September 2nd - last chance for communist-time émigrés to apply for Czech citizenship

September 2nd, 2004 is the deadline for Czech émigrés who lost their citizenship during communism to apply to get back a Czech passport. Since 1999 when a law making this possible came into effect, some 8,000 people around the world have made use of the possibility, many of them people who fled the communist regime, or were even forced to leave. The fact that émigrés will in future no longer be entitled to become Czech citizens has upset some members of the émigré community.

Probably the largest group of Czech expats lives in the United States. Only around a half of the estimated 10,000 eligible applicants have used the opportunity to have their Czech citizenship returned under the 1999 law. Martin Palous is the Czech Republic's ambassador to Washington.

"In the past years or months we have registered several cases but not any significant increase and I certainly hope that everybody, all former Czechoslovak citizens who wish to make use of this legal provision have done so, because obviously after September 1st, the situation for them will be more complicated so I hope that everybody has done the right thing in the right time."

Some groups representing Czechs abroad believe that people should be able to apply for the renewal of their Czech nationality without a time limit. Among them is Petr Bisek, the publisher of the Czech and Slovak bi-weekly Americke listy.

"There should be no deadline on these things; it should be unlimited. You know, I have to admit that we have a feeling in the last fifteen years that some laws are made not only hastily and with many mistake and errors that have to be corrected in the future, but that some of them were made with thoughts of not letting us in - I mean those who left Czechoslovakia in the last 50 years and have either dual or some other citizenship also, that there was a malicious intent in some of those laws just to keep us out."

The law entitling émigrés to citizenship was passed just after the deadline by which Czech citizens could claim back property confiscated by the Communists. This has angered some émigrés, feeling that they are being deprived of their basic property rights. Ambassador Martin Palous says he understands their standpoint.

"The whole situation is in many ways difficult and if you want to say 'unfair', there are some elements of unfairness in it. I understand that. Again, as the Czech Ambassador to the United States I have to respect the law. I remember the discussions in the early 1990s and it as actually obvious from the very beginning that to restitute everything - simply to reverse the course of history, would be almost impossible."

Petr Bisek says that the laws are too narrow to embrace the variety of life stories of Czechs who went into exile in the communist days. He gives his family as an example.

Petr Bisek
"We have two children they were both born in the United States. When our daughter Veronika was born, we were still Czechoslovak citizens. We had been living here in the United States only for four years so we didn't have a US citizenship yet. So by her birth of Czechoslovak parents, she is automatically entitled to two citizenships. Our son was born four years later when we were already American citizens (thanks to an agreement between the countries we lost Czechoslovak citizenship). So he was born of American parents and he can have only American citizenship. What's also peculiar: he now lives in the Czech Republic, very happily. He claims he wants to stay there, he's been there for three years now. So after five years or so he will be probably applying for Czech citizenship."

Although the chance to claim back confiscated property was for some the main reason for applying for their lost Czech citizenship, for others, such as Petr Bisek and his wife, it has a more symbolic value.

"My wife and I applied for renewing our Czech citizenship and we have both but it was more of a sentimental gesture than for practical purposes. And if somebody would be willing to give up American citizenship, I don't know what practical purpose it would serve. It would have to be really a big emotional decision."

Despite the grievances expressed by some Czech emigre groups, the Czech Ambassador to the United States, Martin Palous, says he hopes the relations between them and their former homeland can remain friendly.

"There is a small group of individuals who feel very strongly about that. I certainly can only hope that they will not lose entirely the confidence and that the Czech Republic will remain a former home they used to have. And that the problem which apparently, according to the existing law does not have a solution, can still be discussed in friendly terms."