Deputy PM's Roma plan raises eyebrows

Jiří Čunek, the country’s Deputy PM and Minister for Regional Development has been in trouble several times for his actions and statements regarding Czech Roma. This week, the Christian Democrat leader announced a plan to solve the so-called Roma problem within 10 years. The solution, to segregate Roma into various categories according to their willingness to be “civilized” has raised some eyebrows.

Jiří Čunek,  photo: CTK
In 2005 Mr.Čunek launched his career in high politics by getting tough on Roma defaulters in the town of Vsetín where he served as mayor. There was an outcry from human rights activists but public support for Mr. Čunek’s actions won him a seat in the Senate. Now he claims to have a fast and effective solution to the so-called “Roma problem”, promising to abolish Roma ghettoes within a decade.

His proposals, a kind of caste system, would see Roma across the Czech Republic divided into three categories. The top tier would be Roma who are not dependant on any way on state social support. The second category would be Roma who are viewed as misusing state social support, while the third bottom category would be Roma who require permanent state monitoring. The latter group would be urged to move into special zones in which a tough regime of state supervision would keep them in check. A document published by Mr Čunek also cites the need to weaken the ties between family clans:

Kumar Vishwanathan has spent years working with Roma communities in Northern Moravia. I asked him for his assessment of this plan:

“I personally am not in favour of this kind of segregation. I think that these categories are so vague that it is very difficult to see how such a system could be put into practice. On the other hand, I sense that there is an attempt by the government to say ‘these are Roma who do deserve something, and these are the Roma who do not, so let’s start helping the ones who need it.’”

Yet Mr Čunek is standing by his proposals. In an interview with the newspaper Mladá Fronta Dnes, he argued that he was obliged to tackle the problem of ghettoes and that the plans will allow those Roma who live normally to set an example to others, while also weaning Roma off welfare. When challenged over whether the system would simply allow more people to slip into his “third class” on the scale, he noted that in every society there were people who were unwilling to work, even if they were to die of hunger.

I asked Kumar Vishwanathan why he believed Roma faced issues of underachievement:

Kumar Vishwanathan
“I think that underachievement is quite normal among uneducated and marginalised people all over the world. They have children who face a great challenge just to catch up with the rest of society and it is our duty to encourage those children.”

And what about the accusations of Roma misuse of welfare?

“Misuse of the system is a big problem and it is not just the Roma who do it – they shouldn’t be used as a scapegoat to focus the public on a grave problem of the general misuse of social funds. That is a big problem in this country, the idea of a paternalistic state, which takes care of you is still deeply rooted in many sections of the population, not just the Roma.”

Mr Čunek’s proposals have met with a somewhat baffled response from fellow government officials and have little to no chance of actually being passed in this form. Ultimately, with local elections coming up, many believe that these proposals are in fact a gimmick designed to appeal to a group of white Christian Democrat voters, particularly in Moravia for whom the Roma issue is a genuine concern.