Interview with Ondrej Liska, Czech Politician, on Roma Integration

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Ondrej Liska is a politician in the Czech Republic, former Minister of Education and Chairman of the Green Party. In this interview, Bernard Rorke discusses the impact of European Union (EU) funding, EU integration strategies and European litigation on the plight of Roma in the Czech Republic.

Former Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek, warned that hundreds of billions of crowns from the EU financing prospects for 2007–2013 that could go for regional development “won’t even be touched.” Another ex-premier and former EU Commissioner, Vladimír Špidla declared that the Czech Republic is in imminent danger of losing billions of euros in European Union funding due to the country’s failure to institute proper mechanisms for drawing funds and put in place auditing controls. What will this mean for Roma inclusion?

Unfortunately the dangers are very real and imminent. Responsibility for the mismanagement of EU funds lies with both major parties, as the Social Democrats control the regional governments and the conservatives rule from the centre. The recent revelations concerning the abuse of EU funding by corrupt and clientelistic networks may just be the beginning. It could get worse and it’s clear that the Czech Republic will not be able to administer or absorb allocated EU funds, the only question is how much will go to waste.

Rivalries between ministries continue and the process for setting priorities for the next funding period is neither transparent nor consultative, and quite simply chaotic.

From the perspective of socially excluded Roma and others this situation is particularly tragic. As we have seen elsewhere, well-designed programs and money wisely spent can bring real change in the quality of life for many citizens. Sadly, this is not the case in the Czech Republic.

When you were Minister for Education there were grounds for optimism and a seeming political will to address the issue of school segregation in response to the DH and others vs. the Czech Republic judgement. However, in May 2011 50 education experts resigned, stating that “inclusive education amounts to little more than rhetoric designed to calm the international community.” What are the prospects for progress in 2012 by the fifth anniversary of the European Court of Human Rights ruling?

Not good. The two previous Ministers of Education openly rejected the agenda of inclusive education and denied there was any problem. Conservative elements among the directors of the practical schools used this opportunity to oppose reform and gained much ground in the media and the wider public debate. This was a period of lost time and lost opportunities.

Some five years ago when I introduced the inclusive education agenda to the ministry and to the school system, the political standing of this approach was positive and high. By contrast, today, the media uncritically repeats the statements and mainly false arguments opposing inclusive education from this interest group. From the side of the government, there is no positive leadership on inclusive education whatsoever.

From the side of civil society we will focus on dialogue with the new minister, Petr Fiala to create, at least, the conditions for the Czech Republic to begin to meet its obligations under the DH judgement and within the EU Framework. Time will tell if there are any grounds for optimism.

The violent disturbances in Šluknov and elsewhere attracted international media attention last year. What is your analysis of the causes that lay behind them?

The cause is quite clear. The continued failure of the responsible authorities to address the living situation of socially excluded people. Those taking part in the protests and pogrom-like attacks on Romani communities are drawn from an increasingly excluded segment of the community. Their growing frustrations and the failure of the political system to respond to their obvious and legitimate needs prompts them to look for a scapegoat. The target is those Roma who are among poorest of the poor.

Recent opinion polls show that negative attitudes toward Roma have increased threefold over two decades to 75%. Recent research from May 2012 shows that the overwhelming majority of teenagers consider the Roma as the biggest negative challenge facing Czech society. It’s well past the time to take action. Only strong leadership and principled politics rooted in civic values can save us from a major social catastrophe.

In 2011, during the Holocaust commemoration at Lety you lambasted prominent political actors for facilitating a shift towards racism and insisted that the greatest danger was not posed by skinheads, “but by apparently innocuous men of distinguished age at the apex of the political elite.” Could you explain this statement?

I had to repeat these words again this year. Anti-Gypsyism and xenophobia permeated the highest circles of Czech politics, including the government and the Czech President himself. Racism has nested within all parliamentary parties and such rhetoric is used as a mobilisation tool wherever there is a receptive audience. Every single parliamentary party has its MPs, mayors or leaders that play this dangerous game. The question today is how to combat prejudice in such an environment; how to challenge public attitudes and win over public attitudes against such a powerful mainstream current of intolerance?

What’s the current danger level posed by extremists to the safety and security of Czech Roma?

Although the neo-Nazi movement is stagnating in terms of numbers, its hard core has become more brutal and militant: spreading knowhow on paramilitary tactics, the use of explosives, publishing hit lists of “undesirables” and activists. I think the situation is becoming more serious and that the implicit xenophobic discourse of the Czech political elite is taken by the far right as a green light to move from words to deeds.

What’s needed to challenge and change anti-Roma prejudice in the Czech Republic? Are there encouraging signs of citizens mobilizing for the better? What are the prospects for Roma integration between now and 2020?

What’s needed is courage, patience and leadership: There are signs of a new awakening in civil society. There is a new generation of people sensitive to the unbearable and unsustainable character of the situation. And they’re becoming active. This is encouraging. Even some mainstream media are starting to shift their attitude because they sense the constant negative reference to Roma just doesn’t work anymore. So some outlets have begun to report good news, stories of hope and progress. It’s also partly due to long-running and persistent civil society advocacy to combat stereotyped representations in the media.

If the current political crisis opens some space for a new political dynamic, then progressive leaders and citizens must seize the opportunity. We could face a quick qualitative change leading to the improvement of lives of thousands of Czech Roma. We have to be ready for that and open that space as much as possible. We need to advocate and educate leaders, have the facts and figures ready to bolster progressive policies, to be able to convince people to switch sides and literally risk their professional and personal lives to engage in politics.

The primary task for civil society now is to persist and continue, in times of public spending cutbacks and cynical reforms that destroy social services that have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable such as Roma people. We are faced with daunting challenges and must keep on striving for more efficient and innovative ways to ensure equal rights for everyone.