Czech Republic: Were the Romani Council elections in Ostrava a farce, or a sign of hope?
According to various estimates, there are between 25 000 to 40 000 Romani people living in the city of Ostrava, of whom about 6 000 live in "excluded localities" or ghettos. Earlier this month, elections took place in Ostrava for a "Romani Council".
The members of that council were elected by a total of 132 Romani voters. With respect to the number of voters who participated, there can be no doubt that there is a significant problem - can we even say that this Romani Council actually represents anyone?
Specifically, does the Romani Council in Ostrava actually represent the Romani people there? Another problem is the jealousy that exists between various groups of Romani people, or rather, between activists and Romani people now mutually accusing each other of manipulating those who voted in these proceedings.
"On Saturday, 7 February 2015, at the Ostrava House of Culture, elections to the Romani Council took place. They were held without it being known what the Romani Council is or what its powers and responsibilities are. The elections took place without establishing a list of candidates in advance, undemocratically, and the results benefit some interest groups in particular," writes Ivana Mariposa Čonková on the Akana news server, which is linked to the Konexe association.
Vladimír Leško, the entrepreneur in Ostrava who organized the election at the House of Culture, told news server Romea.cz the following: "Konexe never likes anything. They just rail against everyone so they can get grants, publicity and subsidies."
Do impoverished Roma exist?
The Ostrava Romani Council could be an epoch-making body - its creation has been agreed to by Deputy Mayor of Ostrava Zdeněk Pražák, who has made it clear that the city wants to collaborate with Romani people on solving their problems. The ideal vision is that a representative Romani body would be created that will be able to competently negotiate with the City Council regarding crucial problems in the lives of the Romani minority and their coexistence with the majority population.
Miroslav Brož of the Konexe association, however, claims that instead what has been created is a body representing the interests of those Romani people who, thanks to their economic power, control those who are without economic power, exploiting them as a means of wealth creation. "The main figure here is Vladimír Leško, who personally owns five residential hotels in Ostrava," Brož explains.
"Impoverished Romani people who live in Leško's properties fear him and do whatever he wants," Brož claims. "Where would they go if he were to evict them from the residential hotels?"
Brož believes the Ostrava Romani Council elections were undemocratic, and local Romani activist Imrich Horvát, who is also close to Konexe, agrees with him. As of 10 days ago, Horvát was in England, but he has posted a message to his Facebook profile stating that the elections to the Romani Council will be repeated on 8 April and mainly, that they must be democratic this time.
Leško, the chair of the new Romani Council in Ostrava, is of course satisfied with the previous elections. "They keep talking about impoverished Roma, about the fact that the poor didn't get a vote. Who here is an impoverished Roma? I don't know," he says.
"We are all Romani," the Romani Council chair insists. "We aren't living in Africa, no one here is that impoverished, we live in the Czech Republic and we have some social security here."
Leško claims he attempted to reach all voters ("I do my best to do everything democratically and from the heart") and says he distributed 10 000 leaflets around Ostrava calling on Roma to participate in the elections, investing his own money into the effort. "Yes, I wanted more than 132 people to participate, but evidently those who really want to solve problems are the ones who turned up," he says.
The newly-elected chair says he considers complaints that he somehow manipulated people to participate in the elections, or that many members of his own family were among the voters, to be comical. "I just watched the video footage of the proceedings again, we also had a sign-in sheet, and I only see about 20 members of my family there!" he says.
Does the Ostrava Romani Council exist?
Leško has big plans for the Romani Council - he wants to augment it with Romani experts, college-educated people who could be dignified partners with the City Council. "We must finally show that we know how to do something, that we have what it takes, and ultimately we must make some sort of progress," he explains.
Whether Ostrava City Hall will consider a Romani Council formed in this way as a partner, however, is not yet clear. Pražák has not responded to news server Romea.cz's many urgent requests for comment.
There is no doubt that the situation in Ostrava is not a simple one. The city could accept the Romani Council as a partner, but would risk critics taunting them that such a move is just an alibi for the city to be able to say "You see, we collaborate with Romani people, what more do you want?!"
That is irrespective of the fact that the Romani Council might represent only a minority of the Romani people in Ostrava or only some interest groups. The city could reject the Romani Council as a partner, which would risk critics complaining that they don't take Romani people seriously, or that the city is attempting to interfere with Romani people's internal affairs and to influence their elections.
In the interim, repeat elections could take place and a shadow Romani Council could be created. What then?
It seems that at this time, almost nothing is clear - except the fact that this all seems tragicomic. It's unclear whether such elections are the optimal tool for activating Romani people and increasing their influence in public affairs.
It's also unclear whether such a process is the best tool for organizing Romani people to represent themselves. Lastly, it is far from clear whether the Roma themselves actually want such elections, or whether this is the way to improve the life of the Roma and their coexistence with the majority society, political concepts and declarations notwithstanding.
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