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Possible Roma exodus focuses attention on racism

The fact that thousands of Czech Roma have sought information about possibly emigrating to Canada, or have attempted to leave the Czech Republic, in the wake a recent television report depicting in rosy colors the life of a Roma family in Canada has again focused attention on the question of racism in the Czech Republic. The picture that emerges is that of a rather intolerant and xenophobic country.

On the surface, democratic mechanisms and institutions of the young Czech democracy work relatively smoothly. But the latest incident involving the Roma minority highlights what various opinion polls and other incidents have repeatedly suggested; namely, that a majority people in the Czech Republic are not yet ready to live in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic environment that most Western democracies have grown accustomed to.

At least ten racially-motivated murders of Roma have taken place in recent years. Opinion polls suggest that up to 80% of Czechs dislike Roma and do not want them as neighbors. Representatives of the far-right Republican Party, that sits in the parliament, have repeatedly made racist statements about Roma, without being punished. The party's weekly "Republika" regularly delivers openly racist statements.

But politically-expressed racism is not confined to the Republicans. Senator Zdenek Klausner, a member of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) recently suggested in a Prague newspaper that Roma living in Prague's Nusle district be moved outside Prague. Liana Janackova, another ODS official and Ostrava district mayor, has proposed that her city council contribute to the cost of plane tickets for those Roma who want to emigrate to Canada. The ODS Executive Council condemned such manifestations of racism at its 18 August meeting but failed to punish either official.

Czech politicians in the past often ignored or played down various incidents involving attacks on Roma and the atmosphere of intolerance against minorities. They have also repeatedly rejected international criticism of the Czech citizenship law that made homeless many Roma who had come to the Czech lands before the split of Czechoslovakia. But the latest developments-- politicians realize--could have far-reaching repercussions. Not only do they make the country again appear in a bad light after a series of politically and economically damaging developments in recent months. They could, under certain circumstances, prompt European Union, NATO, and Council of Europe officials question the Czech Republic's commitment to democratic and ethnic minority standards.

As long as the criticism of the situation of Roma came only from individual Roma and Roma organizations, Czech authorities were able to treat the issue as a domestic problem. Even at the outset of the latest crisis, Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus argued that Roma had no reason to seek emigration because no really serious problems with regard to their situation existed at home. But as the exodus of a large number of Roma became more real, and began receiving publicity in the West, the Czech government realized that the problem was not only serious but that it could cause an irreparable damage to the country's reputation.

Under the pressure of circumstances, the government and other leading politicians are now searching for improvements to the situation of the country's largest ethnic minority. But it is clear they will be fighting an uphill battle against latent or open racist attitudes common to many Czechs. And they will not succeed, unless steps aimed at improving the situation of Roma are accompanied by an overall change of attitudes among politicians and civil servants toward other ethnic minorities and foreigners residing in the country.

For example, blaming crime on foreigners and calling, as a result, for tightening immigration laws, is widespread among Czech officials. A draft law on residency requirements for foreigners, that is to be considered by the government, would make obtaining residency in the Czech Republic so difficult that many foreign companies--potential investors--may think twice before coming to the country in the future.

Roma, too, are often criticized for being allegedly crime-prone. But the accuracy of various official statistics on crimes committed by ethnic minorities and foreigners are questionable. They also serve to divide society into "us" and "them." Various police officials complaining about foreigners' proclivity for crime are, in fact, implying that the Czech Republic would be a much safer country without foreigners (and Roma) on its territory. Even if they were right, they omit to add that it would also--by definition--be a less democratic country.

In fact, the share of foreigners and etnhic minorities in the overall population of the Czech Republic is still significantly lower than elsewhere in the West. The idea of the European Union would collapse without extensive multiculturalism and multiethicity. Any further intensification of xenophobic efforts and attitudes in the Czech Republic would hardly go unnoticed in Brussels. Thus, as along as it continues to aspire to EU emmebrship, the Czech Republic has only one option: to begin seriously creating conditions conducive to multiculturalism and mulltiethnicity that are increasingly common in the West.

Reuters - 19. 8. 1997