American Ambassador to Czech Republic Cites Roma Causes, Russian Threat in Final Press Conference
Outgoing American ambassador to the Czech Republic Andrew Schapiro said that supporting Roma causes was one of the things that has made him "most proud" during his time here and cited progress to remove the pig farm at the Roma Holocaust site in Lety as another positive development. "One of the things that makes me most proud to be the representative of the United States here is that we have a tradition of speaking up on behalf of communities that might be weak or marginalized, and we have a tradition of speaking out for human rights and civil rights. That was certainly the case with my dealings with the Roma," Schapiro said during a press conference at the American Center in Prague on January 17.
"I've been so impressed by the young Roma activists and organizers who I've met," he said. "Because what I've sensed here is a very constructive approach, people trying to make their communities better, trying to improve their situation, and I also found much more receptiveness in Czech society than I might have expected."
Due to the election of Donald Trump as US president, Schapiro will be soon be leaving his post. Trump announced this month that all American ambassadors who were political appointees must vacate their posts on January 20th, the day he is scheduled to take office.
Schapiro said he saw other progress on Roma issues during his time here, such as the effort to remove the pig farm located on the former WW2-era concentration camp for Roma in Lety. The Czech Human Rights Ministry announced this month that negotiations should be completed this year for the government to buy the pig farm in order to close it down.
"I'm glad that there is progress on closing the pig farm near Lety, I hope that continues. It sounds like there's an answer in sight," Schapiro said.
Schapiro spoke about the Roma Fellowship program, launched by the embassy in March of 2016, as another step forward. "We took Roma Fellows at our embassy here and helped organize a program for young Roma who are university students to work in jobs or in NGOs or in companies and it was a big success,” he said.
"I hope that that continues and that companies realize there's a lot of talent out there and they should reach out and use it," the outgoting ambassador said. He also noted that in contrast to the extremes sometimes found on social media, in person Czech people showed more openness toward Roma causes.
"You know, online sometimes you'll see angry or hateful comments, but when I met with ordinary people from the majority population they were very interested in these issues," he said. Schapiro also had some words of advice for the next ambassador.
"Don't be afraid to speak out about things that matter, whether it's about communities that face prejudice, Roma, LGBT, Muslims--anytime they do anything like that the social media goes crazy, but don't be afraid, don't worry about that," he said. "Do what's right because in the long run you're better off doing what's right. You should never have to apologize for speaking out about freedom, speaking out about tolerance, or trying to defend people who need to be defended."
On other topics, Schapiro mentioned Czech cooperation on security issues and dealing with the Russian threat as positive points during his tenure. "I also feel very good about our security cooperation and I think most Czechs should, too."
He named counter-ISIL operations, NATO exercises, and efforts to modernize the Czech military as examples. In terms of Russia, "three years after the illegal annexation of Crimea, the Czechs, the Americans, the entire EU remain strong on sanctions [against Russia] and remain strong on increasing our military readiness."
When asked about the current scandal in the US concerning Russian influence on President-elect Donald Trump and about his views of any possible changes in the US policy towards Russia, Schapiro joked, "I have no personal views until January 21st." Schapiro did say that he both represents and shares the official stance of US President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in wanting Russia to return to complying with international law, to return to cooperation with the US, and for Russian not to feel threatened by democracy in the region.
Until that happens, "we shouldn't fool ourselves... People in this country who have a long memory have a right to be concerned about what Russia's intentions here might be," Schapiro said.
Schapiro said that if the Democrats had won the presidency, he would have stayed on as ambassador at least through the summer in order to complete three years in his position. Instead, he now plans to go back to America to work at a Chicago law firm soon after the 20th and his wife and children will join him in the summer, he said.
Schapiro added that his children enjoy living in the Czech Republic so much that they want to finish the school year here before moving back to the USA in the summer. "It was a pleasant surprise how quickly and easily my kids have felt at home here. I know for the rest of their lives they are going to feel somewhat Czech as well."
Schapiro, who has Czech roots in his family heritage, said he plans to be involved with the Czech Republic in future, to be active in the American Friends of the Czech Republic organization in Washington, DC and perhaps to participate in Czech-related think tanks. "I'm sure that I will be coming back here many times in the coming years," he concluded.
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