that this was being done to them, unlike white women. So how was it really with Romani suffering during the communist regime?

Romani working people

The same goes for the rest of Zeman's invective - he has alleged that 90 % of Romani people in the Czech Republic today do not work, which is just another of his many lies. According to the ROMEA organization, which knows a great deal about the Romani population here - more than Zeman and Co., - there are an estimated 150 000 economically active Romani people living in the Czech Republic.

In the socially excluded localities, 75 000 Romani people are economically active. "If we were to base our estimates on the most recent numbers from the year 2015, about 50 000 Romani people living in those localities do not have jobs," Monika Mihaličková of ROMEA has said.

"That means 70 % of the Romani people in the country do work for a living," she concluded. Zeman also does not say why (some) Romani people do not work - and the reason is that many are rejected by employers just because they are Romani.

I myself have encountered employers who have had bad experiences with Romani workers and who therefore do not like hiring other Roma. However, during the time I have been writing about this subject - 28 years - such cases have been few and far between, with the rest not wanting to hire Romani people purely for racist reasons.

I have also met Romani people who have long since stopped looking for jobs, but just a few of them were actually "lazy", as the Internet discussers argue. Most of them have been looking for work for several years.

Tired of constant rejections, they have resigned themselves to being unemployed, because they did not see any other prospect for their lives. Many of those Romani people take temporary jobs or collect scrap metal for resale in order to feed their families because welfare is not enough for them to subsist on.

Why Romani people do not report their nationality to the authorities

Zeman has also ridiculed Romani people for not reporting their nationality to authorities. He does not, however, say why that is.

There are many reasons for this: As has been stated above, the communists destroyed Romani people's awareness of themselves as a nation. National pride returns much more slowly than it can be lost.

The constant humiliation of Romani people by many famous figures - such as Zeman - decidedly does not aid Romani people with acquiring more self-confidence. Fear of being mentioned in lists (including census questionnaires) as somehow different from others is apparent among Jewish people as well, not just among the Roma.

The Nazis and the communists abused such data not just to discriminate against such people, but to murder or persecute them. Also, many Romani people and many whites confuse the categories of "nationality" and "citizenship".

I frequently encountered such confusion when speaking with people in the ghettos and I had to explain the difference between the two many times. Some Romani people even intentionally choose another nationality to identify with because they do not want to belong here to a minority that has been eternally persecuted - but I have actually encountered this rarely.

Such people have simply had enough of the persecution. To be constantly subjected to contempt and discrimination is a heavy burden.

If Zeman had just a bit of social intelligence, he would think about all these reasons and be able to assess them. Instead of reflection, however, he stands around leaning on a shovel that bears the following clever inscription: "We reach the heights by walking on the backs of the Roma."

František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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