NEW CZECH PRESIDENT URGED TO ADDRESS A FAMILIAR FAILURE
On 8 March the Czech Republic will welcome its third president into office. Milos Zeman was voted into power in recent elections, beating pro-European candidate Karel Schwarzenberg in the second round of voting.
Zeman’s presidency may well herald a new era for the country, but he was quickly warned that an old issue should be his pressing priority.
The Romani people have been living in the lands that today make up the Czech Republic since the early 15th century. Yet, despite 600 years of history, the country still has a conflicted relationship with Roma who still face persecution and intimidation.
Upon the news of Zeman’s election, Rajan Zed, a long-time defender of Roma rights and a Hindu statesman based in the US, reminded the new Czech president of his responsibilities to the Roma, his fellow countrymen.
Zed, a Hindu cleric, gave the first ever official offering of Hindu prayer at the US Senate in 2007, despite vocal Christian opposition. Afterwards he noted: “We need to overcome the prejudices handed down to us by previous generations.” At the time this was aimed at inter-religious quarrelling in the US but he has preached the same ethos with regard to European Roma.
On twitter, where Zed has over 30,000 followers, he asked that the Czech Republic stop treating Roma kids as children with mild disabilities, and to integrate them into mainstream schools.
Zed appealed to Zeman, saying that he hoped a country with such a rich cultural heritage would stand up for its significant Romani minority. He demanded an end to the fear of physical attacks under which so many Roma in the country live.
Indeed the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) published a report last year which recorded 47 attacks on Czech Roma between January 2008-July 2012. Five of the attacks were fatal.
One of the more harrowing incidents involved the deadly beating of a 33-year old Romani man in the Karlovy Vary region. The perpetrators were the local police, who have since pleaded self-defense.
Zed has been consistently vocal about the treatment of Roma in the Czech Republic and, in 2009, he demanded the removal of a primary school textbook which labeled Roma as “dirty, thieving Gypsies” among other derogatory stereotypical references.
Research shows that Romani people migrated from the Indian subcontinent around the 5th century AD. Although the Roma are members of a variety of religions, many Hindus feel an affinity with the Roma and have advocated for their rights.
An editorial in the Indian daily newspaper The Hindu has called on European leaders to “bear responsibility for creating the sort of xenophobic climate in which hate crimes against Roma and other minorities can occur.”
Whether Zed’s pleas for the new Czech president to protect and better integrate the Roma is a matter of some doubt though.
Zeman is no stranger to controversy and has spoken out against a number of minority groups and foreign countries.
He has likened orthodox Muslims to Nazis, described Kosovo as a terrorist regime and has been derisory about the country’s German minority. The Austrian newspaper Die Presse described his presidential campaign as “unprecedentedly anti-German.”
Making friends does not seem to be in Zeman’s manifesto but his popularity in the Czech Republic is clear, sending a disturbing message to the country’s minorities, especially the Roma.
As recently as 2010, a survey conducted by the STEM agency for the Ministry of Interior revealed that 83% of Czechs thought Roma were “unadaptable”, while almost half of those surveyed said they would rather the Roma did not live in the country at all.
UNHCR estimates the Romani population of the Czech Republic to be around 250,000-275,000 which is one of the largest minorities in the country. It would be larger had it not been for the horrific events of the Second World War.
Under the Nazi occupation, Roma in Czechoslovakia suffered brutally, most notably in the Lety concentration camp in Bohemia-Moravia where as many as 4,000 Roma were executed as part of the Pharrajimos (Romani Holocaust).
After the war, the now severely diminished Roma population was relocated with many Slovakian Roma moved, sometimes forcibly, to settle on the Czech border.
First Czechoslovakia, and now the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have struggled to properly acknowledge and commemorate what happened, which has done nothing to ease the lives of Czech and Slovak Roma
In 1997 Markus Pape, in his book on Lety entitled “And No One Will Believe You” claimed that earlier research in Czechoslovakia had “rejected survivors’ memories of extermination, executions, murders and rape carried out by the commandant and his guards.”
Indeed, 70 years later the site of Lety is still the subject of ethnic tension. When a pig farm was located next to the site of the camp, Romani activists protested, saying that it dishonored and defiled the memory of the victims.
Many see the pig farm, which is still there despite nearly a decade of debate and unfulfilled promises, as a symbol of Czech feeling toward their Romani countrymen. The Czech authorities have claimed that its relocation would be too expensive while others claim that such a move would not help the Roma.
Nevertheless, last week the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks added his own condemnation of the farm and dismissed any financial excuses.
The Latvian said: “Budgetary considerations cannot prevail over the respect of human dignity. The pig farm should be removed and measures to honour those who died there should be considered.”
He added: “The overall situation of Roma is marked by conditions of exclusion and marginalization, and there is still much to be achieved in combating anti-Gypsyism.”
While Muiznieks did not expressly mention the Czech Republic in the latter part of his statement, which was aimed more generally across Europe, the country’s attitude towards its Romani communities remains under close continental scrutiny.
One can only hope that, when it comes to integration, respect and ethnic harmony, new Czech president Zeman can succeed where many of his predecessors have failed.
By Alastair Watt