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Czech Romani activist Emil Ščuka: We're "gypsies" again, just like before 1989

Prague, 18.9.2011 19:21, (ROMEA)
Emil Ščuka | foto: Jiří Benák,

Emil Ščuka, the former chair of the Romani Civic Initiative (Romská občanská iniciativa) and one of the main leaders of the Romani community post-1989 has broken his many years of silence. In an interview for news server in which he comments on today's anti-Roma atmosphere in Czech society, Ščuka says it is the fault of Romani people themselves that conditions in the Czech Republic have returned to those of pre-1989 Czechoslovakia, namely, that they have become "gypsies" once more. News server reprints the interview in full.

Q: What is your opinion of the currently tense situation in Šluknov district?

A: I am rather overwhelmed by it all, like every other Romani person in this country, because it could spark a chain reaction. There are already warnings that something similar might take place in Přerov. Will this spread to every town? The government's decisions [its recipe for Romani ghettos - author's note] is decidedly not what we have been waiting for. Prime Minister Nečas is weak. He has not resolved other scandals and I am concerned that he will not resolve this one. He has neither the desire nor the political will to do so, because as far as the Romani question is concerned, he has made a fundamental misstep.

Q: What do you see the main causes of this tension as being?

A: This was to be expected. It's nothing new to me. It chills me to the bone that we are already in this situation. Given that I have been living in this country and so much has changed during the past 20 years - we too have changed, and we have given people rather large reasons for this backlash.

Q: You mean the Roma?

A: Yes, definitely. Both sides are to blame. I cannot say today that the majority is to blame and that we are innocent. Those days are over - that I could have said during the 1990s, but not today. Today the situation has greatly changed. I don't have an answer for what some Romani people are up to today. I know Rumburk, we have a school there.

Q: So where is the problem?

A: Many Romani people do not have jobs. I wouldn't say Romani unemployment is 90 % - it's not that high. Some Romani people work under the table - they aren't employed, they draw welfare, and at the same time they do temporary work. Naturally, many of them are unemployable. That is the problem, an entire generation is growing up like this. However, it's not just in the Šluknov foothills. Romani people are committing crimes that are visible, such as dealing in drugs and prostitution. All of North Bohemia is mixed up in this, that's just the way it is.

Q: It looks like anarchy…

A: It is. Good people have become "inadaptables". Naturally, there is a group of very good Romani people and I know those examples because those are the people who attend my school. The children there have to last four years and whoever makes it has enormous support from their parents. There are often great sacrifices involved. The parents are informed as to how well their children are studying, we visit the families. However, I also know a group of Romani people whose children we had to expel, because they were not attending, or attending too little, and they were just amazed they had to attend five days a week.

Q: How has the position of the Romani minority changed since 1989?

A: We are in the worst position possible. During the 1990s, statistics told us that 60 % of the country didn't like us. Today, it's 90 %. During the 1990s, however, people were afraid to publicly come out and say the word "gypsy", that term was not used in respectable society. Everyone in the course of a few years after the revolution learned that we are Roma. At home they might say to one another "those scabby gypsies", but no one dared say it in public. Today a Czech Senator and various mayors call us that name. We are "gypsies" to them once more, we have returned to the pre-revolutionary time.

Q: Do the Roma lack a leader?

A: Today any leader who might defend the rights of just the Roma wouldn't stand a chance. It must be a leader who knows how to point out the flaws of the nation, someone who would know how to speak in public, how to say what we want - but also, what we are doing poorly ourselves, what society doesn't like and what we ourselves must correct. If we ourselves are not doing this, there is no reason for anyone in this state to protect us.

Q: What do you think Romani people have done wrong during the past 20 years?

A: We raise our children poorly. Despite the many actions, associations, and nonprofit organizations into which a great deal of money from the non-state sphere flowed during the 1990s, we have not solved, for example, the question of education. In almost every town where some association was in operation, we have been explaining to parents what their responsibilities to their children are, what the "special schools" are, the fact that without parental signatures, children cannot be enrolled there. However, Romani parents' understanding has often been that if the oldest sibling attends a "special school", the younger one should attend it too. There is an enormous absence rate of Romani pupils at both normal and "special" elementary schools. Romani pupils barely attend those schools, and almost no one objects to that. We know how to yell for the "special" schools to be shut, but why doesn't some association compile statistics about the fact that most Romani children don't attend school at all? The worst thing to have afflicted the Roma is the absence of political will on the part of the government to do something for the Roma.

