Romani politicans as part of the November 1989 Velvet Revolution
A quarter of a century ago, the totalitarian regime under the leadership of the Communist Party fell in what was then Czechoslovakia - but how were Romani people involved in the so-called Velvet Revolution? Did you know that on 25 November 1989, 800 000 people gathered on Letná Plain in Prague chanted "Long live the Roma"?
Romani dissent and the "grey zone"
As far as dissent in the Czech Republic of the former Czechoslovakia was concerned, the Romani minority was represented by a single person, Karel Holomek, who signed up in 1988 to the already-established Movement for Civic Freedom (Hnutí za občanskou svobodu - HOS). Holomek had been thrown out of military college after 1968 and his Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) membership had been revoked; he was arrested and interrogated in 1981 on charges of "subverting the republic", and his cottage was a meeting-place for dissidents Ivan Klíma, Jiří Gruša, Jan Trefulka, Ludvík Vaculík, Eda Kriseová, Milan Šimečka and Miroslav Kusý.
In April 1986, according to Petr Víšek, a group of Romani men (Messrs Baláž, Gergel and Oláh) sent a letter to the Central Committee of the KSČ asking that it address Romani problems. That group subsequently created the preparatory committee for the Romani Union in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in 1987.
In June 1988, Tibor Baláž and Vlado Oláh attended a KSČ Central Committee meeting, where the leadership pointedly ruled that "the establishment of an ethnically-conceived social organization would be a very problematic step with dubious results," and that therefore "we currently believe that a dialogue directed by us, not forced on us from the outside by the self-appointed spokesmen of the ethnic Roma, is useful." Another such meeting, according to Víšek, then took place on 4 November 1988 in the Hotel Prague.
At that meeting the Romani representatives included Ing. Holomek, E. Baláž, M. Demeter, V. Oláh, E. Ščuka and others, totalling about 20 people. They were received by Central Committee Secretary Hoffman, and another formal meeting during which nothing was resolved took place on 14 January 1989.
Roma Civic Initiative at a time of brotherhood between blacks and whites
On 19 November 1989, two days after the police intervened on Národní třída in Prague, Jan Rusenko, Emil Ščuka and Vojtěch Žiga established the prepartory committee for the Roma Civic Initiative (Romská občanská iniciativa - ROI). At the time Ščuka was a prosecutor in Prague, Rusenko was the director of a Romani folkore ensemble, and Žiga was a lawyer.
These men, together with the Christian intellectual Vlado Oláh and activist Ondřej Giňa, managed to respond the most rapidly during the chaotic situation and, through their activity, achieved an alliance between the democratic opposition and the Romani minority, if only in the form of an emotional, short-term tendency. On 21 November 1989, the ROI issued two declarations that were subsequently disseminated in the Romani and Slovak languages by the rebelling students, the Civic Forum (Občanské fórum - OF) and Romani people themselves.
The declarations took the form of leaflets that were copied at the Pedagogical Faculty of Charles University in Prague, mainly thanks to Kateřina Sidonová, the daughter of Charter 77 signatory Karol Sidon, who would later become Rabbi. The texts of the leaflets were written by Milena Hübschmannová, Rusenko and Ščuka, and were put together in the Prague apartments of Rusenko and Žiga.
One leaflet urged the following: "Sisters, brothers, Romale. Let's wake each other up! The day has come for which our predecessors have waited many long years. That day is now here. The Romani people living in this country can, for the first time, take their fate into their own hands. Now it is up to us to agree how to stick together and what we will do for our children. Let's join forces with the people who are willing to listen to us. That is Civic Forum (OF). OF has recognized our party, ROI. OF and ROI stand up for all Romani people in this country. Let's raise up our Romanipen for a better life. Let's not forget the truth of our fathers: Give respect and you will receive it. Emil Ščuka, Jan Rusenko – Roma Civic Initiative."
The public was also mobilized by another text in the Slovak language: "We, the committee of a civic initiative that represents 800 000 citizens of Romani nationality living in the ČSSR, have adopted the following position:
1 ) We Roma, who have a thousand-year history of hardship and suffering behind us, condemn the inhuman intervention by the forces of order of this state against the defenseless people honoring the memory of Jan Opletal.
2 ) We unequivocally espouse the declaration of the college students, the arts community and the Committee of the Czechoslovak Public in favor of human rights and humanitarian cooperation and we agree with its demands.
3 ) The Roma Civic Initiative identifies with and supports all of the demands of the Civic Forum dated 20 November 1989.
