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Czech experts warn politicians to address anti-Roma racism or there will be pogroms

Prague, 27.8.2013 21:12, (ROMEA)
Czech sociologist Ivan Gabal. (Photo:  Romea.cz archive)
Czech sociologist Ivan Gabal. (Photo: Romea.cz archive)

In the struggle for coexistence between the Romani minority and the rest of the population, optimists are getting the short end of the stick now more than ever before. Last Saturday's coordinated, simultaneous racist marches in six towns, the biggest event of its kind in the history of the country, were proof enough of this. 

How are we to interpret this? Is the Czech Republic at the start of an era in which racially motivated unrest is becoming the rule, not the exception? If so, how can this be prevented?

The frustrated against the frustrated

The problem is well-known:  Social ghettos on the outskirts of towns in regions that have already been sorely tested, landlords trafficking in the rent support from the state for residential hotels that are falling apart and are the last resort for Romani people who don't want to be homeless, an expansion of gambling establishments (which until recently were completely unrestricted), loan sharking, unemployment, the latent racism of Czechs, and the resignation of Romani people themselves to being pushed to the bottom. Why, however, is the country now experiencing its greatest-ever spurt of anti-Romani hatred?

Experts say this is due to a combination of several facts. There is the absence of a long-term strategy on the part of the government to address coexistence between the majority population and the Romani minority, or at least not a strategy that has not been annulled or changed with each new set of political representatives, as has happened to date.

The economic crisis has impacted many Czech people with problems that previously were all but exclusively the domain of Romani people here:  Inability to find work, loss of housing, indebtedness, and hopelessness. "Anti-Roma racism is strengthened by the personal frustration of many ethnic Czechs with their own personal situations," confirms Miroslav Mareš, an expert on extremism and a political scientist at Masaryk University in Brno.

The most recent protest events are not just the territory of the ultra-right, as more and more often the ordinary long-term residents of a town, including families with children, have been out shouting slogans alongside the neo-Nazis. Essentially the frustrated are standing against the frustrated.

It is symptomatic that the first large-scale protest with this kind of ethnic subtext took place at the Janov housing estate in Litvínov at the same time the economic crisis erupted in 2008. "We are seeing that it is only in the places where these mass actions happen that the state starts getting involved in addressing what is burdening 'ordinary citizens'. When there are no demonstrations, no one takes any interest in their situation. The extremists are capable of announcing a demonstration, organizing it and ensuring the media will cover it," Mareš says.

Sociologist Ivan Gabal has this to say:  "These are regions from which more people are leaving than arriving, because the quality of life there is significantly lower than elsewhere. The presence of excluded Romani localities is just one part of this, and various governments have not yet managed to address this - on the contrary. All one has to do is look at the low rate at which we have drawn on the European structural aid in recent years and the poor job we have done of it."

What lies ahead

Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner Monika Šimůnková has drafted a law on social housing that should wipe out the business in rent subsidies to impoverished ghettos and offer people dignified housing at a rational cost. The only problem is that, faced with the paralysis in the highest levels of politics here and the expectation of new elections, the recently-installed government risks the possibility that this law (and others whose desired effects will not manifest immediately) will fall by the wayside, postponing a systemic resolution even further into the future once more.     

In the meantime, in the words of Mareš, an "entire 'lost generation' of Romani people" has just come of age and is still growing up, people "incapable of joining the labor market, who are taken up by ethnic criminal gangs, and the police themselves are incapable of calming local residents' fear of them in the places where they operate." This is why, according to many people involved, the situation could become even further exacerbated.

"I expect deaths on either side," says attorney Klára Samková, who has long worked with the Romani minority. Journalist Saša Uhlová is also not exactly a fountain of optimism. 

Uhlová says that without thorough police intervention, some of the most recent anti-Roma assemblies would have resulted in actual pogroms. "I am convinced that if large numbers of law enforcement had not been working on the scene, something like that would have happened," says the commentator, who has long written about Romani people.  

Nevertheless, this dark vision of the future doesn't have to become reality. Most consider that a path to better times will be open up once the domestic economy is in better condition, leading to the growth of job opportunities. 

However, this will not solve everything in and of itself, if only because Romani gangs function independently of GDP growth. The racism of many Czechs - and therefore the likelihood they will hire Roma - will also not disappear as domestic comfort increases.   

Miroslav Mareš says that is why all political representatives should concentrate mainly on enhancing security in mixed neighborhoods. "On the one hand, it is important to target the activity of specialized police units on troublesome clans and gangs," he says,"and on the other to enhance community police." 

Many Czech towns, such as Sokolov, have good experience with such policing, where locals - people who are acquaintances and neighbors with one another - perform the role of community policing. Outgoing Czech Interior Minister Martin Pecina now wants to introduce such patrols at the Máj housing estate in České Budějovice.

What else? Integrating Romani children into mainstream eduction? Affirmative action? Getting the Czech Prime Minister to support a festival of Romani bands?

"Whatever it takes, all of it," says sociologist Ivan Gabal. Both he and Mareš consider "top-level politicians' know-nothingism" and their "inability to come up with competent solutions" as the key cause of the current situation.  

Samková adds that it is necessary to include Romani people themselves as part of the solution, which has not yet happened. She claims that all of the Roma involved in the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion and other committees on minority issues have left those bodies because their attention was being dedicated merely to keeping communities calm, not to actually assisting Romani people. 

The overall mess has created a situation such that, in the words of Ivan Gabal, "we have lost the capability to pressure ghetto residents on welfare to make some effort to free themselves from their conditions", essentially complicating any correction of the situation. There is not a lot of time left to start treating this illness.   


Jan Šilhan, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Tags:  

Demonstrace, protiromský pochod, situace ve společnosti, Czech republic, Extremism, Ghetto, integration, Martin Pecina, Neo-Nazism, news, Racism, Roma



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