Q: What should the Roma do for themselves?

A: Romani people should live respectable lives. They should raise their children respectably so others won't target them as burdens on the population. This is about something more than just work. I don't have to be employed. If I am really looking for work and cannot find it, I simply will not be employed. However, I will live in such a way that no one can point the finger at me and say I am living badly. I will manage to take care of my children and see that they attend school. I will make sure the street in front of my home is clean. I will protect my children from harmful influences. If a family lives respectably anywhere in the Czech Republic, their neighbors won't give them dirty looks even if they are unemployed.

Q: What about discrimination against Romani people seeking work?

A: The state pretends it can't create jobs. We challenged ministers and prime ministers over this at countless meetings during the 1990s. We drafted concepts and demanded the state intervene, that it create employment opportunities for Romani people. No one ever did that. Since 1993 we have warned that the Ukrainians were taking Romani jobs. Then-Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Vodička told us at the time that he couldn't influence the private firms who were hiring Ukrainians.

We told him he could tighten the rules for long-term residency of foreigners, monitor their contributions to the national health plan and social security, and monitor whether the firms were paying those contributions for them. Years later, thanks to other ministers, it came to light that there was a big lobby involved. If the ministers wanted the construction industry to prosper, the state had to close its eyes to the fact that these firms were not paying those contributions or taxes. We Roma said that this was happening to our detriment, because before this all began, work with the pickax, shovel and wheelbarrow was ours. It was ours for 40 years. After the war, they had no one but the "Roma guys" for manual labor. We learned to do it and we wanted to do it. We built the entire engineering network from Cheb to Košice. Electrification, manual labor, sewerage - the Roma did it all. Today they have no use for us.

The state resisted, no one wanted to address this. The ministers came and went. They would meet with us, shake our hands, but that was all. The state is the largest issuer of public tenders for construction projects. During the 1990s, the state invested between CZK 600 and 800 billion crowns into such work. We wanted the state, in accordance with the law on public tenders, to adopt a clause stating that every company that won a public, state tender was obliged to make sure its workforce would be 5 % Roma. They said that was "positive discrimination" - affirmative action - and that it couldn't be. Yes, it is affirmative action, but we can't get by without it in this state. Otherwise, some day there will be a civil war here, and I have already said before that we are heading in that direction. The big firms received billion-crown tenders and did not give us that 5 % of work we were looking for. If they had done so, it would have saved the state money on social welfare. We would have made our contributions, it would have all been the state's money still. We didn't succeed with this proposal anywhere, only with Václav Klaus.

Q: How exactly?

A: In September 1997, when there was a large wave of Romani emigration, Prime Minister Klaus received a six-member Romani delegation. We described to him what our idea was with respect to state tenders and he told us we were right. He called the executive director of the Office of the Government and said to him: Listen to Mr Ščuka's argument, would this work? The answer was that it would require a bill, but it would work. When Klaus asked why it hadn't been possible earlier, it was apparently because no one had suggested it before. At the same time, Klaus created the so-called Bratinka Group and gave it a month to report back. A government decree was drafted thanks to which the Inter-ministerial Commission was set up - today it is called the Inter-ministerial Commission for Roma Community Affairs. When everything was ready, Klaus was removed from office. He was the only person in the government who wanted to listen to what was necessary to do with the Roma. Neither the Christian Democrats nor the Socialists were interested.


JUDr. Emil Ščuka was one of the central figures in the Romani community in post-revolutionary Czechoslovakia. He was involved with Civic Forum (Občanský fórum). From 1990 to 2001 he was the chair of the Romani Civic Initiative (Romská občanská iniciativa - ROI). He resigned that office in 2000 when he was elected president of the International Romani Union (IRU).

Prior to the revolution, Mr Ščuka was an attorney in Sokolov and then in Prague. He is currently the director of the Professional High School of Law and Management, which has been in operation for six months. He also manages the Prague Conservatory, which he founded.

Gwendolyn Albert, Patrik Banga, Patrik Banga,, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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