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Roma rights advocate Gwendolyn Albert on anti-Romany rallies, poverty and the government’s strategy in combating social exclusion
03-10-2011  Jan Richter

The Czech Republic recently saw an outbreak of tensions between the country’s Romany minority and parts of the majority population. People in the isolated northern Bohemian region of Šluknov began holding anti-Romany rallies to protest a growing crime rate in the region; the government reacted by sending in the police but also by adopting a plan to tackle the issue of Romany exclusion and impoverishment. To discuss these and other issues, Radio Prague spoke to Gwendolyn Albert who for the past 15 years has been working with the Romany advocacy group, Romea.

What exactly is happening in northern Bohemia? Is the conflict primarily ethnic or social? How would you describe it in terms people abroad understand?

“One of the basic problems in that area is that it has been neglected in terms of economic development for the past 20 years. You have a large number of people who are unemployed and they don’t see a future for themselves. This is probable the key to the problem.

“What’s new about these events is that they involve local people of all ages who bring their children out to the square to sing the national anthem and then yell, ‘let’s go get them’, and march on parts of town that are easily identifiable as the Roma ghetto.

“So this is a combination of several factors including the fact that Romany people live in segregated conditions in most of the country. Over the past 20 years it’s become more and more of a petit apartheid situation that has made it easier to use them as a scapegoat for your own frustration, to go and target them.”

What is the role of the media and the language they use? The Economist noted the similarities between how the language of the politicians and the media and that of the Third Reich – do you agree?

Gwendolyn Albert “I think the media wants to increase readership, and they know that if they describe things as dramatically as possible, the number of people following them will increase. And so by unnecessarily mentioning the ethnicities of people involved in criminal incidents, that’s one way to do it.

“The other problem is that since about 2006, we have seen in the Czech society an ever-rightward push in the general discourse. It’s normal to use the term ‘nepřizpůsobivý’, or ‘inadaptable’, which comes from the Nazi era. This is a way of referring to the Roma without referring to the Roma as it doesn’t involve ethnic designation. That’s standard use now in everyone’s discourse; the Czech News Agency puts out press releases without quotation marks around that term.

“So this is a real challenge for the media: if this is the language the society is speaking, what can the media do? How can the media make sure they are reporting on what is taking place but not inflate the tensions. This is where we see the irresponsibility of many on-line venues.

“Also, the point of view of the Romany people is almost never represented, and that’s a real problem. They are the mute, silent scapegoats but they have complaints of their own in these places. It’s a very sad situation when you have Romany civil rights leaders who think that what they need to do is to be constantly distancing themselves from crimes that are artificially blown up by the media.”

Isn’t this problem to a large extent caused by the fact that their potential leaders either distance themselves from the community as such, or just don’t live there? The media often cannot find anyone to talk to about what the community really wants…

“This is a depiction of the re-imposition of a society stratified by class in the Czech Republic during the course of the introduction of market economy. You have people who live in great poverty, and you have people who managed to succeed in the competition they have been faced with. It’s true it’s very rare for people who made it into university or able to function on a higher level to return to the communities where people are worst off and assist them.

“I personally know many people who do this in the Roma community in the Czech Republic and who try to get allies for this. But the biggest problem is that the numbers of the Roma are very small, and when you take the fraction of the Romany people capable of being good advocates using the legal system and the tools of democracy, that’s an even smaller fraction.

The Czech government a couple of weeks ago adopted a four-year strategy to tackle the issue, and one that includes addressing the phenomenon of placing Romany children in special schools. What do you think of the government’s approach to the problem?

“Having watched Czech governments for the last 15 years, especially their performance at international bodies, I’m very cynical. My view is that what they are very good at is developing strategies that look very good paper, and promising – whether it’s to the OSCE, to the UN or the Council of Europe – that change is just around the corner – and shifting the blame. This is what’s maybe the most irritating, when you hear the government say it has no power to address things.

“There is a lot of money available from the European social and structural funds which, if properly designed, could alleviate the poverty that exists in this country.

“Market processes are being allowed to run because they fall into the category of market behaviour and so they are given this kind of untouchable status. So you have these people ripping off the state, these landlords at these residential hotels who charge per person, not per square metre, and who are capable of charging large families living in very small rooms a rent that even in Prague would get them more spacious and dignified accommodation. But nobody is sanctioning this behaviour.

“And there are all kinds of other machinations that are going on, like the development of commercial loan services which are loaning to the poor on very high interest rates. This is has nothing to do with Roma or non-Roma; this is simply about policy at a local level the government could regulate more.”

Do you see any risk of these problems being exploited politically as they are in Hungary, for example? Some people in the Czech Republic, including President Václav Klaus, have begun emphasizing national values; they talk the need of traditional, conservative values and dismiss multiculturalism. How serious you think this threat is?

“In the future, I think what will be important to follow and to fight against is exactly the development of a party similar to [Hungary’s extremist] Jobbik party or a Le Pen figure.

“I unfortunately think that what is happening with the very controversial figure at the Czech Education Ministry, Mr Bátora, is part of a process that’s testing what the Czech society will put up with. When President Klaus leaves in 2013, it’s entirely possible that he will try to become exactly such a figure.

Václav Klaus “I think this is a real possibility, and I think the mainstream parties should be very careful that they define themselves and keep their members with them. Depending on how long it takes for the EU-funded solutions to get going here in the Czech Republic, depending on much further into poverty these really depressed areas are allowed to fall, there is a definite chance that Mr Klaus will ride in on a white horse and fill that gap in the political spectrum.”

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