RISE OF THE CZECH FAR RIGHT
Neo-Nazis Exploit Growing Anti-Roma Racism
by Gwendolyn Albert, World War 4 Report
In one sense, the recent elections to the European Parliament were a reason to celebrate in the Czech Republic. Unlike other countries in Europe—such as Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania or the UK—no Czech MEPs from far-right extremist parties will be representing the country at the EP in Brussels and Strasbourg. In another sense, however, there is a great deal to be concerned about. The neo-Nazi Worker's Party (Delnická strana), responsible for the recent rise in public neo-Nazi violence here during the past nine months, did win more than 1% of the vote, as a result of which it now qualifies to receive almost one million Czech crowns from the state election fund. This infusion of cash means the party will be able to carry on its activities, which include specifically targeting the Roma minority, and they have great motivation to do so, as early elections are just around the corner this fall.
The current interim technocratic cabinet of Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer has received a vote of confidence from parliament and will work until October. Cracking down on right-wing extremists is a clear part of their program, and last week saw a police raid on homes across the country, rounding up 10 key neo-Nazi organizers and charging them with "promoting a movement aimed at suppressing human rights and freedoms," as the letter of Czech law has it. Five remain in custody, and in retaliation neo-Nazis have been protesting across the country. A recent news item reported that the children of Czech PM Fischer (a recent convert to Judaism) and Interior Minister Pecina are now being given police protection as a preventive measure in case the neo-Nazis make good on their threats of retaliation for the police raids.
As those following events in the Czech Republic are aware, this crackdown has been long overdue. Neo-Nazi demonstrations and attempted pogroms on the Roma in the Czech Republic cost taxpayers millions during the run-up to the recent EP elections. The November 2008 neo-Nazi riots in Litvínov required the presence of 1,000 police and were the largest police action in the country since the anti-IMF/World Bank demonstrations in Prague in the year 2000. They have since been followed by other attempted pogroms, many of which have met with peaceful but firm resistance from the Roma community.
In the early morning hours of April 19, perpetrators who still remain at large threw three Molotov cocktails into the home of a Roma family in the village of Vítkov, Czech Republic. The ensuing blaze injured three people, including a two-year-old girl who is still fighting for her life in the Ostrava Teaching Hospital, where she is being treated for second and third-degree burns over 80 % of her body. The grandmother of the family saw a car in front of the house and heard a man yelling "Hey, Gypsies, burn!" before it drove away. The water mains to the house had been shut off prior to the attack and the house was completely destroyed.
Police say they have identified the vehicle and even the passengers, but have charged no one for lack of evidence. Despite the fact that police clearly classified the attack as arson committed by people from outside the house, irrational local rumors persist that the family set the fire themselves. Since the attack, they have been housed in a temporary shelter, an eight-meter-square flat in back of a veterinary clinic. While almost a million Czech crowns in donations have been collected by the town on their behalf for the purchase of a new home, no one wants the family to move in next to them, and the few offers of real estate they have received have been followed by groups of neighbors visiting the town hall to protest against the family moving in there. Meanwhile, Czech internet chat rooms visited by neo-Nazis threaten to "finish the job." Just like two-year-old Natálka, the family remains in a state of limbo, with no clear way out of their situation.
This particular arson attack was followed by yet another on a Roma family, fortunately unsuccessful, during May in the village of Zdiby, not far from Prague. These attacks, the rise in neo-Nazi activity across the country during the past year, and the impunity with which the perpetrators operate are one reason so many Czech Roma are once again fleeing to Canada, mirroring a similar exodus during the mid-1990s that caused Canada to institute a visa requirement for all Czech citizens (lifted in 2007).
Recent Roma asylum seekers from the Czech Republic have included Anna Poláková, a well-known Roma programming editor at Czech Radio who has fled the country for fear of her family's safety. Her experience of the Czech justice system is quite instructive: Skinheads beat her son unconscious and were fortunately apprehended by police during the act; civil and criminal courts found the perpetrators guilty, with the civil court awarding the victim compensation for his rights having been violated. However, when two of the perpetrators failed to pay up and the family sued for their sentencing to be enforced, the family then became subjected to persecution. Their addresses were revealed to the perpetrators and their associates, who began following Poláková's husband around, threatening and then assaulting him in an effort to extort the return of the compensation already paid to the family. Police were unable to protect them, so the family is now living with other asylum-seekers in the town of Hamilton, just outside Toronto.
Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney recently made the mistake of telling the media he found it hard to believe the Czech Republic is "an island of persecution" in Europe, but that is only because he must be receiving poor intelligence. There are worse places, indeed—in Hungary more than seven Roma people have been shot in or near their homes during the past year—but there is no doubt the Czech Republic has allowed an atmosphere of impunity for neo-Nazis.
