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Roma in Political Life: Czech Republic—Dependency and Political Development

How can the Czech Republic’s Roma—a minority people whom political leaders have repeatedly demonized in order to win votes by appealing to popular prejudices—ever assume their rightful place in Czech society without acquiring and wielding a modicum of political leverage? And how can the Czech Republic’s Roma ever acquire or wield political leverage if they remain dependent upon nongovernmental organizations run in many instances by people who are not Roma but who have come to speak for the Roma and undertake initiatives aimed—in some instances genuinely, in others seemingly—at securing them equal rights and better living conditions?

Many factors have kept the Czech Republic’s Roma from tapping their potential to acquire political leverage sufficient to press effectively for, among other things, better schools and housing, more access to healthcare and jobs, and full inclusion in society. These factors include a climate of racial intolerance and intimidation exacerbated by some Czechs, including some Czech political leaders, who clearly do not want the Roma playing a part in what they see as Czech society. In a December 2010 survey undertaken for the Czech Ministry of Interior, about 83 percent of the respondents indicated that they considered the Roma to be ill-adapted to society, 45 percent indicated that they would prefer that the Roma leave the Czech Republic, and 90 percent indicated that they considered the Roma to be a source of crime. Recent expressions of animosity toward the Roma of the Czech Republic—a country where 90 percent of the indigenous Roma were exterminated, along with the Jews, during World War II—are reminiscent of the outbursts of anti-Semitic and racist hysteria of the 1930s. For example, while a member of the Czech Republic’s Senate, Liana Janáčková of Ostrava, proposed offering Roma people money grants to emigrate from the Czech Republic to Canada, Senator Janáčková was caught on tape saying that she thought local Roma should be rounded up behind an electric fence and blown up with dynamite.

The Czech Republic’s president, Miloš Zeman, condemned anti-Roma demonstrations by “neo-Nazi street fighters” that took place on August 24. Zeman said that in order to improve the situation of socially vulnerable Romani people there is a need to break down what he termed the “white mafia” through which welfare is being abused and to support employment through greater investment. Zeman said that welfare payments such as the housing contributions received from the state by Romani people are being cashed by a “white mafia” who are leasing apartments to Romani tenants at inflated prices.

Another factor is the Czech Republic’s law on minority representation in government committees and councils. Local and regional officials have attempted, at least pro forma, to lend substance to guarantees of minority rights that appear in the Czech Republic’s constitution and laws. But the Roma are too few to meet established thresholds for minority groups to be guaranteed representation in government committees and councils at the local and regional level. These thresholds are 10 percent in most local communities, 5 percent in the country’s regions, and 5 percent in the national capital, Prague. In the 2011 census, a total of 13,150 Roma accounted for .02 percent of the Czech Republic’s national population; but only 5,199 of these persons identified themselves as purely Roma. Unofficially, the Czech Republic has an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 Roma who account for 1.5 percent to 2.7 percent of the national population. The Czech Republic’s Roma are also not spread evenly over the country’s territory.

Other factors include widespread illiteracy and insufficient education and marketable skills, penury and indebtedness to loan sharks, the economic burden of large families, individual and group rivalries within the Roma community, a traditional culture that stresses group loyalty and dampens individual initiative, and, for some families, a daily struggle for survival so intense that assuming individual risk involves a high probability of failure and dire consequences.

Still another critical factor that has arguably kept the Roma in the Czech Republic from acquiring political leverage is a dependency upon nongovernmental organizations run largely by people who are not Roma but who have come to represent the interests of the Roma people. This is the kind of dependency Roma people display when they turn to a nongovernmental organization to fill out a form for them when they are fully capable of filling out the forms for themselves, the dependency that makes Roma reluctant to establish their own organizations and conceive of and seek available funding for projects benefiting their community. This is the dependency that prompts Roma from the mahalas of Bulgaria to remark that, in their eyes, life for the Czech Republic’s Roma is like a vacation.

Roma Voices on Dependence and “ethnobusiness” in Ostrava

Have so many of the Czech Republic’s Roma become dependent to such an extent upon nongovernmental organizations not run by Roma that it has stunted the Roma people’s ability to engage politically in an effort to achieve genuine social inclusion and significant improvement in their quality of life?

One city with a significant concentration of Roma is Ostrava, a former mining and steel-making center that has suffered hard times since the fall of communism and the economic crisis of 2008. According to Roma advocates, the Roma in Ostrava number 10,000 to 30,000, or roughly 3 percent to 10 percent of the population. Roma living in Ostrava have benefitted from significant efforts by some nongovernmental organizations, including organizations funded by the European Union and by the governments of some of its member states.

These efforts include projects initiated and implemented by Life Together, or Vzajemne souziti, whose founder and driving force is an immigrant from India, Kumar Vishwanathan, one of Europe’s most respected Roma advocates. Life Together, which employs a significant number of Roma, helped press a court case against Ostrava’s school district for systematically relegating Roma kids into schools for intellectually disabled children. Life Together has also worked with Roma women who were sterilized against their will, and arranged housing for Roma who have been rendered homeless by floods and evictions. Vishwanathan recognizes that, rather than self-initiative, many Roma develop a dependency upon nongovernmental organizations. “If the Roma don’t wield instruments of power, they are always going to remain objects of social work, politics, and good intentions in the world,” Vishwanathan said. “We want to prevent this. We want them to be subjects, actors. We want them to wield their portion of power.”

