Former Czech ex-pats of Ukraine reassimilating into Bohemia

In the second half of the 19th century, many Czechs moved east and settled in Ukraine. They had a reputation as good farmers and the Russian Czar attracted them to the country with the offer of cheap land. More than a century later, exactly ten years ago, in April 1991, descendants of these settlers, many of whom had never lost their links with Czech culture and the Czech language, began to return to the land of their forebears. The Czechoslovak government agreed to offer them social benefits and citizenship. Dita Asiedu takes a look at how this almost forgotten Czech minority has fared in the last ten years.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was the catalyst that led the Czechoslovak government after the fall of communism to offer ethnic Czechs from the north Ukrainian region of Volhynia to return to the home of their ancestors. The Czech minority lived close to the ill-fated power station, and many, especially children, suffered from the effects of exposure to huge doses of radiation. This accelerated the emigration of hundreds of people - sometimes entire villages - and the Czechoslovak authorities decided to help them return. Out of a total of 1,800 people, who arrived between 1991 and 1993, some 50 families were housed in the village of Rovna near Sokolov in Western Bohemia. Despite the fact that they were used to a very different way of life, had little or no money and most of the younger generation no longer spoke Czech the mayor of Rovna, Miroslav Kriz told Radio Prague that all of the families had adapted well:

"These people now all have Czech citizenship. There were no problems right from the start and they adapted pretty well. It was only the older generation which had often built their own houses back in Ukraine and were less adaptable who found it hard to move here".

This up-beat view is confirmed by Alla Vetrovcova - a Ukrainian who has settled in the Czech Republic and knows many of the Volhynian Czechs:

"A lot of them have private businesses. I know a doctor who has got a private hospital in Milovice and I know someone who has a company which produces ceramic goods. I think this is what these people wanted to do. They did not want to be a burden. They have the right to educate their own children and the right to work and that is what they are doing".

Most of the Czechs from Ukraine have been granted citizenship but the Czech citizenship promised by the government was based on a number of conditions. They had to live in the Czech Republic for a minimum period of five years and also had to give up Ukrainian citizenship. Furthermore, although social benefits were promised, they were only available for a limited time as the Czech and Ukrainian governments only had a limited agreement on granting those who migrated a pension. The period of the agreement ran out last year and those who have not yet received Czech citizenship will now not be able to receive pension. Mr. Kriz sees this as discrimination:

"The Czech government has stopped recognising the years that people were employed in Ukraine. I disapprove of that, because if they came here on the invitation of the government, their years of employment before they arrived should be recognized. That is their basic right."