The Czech Republic and the rise of social exclusion

“I’m standing in an area of Prague which is quite close to Prague’s main train station – Hlavní Nádraží. This is an area which has been described as one of the worst areas of Prague in terms of poverty and destitution, but looking round, it looks quite normal to me – there’s a hotel here; there’s shops; there’s all sorts of normal things that you’d expect. So the impression one gets is that poverty isn’t really an issue in Prague if this is as bad as it gets. But that doesn’t really paint the full picture. To the north and to the east of the country, you have ghettoisation and it is becoming an increasing problem. So the question I’m asking is just how bad is poverty, ghettoisation and social exclusion? The government has recently set up a taskforce to deal with the issue – and that’s what I’ll be exploring.”

Kumar Vishwanathan
Back in the studio, I spoke with Kumar Vishwanathan a social worker formerly from India. He was blunt about the seriousness of poverty and social exclusion in the Czech Republic, particularly among the Roma:

“I can definitely see that the ghettos are not disappearing. More and more Roma are becoming ghettoized. They are losing their homes; there are massive evictions of people from council apartments. I should like to see that our government leaders and local authorities are clearer about saying that ghettos are wrong. In fact, what you see here is the fact that many popular politicians are trying to create ghettos in order to win votes by trying to move away the Roma population. From being a visible minority in the towns, they move them away to the outskirts of the towns or send them to far away places.”

The Czech Republic is now open to immigration – but the Roma model does not bode well for future integration. Sociologist Ivan Gabal underscored the wider picture of a post-communist country, unused to different cultures and for years forced to oppose any kind of class system – at least in theory - facing new challenges in a capitalist world:

“The communist regime had compulsory employment. And from this, a shift towards an open and free labour market opened up room for long-term unemployment among people with a lack of vocational training and of any qualifications - especially when the country underwent a restructuring of the economy from heavy industry towards a more sophisticated, qualification-intensive economy. And this is what pushed certain social categories, and in particular ethnic Roma into long-term unemployment and exclusion.”

Marek Podlaha,  the head of the Agency for the Elimination of Social Exclusion,  photo: CTK
In January, the government set up the Agency for the Elimination of Social Exclusion. Its goal: to prepare a series of recommendations for the government on how to deal with the problem. I spoke with the head of this agency Marek Podlaha:

“Many people, many organizations and many ministries want to get rid of or at least slow down social exclusion in some way or another, but so far, this has not been successful. So in January, the government created our agency, which is tasked with finding a systematic solution as to how to slow down, reverse and eventually eliminate social exclusion altogether. We are trying to bring to the table everyone who can or wants to do something about this problem.”

Sociologist Ivan Gabal explains further:

“This new agency is set up to be an integrating body for policies to be implemented on various levels of public administration, starting with the central government, through the regional government and going all the way down to municipal bodies. Secondly, they may or should bring certain experiences and knowledge of the problem and awareness about potential tools of the reintegration of these people, intervention into the schooling system etc. So this should be an agency that tries to bring or introduce complex changes in the situations of socially excluded communities, inhabited mainly by Roma people.”

These are clearly laudable goals. But details remain sketchy, and it is crucial to note that the money for any projects will not be paid for by the Czech government, but by EU grants. Cynics might suspect that this is yet more less-than-transparent, potentially corrupt money grabbing. So I asked Marek Podlaha if the government was really taking the problem of social exclusion seriously:

“I do think that the government is paying attention to this problem. Because what it decided to do, back in January, is proof that it knows that there is a problem and that so far, attempts to remedy it have failed. But I think that if we manage to persuade the public that our goal isn’t to spend money, but to actually save money, because social exclusion costs the state a lot of money – and it is not just Roma that have these problems. So the public, just like the government, wants to find a solution.”

Social worker Kumar Vishwanathan has some stern words for those in prosperous Prague who underestimate the current situation:

“People when they move away from Prague and they come to places like Ostrava, they see very, very marked changes between living standards and neighbourhoods. Ostrava has very run down regions where the police are not very comfortable walking around in at night. So, I wouldn’t idealise the situation here in any way. I think that the situation can get very bad here – much worse than abroad, because what you see here is thanks to the ghettoisation, right from childhood the majority and the Roma don’t come into contact. The schools are segregated, the children have no mutual experiences and prejudices keep replicating and negative experiences are magnified. What you see is a widening rift – an inability of sections of society to live together. And I think that we in this country, thanks to short-sighted policies, we are actually packing a powder keg.”

But Mr Vishwanathan also welcomed the aims of the embryonic agency – although he did express some crucial concerns:

“On the other hand, I welcome attempts by the government to be responsible, at least from the top. I welcome the creation of the agency to fight social exclusion – I welcome the fact that today, around seventy municipalities seem to express an interest in solving the problem. But what I am afraid of is that there are no clear criteria of what kind of projects should be funded. What I am afraid of is that part of the money from the European Union might end up trying to deepen the segregation. For example, European money might go into deepening the segregated schooling system. I am extremely concerned about some things that are happening today – the Department of Special Education, which is dealing with the educational needs of the Roma children is separate from the department of normal education, which I think is wrong and EU money might go into perpetuating the differences and we all ought to be wary of this.”

A park outside the Prague’s main station
“I’m now standing in a park just outside Prague’s main train station. This is a place that is actually quite notorious for crime, dereliction, drug users often hang around here – it’s not a place that is considered safe, especially at night. But even here it is full of people going to and fro, going to work – people that don’t look as if they are filled with despair. Obviously, it is easy to oversimplify these things, but the general impression that you get is that the Czech Republic as a post communist country simply isn’t used to the kind of divisions in society that you find in western countries. Now, how a country like that deals with that in the future, with various ideological solutions being proposed and pragmatism often hard to come by, one wonders what the future will be here.”