Vsetin mayor in race storm after evicting Romanies from town centre

Romany family evicted from Vsetin, photo: CTK

The town of Vsetin in eastern Moravia is at the centre of what is becoming a nationwide debate over housing, local politics and race relations. Mayor Jiri Cunek's decision to move several hundred Romany rent-defaulters out of a dilapidated block of flats in the town centre and relocate them, often up to 70 km away, helped him win him a seat in the Senate, but is also causing uproar.

Jiri Cunek,  photo: CTK
Jiri Cunek has been mayor Vsetin for the past eight years, and was recently elected as the town's senator. His popularity has soared partly due to his uncompromising stance towards the town's Romany rent-defaulters, who until recently lived in a sprawling, dilapidated block of flats next to a health clinic in the town centre.

Mr Cunek, a member of the Christian Democrats, evicted the Romanies, re-housing them in a complex of portacabins on the outskirts of Vsetin and also in neighbouring villages, some up to 70 km away. The crumbling tower block is now being demolished.

Local residents, who had long complained about noise and vandalism coming from the estate, have lionised him. But his decision is now causing uproar, largely due to comments he made in a report this week by TV Nova.

Romany family evicted from Vsetin,  photo: CTK
Mr Cunek said all he was doing was "cleaning an ulcer" in the town centre. It's the kind of language that goes down well in Vsetin, but less well further afield. He's been attacked by members of his own party and human rights activists. Kumar Vishwanathan is an Indian community worker based in Ostrava.

"I see a process, which is extremely worrying. I see this not as an isolated event. I think it's wrong. The Czech Republic and the people in this country often think of themselves as a very civilised people, who are not racist, who have a better self-image. Mr Cunek is now trying to push at the very boundaries of what is acceptable in this society. And that's very disturbing, because it seems to me that what he's trying to do, along with others, is to try to shift what is acceptable. That sounds like we are going back to the 30s. That sounds very, very, very dangerous I think."

Romany family evicted from Vsetin,  photo: CTK
Mr Cunek himself rejects accusations of racism, saying those who haven't seen the situation for themselves are not qualified to comment. So far, he is refusing to apologise.

"I don't know what for. And if I don't know what for, then I'm not going to apologise to anyone."

Some in the media had speculated that Jiri Cunek might be a candidate to take over the leadership of the Christian Democrats when the party holds its annual conference in December. Even though Mr Cunek still has the support of both the town council and the people of Vsetin, that now seems unlikely.