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Ethnic Tension Simmers in the Czech Republic

By Tanweer Ali.

The small town of Ceske Budejovice (Budweis in German) in the south of the Czech Republic is perhaps best known as the home of the Budweiser beer brand, or rather the two rival brands enmeshed in protracted legal disputes in dozens of countries. But this summer it was a series of ugly neo-Nazi parades in Ceske Budejovice that made the domestic news headlines.

On 23 June a confrontation in a playground in the town's Maj housing estate turned into an altercation amongst adults. Shortly after the incident a Facebook page protesting against 'inadaptable citizens' (a popular media code for the Roma minority) appeared. Maj is the largest housing estate in Ceske Budejovice, home to some 22,000 people, and one of the town's poorest neighbourhoods. There are some 400 Roma living in Maj, and tensions between the Roma and majority communities have never been as high as in other parts of the country, notably northern Bohemia.

So it was all the more surprising when, on Saturday 29 June, a gathering of approximately 500 neo-Nazis assembled in the main square determined to march to the Maj estate. Although major violence was prevented, the marchers did indeed get to Maj, and senior police officers were criticised by the mayor of Ceske Budejovice as well as by civil society groups for their inadequate state of readiness. Specifically they failed to use their legal power to disperse the gathering when the crowd started to chant racist slogans. There were further neo-Nazi gatherings in Ceske Budejovice over the next two weekends, during which the police succeeded in preventing the demonstrators from reaching Maj, and were generally commended for their overall control of the situation. Over the whole course of the protests, dozens of arrests were made though there were relatively few injuries.

Ceske Budejovice was only one of several towns to witness racial tension leading to social unrest this summer. The season of anti-Roma marches culminated in simultaneous protests in eight Czech towns on 24 August; according to police estimates some 1500 extremists took part altogether, and there were just over 100 arrests. Twenty one police officers were injured as well as a handful of extremists. The most violent confrontations took place in the large Silesian city of Ostrava, where police prevented neo-Nazis from attempting a pogrom against the local Roma community. Though there were few injuries a number of experienced commentators have warned against complacency in the current climate of high tension, suggesting that a full-scale pogrom might be too close for comfort. For example, in interviews for the ROMEA public affairs NGO, the prominent human rights lawyer and one-time candidate for the Constitutional Court Klara Samkova stated that she expects deaths on either side and the journalist and Roma affairs specialist Sasa Uhlova believes that the heavy police presence has been the only barrier to full-scale pogroms breaking out. And according to a recent report BIS, the Czech internal security service, view growing anti-Roma feelings amongst ordinary people as a greater security threat than the activities of the relatively small and fragmented groups of far-right activists.

The latest wave of ethnic tension comes in a climate of economic stagnation, rising levels of social exclusion and unemployment (interestingly the number and intensity of neo-Nazi marches increased markedly after the financial crisis began five years ago) as well as widespread disillusionment with a political elite that increasing numbers of Czechs dismiss as corrupt and out of touch. In recent years the country has seen austerity policies as harsh as anywhere on the continent backfire disastrously, causing a second deep recession since 2008, from which the country has only just begun a recovery. Under these circumstances it is neither entirely surprising nor without historical precedent that the Roma community should be singled out for scapegoating amongst increasingly frustrated sections of the majority population.

The Roma minority in the Czech Republic number between 250,000 to 300,000 (out of a total population of just over ten million) and have for centuries been a marginalised community, experiencing extreme persecution at various intervals, including during the Nazi Holocaust. To this day the Roma face severe discrimination in the labour market, in the education system and in access to housing . A survey conducted by the Perfect Crowd market research agency for the University of New York in Prague showed that well over 60% of the population harbour negative, or extremely negative, feelings towards the Roma - more than for any other single ethnic group, well above the levels of hostility felt towards Russians, Ukrainians and the Vietnamese minority. There are numerous popular myths about the Roma minority, perhaps the most widespread being that they are workshy, and that they receive preferential treatment in the social security system; in reality benefits are distributed without any reference of recording of the claimants' ethnicity – the Czech Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs has had to issue multiple press releases explaining this to the public. In an attempt to set the record straight, the Czech President, Milos Zeman, a fierce critic of the far right, in a recent address to the nation drew attention to the corruption of 'white mafia' businessmen using political connections in local government to provide housing at exorbitant non-market rates to homeless Roma families, thereby becoming the ultimate beneficiaries of housing benefit payments.

