Are the Deputy Prime Minister's offensive remarks about the Roma influencing ordinary citizens?

Jiri Cunek, photo: CTK

The little village of Dolni Nemci, close to the town of Uherske Hradiste in Moravia, has a new hero. His name is Jan Riha - a pensioner who asked a question that triggered debate and may eventually spell the end of the political career of a senior member of government.

Jiri Cunek,  photo: CTK
In the Blesk tabloid's recent question and answer session between ordinary citizens and Deputy Prime Minister Jiri Cunek, who is also the leader of the Christian Democrats, Mr Riha asked what chances people other than the Roma had of receiving state subsidies. In order to explain what he was referring to, I have to go back a few months.

In October, Jiri Cunek - as mayor of Vsetin at the time - evicted several hundred Romany rent defaulters from their homes and re-housed them in portacabins and vacant dilapidated buildings. Although Mr Cunek's bold act is probably one of the reasons why he has made it all the way to the leadership of his party, his move did meet with criticism from some politicians. In response to the furore caused by the affair, the Green Party's Dzamila Stehlikova suggested establishing a public donation fund to help the Roma families install electricity, water and a functioning sewage system.

So, that's why Mr Riha asked whether people other than Romanies should receive subsidies. But it was the answer that made the headlines. Mr Cunek said in order for politicians to think you're badly off, you have to get tanned, cause disorder, and light fires on your town square. What Mr Cunek did not add but everyone knew he meant was "just like the Roma do". Despite this statement and another one he made previously when he described last year's Roma evictions as the removal of an ulcer, his party sees no reason for him to resign.

But more surprisingly, Mr Riha is now the village hero! The mayor recently told a daily that he gets calls from local residents asking how their famous citizen is doing. In an opinion poll that was recently commissioned by Czech TV, 64 percent of respondents agreed with Mr Cunek. So, it appears to me that Mr Riha asked a question that many have been dying to ask but never dared to.

I am not denying that the different life that many Roma lead is difficult to get accustomed to. But the question is what message the nation should be getting in terms of reacting to other ethnicities. The country's far right extremists are already applauding Mr Cunek. So what direction will the country take if the rest of the nation follows the advice of the state representative who suggests that it's not only okay to speak out but also to act on your emotions? I'm sure that many Czechs know their boundaries but how many do not?

Minister Cunek, who is also facing corruption charges, is now under growing pressure to resign. The President and Prime Minister both say he currently has no place in politics and the Green Party is threatening to leave the governing coalition if Mr Cunek stays.

When the Green Party minister proposed to establish the donation fund to collect one and a half million crowns in emergency assistance for the evicted Roma, pro-Roma activists did not welcome the offer. They feared it would backfire with reactions just like that of the pensioner from the little village in Moravia - and they were right. Now, the damage seems to have already been done. The country's international reputation as a xenophobic and possibly even discriminatory state is being confirmed and the remaining politicians' sudden engagement has come a few weeks too late.