While a great deal of the reporting on this issue from Central and Eastern Europe has generated the assumption that the rise in extremist activity can be blamed on the financial crisis, in the case of the Czech Republic such suggestions are facile. A great deal of racist activity targeting the Roma was well underway in this country long before the global financial crisis was officially announced in the fall of 2008.
Indeed, the argument might even be made that racism gets worse here the better times are: Last year the Czech crown was performing so strongly against both the dollar and the euro that Czech exporters were beginning to worry their products might become too expensive. Even after the crisis became full-blown, Czech authorities hastened to soothe taxpayers by letting them know that Czech banks had not been involved in the hedge funds and other financial instruments that had wreaked such havoc elsewhere. As Hungary, Iceland and Ireland have imploded, the Czech Republic has remained relatively extremely stable. Predictions issued by the European Commission expect Czech GDP to shrink by only 2.7 % this year, one of the mildest forecasts in the EU.
One market economy mechanism that has been steadily at work in the country for quite some time is considered a normal component of the development of commercial real estate markets in capitalist economies and is largely to blame for the rise in the number of Roma "ghettos" here during the past decade, recently documented by the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry in 2006. That mechanism is gentrification.
The average Czech citizen has been finding their local "Roma ghetto" expanding recently with indigent and unhappy residents—not due to official planning, as happened under communism, but due to real estate agents randomly redistributing the underclass as gentrification requires. In this scenario, the only ones satisfied are the property developers, whose owners usually do not have to live day-to-day with the actual impact of their commercial activity. Given that there is no definition of social or low-income housing enshrined in Czech law, towns are also free to invent their own approaches to this problem, with the result that many poor Roma end up paying exorbitant rents to live in undignified accommodation with communal facilities for which they are not eligible to receive any state support.
The political genius of the Workers' Party during the past year and a half has been to capitalize on the sense of unease felt by those who have watched the populations of their local Roma ghettos grow due to circumstances seemingly beyond anyone's control (except that of the "invisible hand"). For members of the Roma community in the Czech Republic, 2008 and 2009 have been a nightmare. Neo-Nazi marches have increased in frequency, with municipal authorities unwilling or unable to stop them, and the number of followers of this ideology willing to take part in them has risen as well. Those attending the marches are not teenaged thugs, but middle-aged, clean-cut, average-seeming men and women. Again, it would be facile to suggest that the promoters of this hatred are motivated by any objective worsening of the country's living standard. In August 2008, the Czech Statistical Office reported that unemployment, as calculated by the International Labor Organization, had fallen during the second quarter of 2008 to 4.3%, the lowest level since 1996—which, incidentally, is when the last effort by the extreme right to participate in government was underway.
During the last year and a half, the Workers' Party has perfected a formula: It sends its "patrols" to towns with large Roma ghettos to "monitor" the situation, which usually means meeting with local residents to ask them about their grievances with respect to their "inadaptable" (=Roma) neighbors. The party then claims it has been "invited" to "address the situation"; an individual related to the party then convenes a public demonstration in the town, usually involving a march through the Roma quarter. Members of hard-core neo-Nazi organizations, usually National Resistance and the Autonomous Nationalists, then show up in support, armed with blades and other weapons (so far, not firearms). The intention is to provoke the Roma community to violence; delighted onlookers in various towns have been captured on video urging these pogroms on.
Czech Human Rights and Minorities Minister Michael Kocáb recently called these neo-Nazi marches "terrorism." The party trademark is to return repeatedly and relentlessly every few weeks to the same community, hoping to provoke the violent catharsis its followers evidently crave.
In the aftermath of the November Litvínov riots, the Czech government succumbed to pressure from civil rights groups and made an historic first attempt to request that the Supreme Administrative Court dissolve a registered political party (for other than technical reasons). The Workers’ Party website alone and the many speeches in which its leaders have railed against the democratic order should be ample reason to disband it, but the evidence submitted in the government brief was so weak as to prompt various speculations among civil society observers that it had essentially been just for show. For now, therefore, the Workers' Party is continuing its activities with the additional legitimacy of having defeated the government in court, but the new cabinet has vowed to do the job right a second time, and not only with respect to the WP, but to their less-successful kindred spirits, the National Party (Národní strana).
Only the October elections will really prove whether these neo-Nazi groups are merely a flash in the pan or whether their tactics will succeed with the Czech electorate. Certainly the average citizen has expressed support for the increasingly harsh language and tactics taken by some center-right politicians toward the Roma minority; in this sense, the extremists have been "punching above their weight" for some time here. They do not have to ever actually sit in any parliament to pose a threat to the country, and we can only hope Fischer and Pecina will achieve their stated aim of breaking up this movement before it does more damage.
Gwendolyn Albert is a human rights activist in Prague.