4 ) Through this position, which expresses the opinion of the vast majority of the Czechoslovak Roma, we hope the beginning of these societal changes will benefit real democracy in our homeland.
The students later publicly thanked the Roma in an emotional, flowery style: "We thank you for supporting us, the students, and everyone who has been persecuted for so many years. You yourselves know best of all what it is to be humiliated, oppressed and persecuted. People who have eyes and hearts have seen a debilitating stupidity and wrongdoing going on around them for 20 years. We have lived in fear and powerlessness, and people have not had the courage to walk a straight line. It seemed human life was losing its value. Many people's minds were darkened by a futile anger, and their quandary led to them to take that anger out on those who 'weren't holding the axe' - on the Roma. Now, however, the way forward is opening for us all - to the good, to humanity, to life. Let's go down that road together. Let's get to know one another, and hand in hand we will create a society where people have the opportunity to learn decency, where blacks and whites will be respected, where a human being is able to become a human being. Of course, we cannot go down the path of humanity with the Devil, but with the Good Word, with mutual recognition and love in our hearts. We may not travel quickly, but if we persist, we will make it. - Students of the colleges, 25 November 1989 in Prague."
At that time the ROI condemned the KSČ for its approach to the Romani issue and demanded that the Romani nationality be anchored legal the nely in the new Constitution. Rusenko and Ščuka brought their Slovak-language Declaration, signed on behalf of ROI by 13 people, to the OF headquarters at the Laterna Magika theater, where they were welcomed by Václav Havel, among others.
On 24 November 1989, Ščuka became a member of the OF Conceptual Commission, and he and Rusenko got the opportunity to speak over the next two days in front of the entire nation. On 25 November, along with the leaders of the opposition, Rusenko and Ščuka spoke not just to the crowd of hundreds of thousands on the Letná Plain in Prague, but also, through the television cameras broadcasting the event live, to most households in the country, who were able to watch as a Romani group unfurled the Romani flag and the enormous crowd chanted "Long Live the Roma".
Several Romani people then gathered in Prague on 9 December 1989. That meeting resulted in a more narrow preparatory committee for ROI of Jan Rusenko, Emil Ščuka, Vojtěch Žiga and others, and ROI became part of the OF coordination center.
The miracle of 1990-1992: 11 Romani MPs
When, after 17 November 1989, the 64 members of the Czech National Council (České národní rady - ČNR) resigned under pressure from the opposition and their places were co-opted by OF followers, the democratic opposition called for the ROI to propose its own representative to the ČNR. Karel Holomek was put forward.
On 6 January 1990, Holomek became the first Romani MP in democratic Czechoslovakia as a representative of ROI on the candidate list of OF. By coincidence, the first Romani MP in the Communist republic at the start of the 1970s had been his father, Tomáš Holomek, who was an Army officer.
The constitutional convention of ROI took place on 10 March 1990 in the Eden cultural center in Prague. The 438 delegates in attendance elected a Central Committee comprised of 30 Romani people from Bohemia and 22 from Slovakia.
The Central Committee then elected Ščuka to lead the party. As of that convention, ROI could count as a constituent of the International Romani Union (IRU).
The ROI program declaration read: "The ROI is an open, supraideological political party bringing together all citizens irrespective of nationality or religion who care about the fate of the Roma. Through its own specific means, the ROI wants to contribute to real equality, increasing the cultural, living and political/societal standard of the Romani nationality as a whole. The ROI will strive for recognition of the Romani nationality. The ROI will ensure the right to work, to social security and to security in cases of difficult living situations, illness, invalidism and old age. The ROI will strive to make sure that the incorrect ways of addressing the Romani housing issue will no longer take place as they have in the past, and will take into consideration the current significant differences in the lives of Romani families. Romani people do not want to be separated from the education system of the rest of the population and they do not want to establish their own schools. At all grade levels in the schools, the ethnocultural specifics of Romani people should be respected."
Ščuka then began to engage with the IRU as well. Under the transformed conditions of post-1989 Poland, the Fourth World Congress of the IRU convened from 8 - 11 April 1990 in Serok near Warsaw, attended by 250 representatives from 24 countries.
Most of those participating represented Eastern Europe; Rajko Djurič of Yugoslavia became IRU President, with Ščuka of Czechoslovakia becoming Secretary-General. Back home, practically all of the significant Romani personalities first met in the ROI and got involved through it; for the time being, all of their differences of opinion, family animosities and personal disputes were set aside.
