Ethnic tension builds up in northern Bohemia

Photo: CTK

The Czech Republic is facing heightened ethnic tension between Romanies and the majority population. In parts of northern Bohemia, animosity between the two groups culminated on Friday after two public gatherings, staged allegedly to protest against rising crime levels in the region, turned into openly racist rallies calling on the Romanies to leave. The government hopes to calm things down by increasing the police presence in the region. But experts warn that more comprehensive action is needed to prevent divisions between the communities from widening even further.

Photo: CTK
Hundreds of people shouted “Get a job!”, “Czechs, Czechs” and other slogans as they marched on Friday through parts of the northern Bohemian town of Rumburk, mostly inhabited by Romanies.

The improvised rally against Romanies took place after around 1,500 people gathered in the town square to protest what they called “rising crime levels” but what was in reality a protest against a series of attacks by Romanies on ethnic Czechs.

The police have since charged ten people who took part in the attacks with racially-motivated violence, and the government has sent in a special riot police unit. But these measures have failed to ease the tensions between Romanies and ethnic Czechs in the poor regions of northern Bohemia and other parts in the country. Sociologist Ivan Gabal is highly critical.

“It follows a deep change in the ethnic policy of the Czech government. This government decided to discontinue a policy of integration and fight against Romany seclusion; it abolished the Ministry for Human Rights, and significantly decreased all its efforts in areas such as education. As a consequence, we have now entered a period of ethnic tensions.”

The most sensitive regions, such as northern Bohemia, northern Moravia, suffer from high unemployment that makes it even more difficult for Romanies to find jobs.

There was also speculation that many Romanies have been relocated to these regions by real estate firms which apparently buy their homes and force them to move to cheaper properties located in poor regions, cashing in on state subsidies for social housing in the process.

Mr Gabal says there is now a new generation of Romanies who only experienced life in ghettos, who have only gone to special schools, and who feel nothing positive towards Czech society.

Photo: CTK
“We can expect these young boys and girls do not have positive values towards the majority society; quite the opposite. And I think that if the Czech Education Ministry continues to reject inclusive educational schemes in elementary schools, then the Czech society will have a serious problem.”

The reaction of Czech authorities to increased ethic tensions in North Bohemia has been rather muted, according to critics. No high-ranking officials were present in Rumburk and other places where anti-Romany rallies were held.

The Czech government has an agency to help cities and towns improve the conditions in socially-excluded communities, mostly inhabited by Romanies. Its director, Martin Šimáček, says the government does pay attention to what is happening. But he also believes it’s difficult to help in places where local politicians are reluctant to work with them.

Photo: CTK
“Those mayors in the region who started cooperating with us couple of years ago, for instance in Krásná Lípa and Varnsdorf, saw the situation in their cities improve – unlike Rumburk, for example, where things are much worse.”

However, most experts suggest the government has to re-adopt inclusive strategies in education and other areas before problems between Romanies and other Czechs culminate in other regions as well.