Each of the advocates and activists quoted below are Roma. Each of them has worked for years in local nongovernmental organizations. Each has an intimate knowledge of Ostrava’s local government, whose Czech leaders promote the city as a “model of inclusion.” Each spoke frankly, but on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of this issue.

N.N.: “Over the past twenty years, nongovernmental organizations have spoiled Ostrava’s Roma and left them utterly dependent. So many of these people don’t attempt even to take advantage of opportunities to learn to read. So many contribute nothing to society or to the Roma community.

“What would get this indolent, illiterate, dependent community to begin to take responsibility for itself? Ostrava’s Roma don’t even have a Roma leader. If a Roma leader were to emerge, he would be swept up by ‘the system’ and lose his Roma identity.”

One aspect of the “system” N.N. described is the siphoning away of funding for the Roma by Czechs involved in so-called “ethnobusiness,” the exploitation by businessmen of funding for Roma and other vulnerable people. President Zeman referred to such businessmen as the “white mafia.”

“The people in ethnobusiness organizations obtain funding, but the benefits don’t reach the Roma. The benefits only reach the people in the organizations. In fact, many people in ethnobusiness have no interest in seeing conditions improve for the Roma, because if conditions were to improve, the people working in these organizations would find themselves out of work in a city where unemployment is high. Except for a few tokens, no Roma are working for these organizations.

“The big money is in state-subsidized housing. This explains how it is possible for a Roma family with five kids to be paying more to rent a substandard apartment than a Czech family of three is paying for a quality two-bedroom apartment in a well-kept building.”

Government subsidies support inflated rents for Roma living in sub-standard privately owned apartments, many of which had been owned by the city before privatization. The private landlords now make their profit. And they support the political leaders. When the government cut housing subsidies for the Roma, however, the rents did not fall.

“So now we have a housing crisis for Roma. In the construction sector, a Czech firm will get the contract, simply because Roma firms don’t get contracts. So, say a company owned by Czechs wins a contract with the municipal authorities to build a parking lot for the equivalent of $1 million. The Czech company then hires a Roma company to build the parking lot for $600,000. The Czech company makes money for doing nothing. And the Roma company doesn’t complain, because it, too, profits from the arrangement.”

V.V.: “A syndrome of dependency has developed. And the Roma go from one nongovernmental organization to another seeking assistance. There are two types of clients, people who take responsibility for themselves and people who do not take responsibility for themselves. These latter live for the moment. They don’t think about tomorrow. The dependency makes this worse.

“An ethnobusiness is an organization that, for example, receives substantial funding for a two-year project and, at the end of the two years, the project produces no changes. It is clear who is the parasite in this situation. And in Ostrava, there is a lot of ethnobusiness.

“Everyone overstates the number of Roma in Ostrava in order to obtain greater benefits. There are eight main nongovernmental organizations working with the Roma here and six other smaller organizations. No one knows how much money has come in as funding. There is one nongovernmental organization that received a grant for development of a methodology for working with Roma at school. None of us has ever heard of this organization. How is this possible? There are projects with the government that seem only to involve organizations that have connections with the government.”

“There are beggars in Ostrava, and they aren’t Roma.”

T.T.: “Roma come and ask for help when they can do things for themselves. Many of them are simply lazy, and they know there are people who will do things for them. Most do not know how to behave in front of officials. We can and do try to show them how to behave. We try to inform them of their rights. But we should stop there. They are capable of doing the rest themselves.

“There aren’t many who have a secondary education, and those who become educated change. They attempt to integrate themselves into the majority population and then they don’t think much anymore about the Roma. Any active Roma person who wants to enter political life must choose a political party. And the party’s leader will silence this Roma person by giving him or her a paying position.

“Once this happens, the Roma person stops behaving like a Roma.” The Roma person has been co-opted, T.T. explained, and stops taking decisions primarily in the interests of the Roma.

T.T. attempted to enter politics with a Czech-majority party on the left of the political spectrum. He discovered that the party’s Czech leader only wanted to manipulate him to unseat the leader of a thriving nongovernmental organization and take it over. “Politics here is mafia politics,” he said. “It would be different for the Roma if they had 10 percent of the power. The Czechs would take us more seriously. We would have votes that might decide on many issues. If we had a seat on the city council, for example, we could demand to examine public contracts and the account books and internal documents. It is futile when there are no Roma in any councils.

“We could form a party. But it is expensive. Roma businessmen have money. But they don’t want to alienate the local government … because of the contracts they get.”

D.D.: “There is grant money available for projects. But no one in the Roma community even attempts to apply for the grants. Unless someone comes from outside the Roma community, nothing will be organized in the Roma community.”

Chuck Sudetic