Romani representatives set out for the first free elections of June 1990 in the Czech Republic under the wing of OF, and in Slovakia within the framework of Public against Violence (VPN). That led to the ROI winning eight seats.
In the Federal Assembly (Federálním shromáždění - FS) the Czech pro-Romani activist Klára Samková represented Prague, while on the Czech National Council (Česká národní rada - ČNR) ROI was represented by Dezider Balog for the West Bohemian Region, Zdeněk Guži for the East Bohemian Region, Ondřej Giňa for the Central Bohemian Region, Karel Holomek for the South Moravian Region, and Milan Tatár for the North Bohemian Region; Romani MP Ladislav Body of North Bohemia was elected on the Communist Party ticket (he had joined the KSČ in 1979). The Slovak branch of ROI was represented in the FS by Gejza Adam, and on the Slovak National Council (Slovenská národní rada - SNR) by Anna Koptová.
Two other Slovak Roma, Vincent Danihel and Karol Seman, represented the post-communist Party of the Democratic Left (Strana demokratické levice - SDL)in the FS. This was the best result for Romani political representatives that there has ever been in this country - at the time they were part of the governing coalition and could still take advantage of the euphoria and hope of the minority whom they desired to represent.
Body, Giňa and Holomek became members of the Committee for Territorial Administration and Nationality of the ČNR, Tatár joined the Constitutional Law Committee of the ČNR as well as its presidency, Balog joined the National Economic Committee of the ČNR, and Guži joined its Committee on Health Care and Social Policy. At the start of the 1990s, the ROI officially had 60 000 members, but in reality they were most probably only loosely linked to the party - as was the case for several other parties during the post-1989 period - as signatories on the petition supporting its registration.
In the November 1990 local elections, the ROI campaigned independently in both the Czech and Slovak Republics. In the Czech Republic it won 0.11 % of the vote, a total of three council seats.
For Mečiar in Slovakia, for Klaus in Bohemia
Growing tensions between the Czech and Slovak Republics gradually erected a barrier inside the statewide Romani party as well. "The Central Committee of the ROI Slovak Convention asks you not to attend in Brno. Doctor Gejza Adam, Košice" - that was the text of a telegram sent to the Slovak delegates to the ROI statewide convention scheduled for 25 January 1991 in Brno.
Some delegates from Slovakia did attend, however, and informed the ROI leadership of Adam's rebellion against them. The 200 participants re-elected Ščuka chair of the statewide ROI organization.
When the tendencies toward the breakup of Czechoslovakia intensified, the Federal Council of ROI responded in May 1991 through a declaration asking that the Federation be preserved. The rebellion by Gejza Adam and the different tendencies of the Czech ROI and some members of the Slovak ROI were explained by its leader Ščuka as follows: "After the New Year, an opinion group around the FS representative Dr Adam separated from us. Dr Adam is of the opinion that the independence of Slovakia will occur and that therefore there is no need for a federal party - and that the only politician who really has good intentions for everyone is Mr Mečiar. We are of the opinion that anyone can design a favorable social policy. Only the party that finally starts telling people the truth will prevail. Not Mečiar, not the Civic Movement. By the way, someone needs to tell me what the Civic Movement is, I don't know what it is. I think only Klaus is not afraid and has the strength to call things by their real names."
In addition to the ROI, dozens of cultural, hobby and political organizations also sprang up in almost all areas where the Romani minority lived. Instead of the anticipated unification of Romani people, they fell apart; disputes between extended families and individual leaders contributed to this.
In 1992 the ROI itself was reduced to a mere 300 actual dues-paying members, even though occasionally the party still referenced the number of 60 000 members from the immediate post-revolution time. The shift of the political pendulum toward the right also influenced ROI head Ščuka and his subordinates, as this quote shows: "In the Czech Republic we have 20 000 members in 200 local organizations, in Slovakia around 30 000 members in 180 organizations. We are doing our best to explain the essence of the economic reforms to our members. Not everyone understands them, they are saying it was better under the Communists, we had money and we didn't have to do anything. Now is a transition period, it won't take place without problems, but the reform has a schedule, and if it succeeds, everyone will ultimately be better off. I have held meetings with the chairs of all the district organizations and I can say today that 90 % of them are for the right-wing direction. We reject the left who caused the economic and moral devastation of this country."
The transitional post-revolutionary period ended and the head of the country's strongest Romani formation did his best to lead the Romani minority toward those who were followers of a market economy "without adjectives". His successor at the helm of ROI, however, managed to take a much larger step to the right several years later.
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Tags:17 November, 1989, Roma, ROI
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