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President Havel on Interethnic Relations
09-08-1999
Radio Prague, August 9th - Late last week, President Vaclav Havel spoke about interethnic problems and the Roma exodus on Czech Radio's programme for Romany listeners, O Roma Vakeren, or, The Voice of the Roma. His interviewer asked him first what he would do if he were in the Roma shoes - would he stay or would he try to emigrate?

"I wouldn't defect and would stay even though an exile often was a tempting proposition in the past," the former dissident playwright and political prisoner said. "I have always thought, this is my home country and that's where I want to live. But some members of the Roma community are leaving today and that's some food for thought: Why are they doing that? Sadly, many of them harbour naive thoughts about lush life in the West."

But your life would have taken a different course if you had been born into a Roma family...

"If I had been born when I was born but to a travelling Gypsy family who cannot read and write and have no bookshelves full of classics, my life would have been different. Without such intellectual background I would have been less well equipped to face the white majority and their intolerance..."

President Havel was then asked to comment on positive discrimination, or the affirmative action as it is sometimes called. Does he believe that Roma children perhaps should receive preferential treatment at school?

0"Affirmative action may not be the ultimate solution but it works - as proved by countless examples. I think negative discrimination invites positive discrimination - but there should be no discrimination of any kind, I think."

Gypsies or Romanies are said to possess certain inexplicable powers. When you were born, Gypsies still travelled, and could read people's fate from the palm of their hand, or from cards. Have you ever experienced anything like that?

"Some of my prison mates were Romanies and I have had plenty of opportunity to study their ways, their thinking, their souls, attitudes... I think I have learned a thing or two," President Havel says. "You see, Czechs like to keep their distance - you may call it intolerance - from everything that does not fit in their life and that is maybe only slightly different. It doesn't have to be the colour of skin or one's racial background, it's very subtle. That's very bad and it projects in a very roundabout way into politics and other spheres. This is something which must be actively opposed and challenged. Today it's the Romanies but the problem is much broader. I suppose this is real xenophobia. Czechs are comfortable with their ways and lifestyle - and if something or somebody is only a wee bit different, Czechs cry murder..."

In one of his books written in Communism, before the Iron Curtain fell 10 years ago, President Havel pointed out that in the Czech environment, it simply doesn't pay to be different...



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