Čunek in trouble again after suggesting Roma families perpetuate social exclusion

Jiří Čunek, photo: CTK

Controversial Christian Democrat leader Jiří Čunek is still angling for a return to the cabinet, although Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek says he’ll have to iron out his differences with the Green Party first. Mr Čunek was forced out over an alleged corruption scandal, but the Greens also find his views on the Romany minority somewhat distasteful. So his latest remarks on integration are unlikely to curry favour with the Green Party leadership, although they may succeed in boosting his flagging approval ratings.

Jiří Čunek, photo: CTK
Jiří Čunek is no stranger to controversy where the Roma minority is concerned, indeed he seems to relish it. He’s now back in the news after telling a party conference that social integration can only succeed where “the dependence on traditional family structures” can be weakened. He was talking about the 80,000 or so Romanies who live in close-knit family groups in dilapidated apartment blocks and tumble-down houses.

Mr Čunek believes these close-knit, insular families living on social security are contributing to their own social exclusion. The cushion provided by the Romany family, he argues, acts as a counter-incentive to venturing into mainstream society and finding gainful employment. That claims has angered many in the Romany community, including Gabriela Hrabaňová, a consultant for the Romany NGO Athinganoi.

“It’s unbelievable. I really don’t know where this man got all these ideas or how he’s able to present this as the best expertise of the Czech Republic. What he did in the past, evacuating dozens of Roma out of the city, and now proposing this as the best solution – it’s really unbelievable.”

Gabriela Hrabaňová was referring there to a controversial policy that propelled Mr Čunek from the Vsetín mayor’s office to a seat in the Senate, the party leadership and a cabinet post. Mr Čunek made waves nationwide after closing down a squalid tenement building in the centre of Vsetín and resettling its predominantly Romany inhabitants, most of whom were rent defaulters living on social security.

Mr Čunek’s vocabulary (he spoke of “lancing a boil” in Vsetín) and the net result of his actions (Romanies moved into glorified portacabins on the outskirts of the town) divided the country. He was pilloried by Romany organisations, the media and the political elite in Prague, but cheered on by many ordinary Czechs, weary of politicians making empty promises about “integrating” a minority they perceive as social parasites.

Once again his latest comments are likely to prove divisive. But some observers perceive a clear motivation for making them – his public approval ratings recently slumped, perhaps because he’s no longer in the public eye after losing his cabinet post, and perhaps because the sight of him struggling to regain that post is so ungainly. Comments such as “traditional Romany culture is not compatible with the culture of a modern society” might not win him any friends in the cabinet, but it’s a sentiment many ordinary Czechs agree with.