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January 25, 2022



Czech Pirate Party chair: Emancipation, not "integration", for the Roma

6.1.2021 12:46
Ivan Bartoš (PHOTO: Petr Zewlakk Vrabec)
Ivan Bartoš (PHOTO: Petr Zewlakk Vrabec)

"Romani people who enter politics should be involved in the agenda of solving the problems of the entire society. We have to learn to begin doing things together," says the chair of the Czech Pirate Party, Ivan Bartoš, in an interview for Romano vod'i magazine.

PhDr. Ivan Bartoš (born 1980) is from Jablonec nad Nisou, lives in Prague, and graduated in Information and Library Studies from the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague before briefly working in the Computer Science Department at the University of New Orleans in the USA. He is the founder and chair of the Czech Pirate Party, currently the second-strongest party in the Chamber of Deputies.  

Q:  Congratulations on the birth of your son... Which change in your thought process surprised you the most when you compare your pre-parental experience to now? 

A:  It's a miracle. I was present for his birth. Not everybody has the good luck to have a child, and not everybody wants to have one, and to me it had always seemed like a cliché - and in politics we hear it a lot - that "we are doing this for our children". If you have a child or are raising one, then you fully realize the meaning of those words. One matures in terms of the values for which one fights.

Q: Together with Czech MP Olga Richterová (Pirates) you supported the ROMEA organization's scholarship program for Romani students. In your speech when the scholarships were awarded, you spoke of your vision of accessible education for all. How can that be fulfilled?

A:  Education is a problem for all of society, not just for Romani people, whether that has to do with its quality or its accessibility, and accessing it is more difficult if you're born into a family that does not value it. That's beyond children's control, and if they don't have parents behind them who lead them toward an education, then children basically follow the path of least resistance. Well-educated people are able to make informed decisions and that is the guarantee that any democracy will be preserved. I was glad to support the scholarship program because basically it is compensating for the impermeability of our education system, whether that be due to economic demands, or through the mentoring and know/how the students share with each other in the program. The social environment from which you come actually determines in advance, before you begin attending school, what your future will be here. There are children who do not come from excluded localities, but their parents live in residential hotels or are in a complicated social situation, and because of that, such children are worse off than their peers, and so it is decided that they should delay enrolling into primary school, or that they should enroll into a school with a special needs program. These children are not suffering from any kind of disorder and they should not be discriminated against just because their family's socioecnomic situation disadvantages them. That disadvantage follows them around for the rest of their lives, and that is why it's necessary to aid them by adjusting the "starting lines" and assisting these children so that they will not be the ones "who didn't get it" for all their lives. Another ailment of our system is the existence of segregated schools. Those are wrong in and of themselves, but when I speak with Romani people, we encounter the fact that the Romani children attending those schools do have a certain feeling of community safety, they do not experience racial discrimination within them. This problem basically is intrinsic to how society is set up overall.

Q:  Then there are the questions of applying oneself on the labor market, and access to housing and medical care - which naturally are not just problems for Romani people here, either. However, Romani people have long grappled with institutional discrimination here. Should the state lead by example to show that discrimination is not effective?

A:  There are also too few Romani people in politics. I dislike the paternalistic approach, so let's discuss emancipation, not "integration", which has been the mantra of the political scene for 30 years now. Our party just ran Karel Karika as the leader of our candidate list in the Ústecký Region - not because he is Romani, but because he got involved with a certain agenda in an emancipated way, in solving problems for all of society. In the Czech Republic, housing is unaffordable for the majority as well, and for Romani people access is logically even worse. The Pirates are offering an analysis of this problem. I believe we also comprehend it. For the populists, discussing "the Roma" is like taking a fast elevator up to the top floor of electoral gain. We see that in the campaigns whose racist slogans are decorating the trams here. Politicians, when they are able to, kick that football around because it scores them fast points with the majority. Many people here are living in complicated situations, though - maybe they're under collections proceedings - and not just Romani people. The "guestimate" is that there are 800 000 collections proceedings underway in the Czech Republic, and when I compare that to the estimated number of Romani people in the country, then in absolute numbers this represents a significant problem of the majority society, more than for the Romani minority, although the percentage of collections will certainly be high among them. This has to be revealed.

Q:  The Pirates are the only party giving Romani figures room to be engaged in politics at the local level and offering them leading spots on candidate lists. Why is it personally important to you do do this?

A:  The Pirates don't judge people based on their origin or their orientation, for example. The fact that Cyril Koky and Karel Karika are Romani played no role in our accepting them. What is important is their quality, the work they have done so far in the regions. Candidates should be honorable, hardworking, and offer a policy dimension that takes care of citizens' needs. Karika has done a great deal of work in the social arena in the very difficult Ústecký Region. The entire nonprofit sector here is replacing a state that is unable to aid people in adversity with kick-starting some better conditions for themselves. I am glad about both those candidates, and I don't want to debate whether they are Romani or not. On the other hand, in the entire history of our Parliament there have only ever been two Romani MPs. 