In the University of New York in Prague survey, 31.7% of respondents perceived the Roma as being biologically different from the rest of the population; 76.8% perceived the Roma as living a parasitic lifestyle and 92.5% believed the Roma to be abusing the Czech welfare state. Some 47% respondents believed that Roma emigrants, particularly to the UK and Canada, were actively harming the reputation of the country abroad, revealing hints of a conspiracy theory.

Moreover negative portrayal of the Roma is prevalent in the Czech media. The most egregious recent example involved a local newspaper in a small town taking a photograph of Chinese football hooligans from an Asian news server and superimposing a Roma face onto one of the offenders. This incident was condemned by the Czech Journalists' Syndicate as well as the government Commissioner for Human Rights, whose office is investigating the possibility of a criminal prosecution. However, such open displays of racial prejudice in the Czech media are relatively rare (which is sadly not the case for discussion boards in online editions of newspapers, a veritable paradise for racist trolls), where more subtle varieties of hate-speech are the norm. In an upcoming paper Tess Slavickova and Peter Zvagulis have suggest that the concept of new racism would be an appropriate term in explaining media attitudes to the Roma – overtly racist and derogatory language is avoided and lip service is paid to cultural diversity, whilst manifestations of prejudice take more subtle forms: "New racism implicates, and overstates the role of minorities in social 'deficiencies', such as welfare dependency, aggressive behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse or failings in education. … the over-representation of heroes and villains, the absence of minority voices in public discourse, and the silencing of counter-hegemonic witnesses to events." Members of the Roma (and Vietnamese) communities hardly ever appear as newsmakers in the media, except in crime stories, and their views and perspectives are rarely given air space. The term 'inadaptable' is frequently used by reporters and politicians as a code for the Roma, indeed it has been used so often that it has taken the form of a crude dog whistle in mainstream political discourse.

Despite these discouraging signals from survey data and analysis of media and political discourse, there are also a number of reasons to be hopeful about the future of community relations in the Czech Republic. Whilst anti-Roma sentiment remains prevalent in Czech society, there is little evidence of generally racist attitudes towards other groups except, and to a much lesser degree, the Vietnamese minority. Collective prejudice, disturbing as it is, is not supported by an underlying narrative of imagined injustice, or a sense of historical grievance, as has been the case in many outbreaks of mass violence around the world.

Moreover parties of the far right have not had a history of electoral success in the Czech Republic and are not expected to perform well in the general election in October. However, the vast majority of politicians across the political spectrum have preferred to remain silent in the face of the recent rise of aggressive neo-Nazi activities. The police have proved to be robust in their determination to prevent violence from breaking out during neo-Nazi parades. The courts have also shown a willingness to hand down tough sentences in cases of racist violence, notably in the case of an arson attack in 2009 in the town of Vitkov, which left a two-year-old child with life-threatening burns on most of her body.

Perhaps most encouraging has been the growing resolve of civil society organisations, which have become increasingly well-coordinated in the past months. Organisations such as Konexe and Blokujeme are determined to monitor and to obstruct neo-Nazis in action, and an umbrella anti-racist movement is emerging. It is becoming increasingly common for far-right marchers to be matched in numbers or outnumbered by anti-racist protesters. Attempts at encouraging dialogue between different communities are also starting to bear fruit. In early July, in the Maj housing estate in Ceske Budejovice, whilst police were busy keeping the far right away, a spontaneous gathering of around 400 inhabitants from both the majority and Roma communities began discussing various local issues and areas of concern. Whilst the debates were frank and sometimes harsh, the atmosphere was non-violent and the meeting helped to reduce tension. Less than a month later a similar gathering accompanied by musical performances took place in the town of Vitkov, the scene of the notorious 2009 arson attack, at the same time as a neo-Nazi march was taking place elsewhere in the town.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to making progress towards both improving the social conditions of the Roma minority and reducing tensions is the current political culture in the Czech Republic, characterised by a lack of willingness on the part of senior politicians to invest political capital in solving problems of ethnic tension and by policy-making processes that remain weak. Genuine progress will require empowering Roma communities on all levels, bringing them into decision-making processes in meaningful ways as well as political will to address the deeper social causes of the tensions which have resurfaced in the past few years. In other words the situation is crying out for joined-up policy-making.

October 2013

The author is grateful to ROMEA, an award winning media NGO, funded in part by the Czech government and the European Union, and to Gwendolyn Albert for supplying facts and data related to the recent neo-Nazi marches in the Czech Republic.