Q:  The election of the last such MP, Monika Mihaličková, was 22 years ago. Why is it that the Czech Roma, unlike in Slovakia, where there are currently three Romani MPs, are not managing to enjoy a similar success? 

A:  There are historical reasons for that, but also the de facto opportunity to dedicate oneself above all else to a civic calling, to political life. Before you are called somewhere, politics is about voluntary work. You have to be in a living situation where you can afford or enjoy the conditions for being able to get involved in your free time. Even an opposition local assembly member is paid a couple of thousand crowns a month, not just MPs. Please note that some Romani people do not return to their communities after achieving a better social or economic position. Politicians and political movements also play a role, because they have long been stirring up extremist, populist opinions. It's difficult to go into politics in and of itself. Your opponents could conduct a campaign to discredit you, defamatory articles might be published about you. Among the Roma, who do not have the backup of a political party willing to fight for its candidates, this work is that much more difficult. 
Q:  Have you reflected on why it is that Romani people have a bigger chance of succeeding during the elections if they join a majority party than when they run for a Romani one?

A:  There is nothing wrong with a Romani person joining a majority-society party. Last year in Prague I got involved with the representation of the Romani organizations at the House of National Minorities, and I saw a rather deeply-rooted rivalry among some figures from the Romani community who are active in the nonprofit sector or politically active somehow. Whenever I address education together with Romani activists in the South Moravian Region I say that we have to address these issues together. That's what emancipation is, and that is what we offer - addressing, together, all questions of concern to society. The consequence of that is Karel Karika and Cyril Koky on our candidate lists. This is not about campaigning so all Romani people vote for us. That would also deny the principle of equality. That would be similar to saying that people who have a different sexual orientation should just vote for the party that has equal marriage for same-sex couples in its program. Naturally, things don't work that way, those people will vote for a party because of how its program addresses taxes, health care, and other subjects.  

Q: How can we motivate people to take an interest in politics and to make responsible decisions as voters? Is it at all possible to combat the vote-buying here?

A: It's necessary to restore the importance to politics that it should have, politics is not just about decision-making by the "big cheeses", it is connected to every single one of our lives. If somebody doesn't vote at all, that is also a choice, and I respect it. Vote-buying is a serious offense that has to be proven and it decidedly is not a legitimate way to win an election. Some old American films show how some parties used to hire "bouncers" to block access to the ballot box and prevent voters from casting their ballots. In our country, too, intimidation works during campaigns. Politics has to be real so a politician does what he has promised to do. If people do not feel politicians' actions have direct results, then participation will be low, or voters will just elect those people who offer them advantages in particular. They'll hire somebody who has influence in a community, even the Romani community, why not, and promise him something. I'll give you an example: A politician supports the creation of a construction company in his town employing people who are unable to get jobs, for example, because they have criminal records, or because they're Romani and discriminated against on that basis. That's the politics of making a commitment, not the politics of offering you CZK 500 [EUR 20] for your vote, which just exploits the fact that you're in a bad situation. I don't know exactly how the big financial punishments are handed down if you cheat during elections, but I've noticed some fines for that, and they were mild. If you win through fraud, and if that victory yields you political power and money, then it's just not enough to punish an error or an intentional swindle with a fine that's on the order of CZK 100 000 [EUR 3 800].

Q:  Why, in your view, is Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš (Association of Dissatisfied Citizens - ANO) so popular in the Czech Republic? Do you believe you have a chance, in coalition with the STAN movement (Mayors and Independents) of defeating him in the elections? 

A:  We're going into the elections with that ambition. Andrej Babiš entered politics eight years ago with no program, he built a program on the basis of powerful marketing. He borrowed different kinds of know-how from other parties, stuff that seemed trendy to him. He distinctly succeeded during the elections because his CZK 100 million [EUR 3.8 million] campaign was visible. It turns out that his vision of "running the state like a firm" was a castle in the air. Critics frequently say to him: "I'd be interested to see how far you would have got if you'd managed your firms with a deficit and treated your employees the way the state treats some groups of people". They're right. When I first got into politics, Babiš was doing his business with the politicians from the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), he was building his Agrofert empire. Back then, when we entered politics 11 years ago, politicians like Topolánek, Paroubek or Bárta were governing. Politicians like that, when their backs are against the wall, respond by distributing electoral favors. Here we are coming back full circle to the fact that when a society is educated and rich, then it manages to resist propaganda, it won't allow itself to be bought, and it investigates such creatures.
Q:  One of the vice presidents of the Chamber of Deputies is Tomio Okamura ("Freedom and Direct Democracy" - SPD), who is infamous for his anti-Romani remarks...

A:  I assess some of his remarks as pure antigypsyism. It's rhetoric similar to that used during the Holocaust of the Roma. In a democratic country, such a politician's career would be over, but not during the reign of Andrej Babiš, who de facto governs with these communities and depends on SPD votes whenever it suits him. The ANO movement guarantees Tomio Okamura's position as a vice president of the lower house through its votes, its majority. The Pirates have not voted for Okamura and have supported initiatives to remove him after his most problematic remarks. However, in democratic elections even a person who presents himself in such a way can be elected. The legality of the steps taken by such people should be addressed by the police (and fortunately, they are). The question is how deeply Mr Tomio Okamura himself is convinced of what he says and to what degree it's all just marketing because he knows which instincts of his voters to target. He is an embarrassment to the post of vice president of the lower house. Unfortunately, at this moment we do not have the votes we need to undo this.     

Q:  Racist and xenophobic attitudes are expressed by other representatives of the state as well. Shouldn't the reactions of political parties to these unacceptable remarks be louder?

A:  My slogan is:  If you want people to hear you, shout, if you want people to understand you, whisper. That doesn't mean "shut up". This is about communication. If a highly-placed politician sings a xenophobic or racist tune, that's wrong. When that happens, we have always spoken up, whether it was the Castle, Tomio Okamura, or a local politician. It's necessary to speak with the people who trust those politicians, though. When I was aiding Mr Karika's campaign in Ústí nad Labem, a lady sat down next to me and told me how horrible it is to have Romani neighbors, because hers are "constantly" flooding her apartment. Then we got into how to read a water meter, which is important to deal with because everybody in an apartment building bears the economic impact if somebody is using water or electricity illegally. The merits of her case were another matter, though. When she was done speaking, I asked her how many times she'd experienced this, and she said it had happened three times during the last decade. Now, I'm not a problematic tenant myself, but I also flooded my neighbors' apartments a couple times in different places where I was living. In my case the lady would have taken exception to somebody with dreadlocks for flooding her apartment. We have to look for the causes as to why people listen to populists. It's painstaking work. I have convinced some people on Facebook not to share hateful racism, for example. This is not a priori about hatred, it's about people who have their own problems and need to find a lightning rod for their frustrations. If I can, I also participate in the Roma Pride march with my friends. In 2018, in response to the remarks made by President Zeman, I delivered a manifesto to his office at Prague Castle that reviewed 100 years of mutual coexistence in the Czech Republic through Romani eyes. That document described the relationship of Czech society toward Romani people from the First Republic, through the war, to the communist approach to matters such as the sterilization of Romani women. I still see a deficit with regard to that history. The horrors of the Second World War are still being dealt with, and I do not believe that Germany would take an alibistic approach to them. In our country, through, the majority society actually has never spoken of coming to terms with its own history vis-à-vis the Roma. For that reason, I see the approach taken by Čaputová, the President of Slovakia, as very positive. While our President felt the need to kick around a political football, her commemoration of the Holocaust and its Romani victims represented the offering of a kind of satisfaction. We had a common history up until Czechoslovakia fell apart, and that means she was also speaking for us, or certainly for me, in any event.

Q:  Almost 40 % of people here are living either in poverty or on the edge of poverty. What can we do so that their situations do not intensify with these lockdowns during the pandemic?          

A:  COVID-19 has intensified the existing problems in the Czech Republic even more. We Pirates presented the Government with a year-long plan at the beginning of the first wave in April, called "We're Addressing the Future Now", which is public on the web, and it addresses, in addition to medical questions, also economic impacts. It is important to realize that people who had to address their economic situations through temp work, whether they were senior citizens or mothers on maternity leave, have lost that opportunity. For that reason, we have been fighting for compensation for people who work on DPP and DPČ contracts. Those people had been unable to live on the money they get from the state even during the pre-COVID regime. With the lockdown, more and more people are hitting rock bottom.  

Q:  You've mentioned that one way to extricate oneself from poverty and social exclusion is education. Some civil society members of the Czech Government Council for Romani Minority Affairs have recently resigned in protest because they are concerned that that what is about to be adopted will once again be an "empty" document, that the Government's tasks for the executive will be "soft" ones, without any actual impact on changes in society...

A:  In my opinion, that document suffers exactly from the deficit we were speaking of in the beginning. We are still endeavoring to "integrate" instead of discussing "emancipation", i.e., actually involving Romani people and working with them. We Pirates have developed a plan for municipalities, because it is exactly at the level of towns and villages that all matters actually begin to be addressed. The Czech Republic did pilot the original version of this project along with Hungary, for example, but unlike the western countries, our country then retreated from it. The European program ROMACT establishes collaborations instead of paternalistically solving problems without the active participation of those concerned. That is how a society and a state should function. This applies to much more than just the majority society approach to other groups and minorities. 

First published in Romano voďi magazine

Rena Horvátová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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