Neo-Nazis Prepare Pogroms Ten Years After Revolution
by Gwendolyn Albert, World War 4 Report
January 2009 marks a handover of power not only in the United States, but also in the European Union. As part of the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, the Czech Republic will step up for its first-ever shot at managing the agenda for the 27 EU member states. Instead of French President Nicolas Sarkozy representing the union on the international stage, the EU will be represented by Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek of the right-wing Civic Democrats. Topolanek will not be alone, as many predict Czech President Vaclav Klaus will do his best to elbow his way into the limelight as well, despite the fact that his position is essentially that of a figurehead. Long an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Klaus is infamous for his opposition to the Lisbon Treaty (a document aiming for greater political union between the EU Member States—and more powers for Brussels—which the Topolanek cabinet supports) as well as for his belief that global warming and climate change are utter nonsense.
The transition from Sarkozy to Topolanek is nowhere near as dramatic as the psychological shift underway in the US, where the country has elected its first-ever non-white president in an election largely seen as a referendum on the past eight years of the Bush administration’s neoconservative corruption. However, within the Czech Republic itself, a definite shift has occurred recently on the extreme right, where more political parties espousing blatantly racist views are receiving more support than ever before—and this on the eve of the EU presidency, an event which will expose the country to more international scrutiny than it has seen since the days of the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989. The international image of the country, which is still largely identified with the gentle, intellectual demeanor of its first post-communist president, the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, is about to be revised, and the face it is now showing the world is about as far from a philosopher-proponent of nonviolence as it could be. It is also, arguably, a much more accurate representation.
This past fall, the Czech authorities were caught completely off guard by the activities of a small extreme-right political party, active since 2003 and calling itself the Workers’ Party (Delnicka Strana—DS). In recent Senate elections, the party garnered 29 000 votes—not enough to bring them anywhere near parliament, but the most support they had ever received and a number they are fond of quoting. The DS announced that it had received a “plea for help” from what it called the “decent citizens” of Litvinov, a town in North Bohemia not far from the German border, and that the party would therefore be “patrolling” the Janov housing estate in the town due to complaints about the behavior of “inadaptable citizens” there.
Ever since the communist era, the term “inadaptable” has served as a circumlocution for referring to members of the Roma minority (also known as “Gypsies”) without seeming to single them out by ethnicity. As a result of the town privatizing much of its housing stock, developers had attracted low-income residents, many of them Roma, to a particular section of the Janov housing estate, causing property values to fall and social tensions to rise. The DS saw a perfect opportunity to exploit local discontent and profile themselves as the solution ahead of the upcoming elections to the European Parliament next June.
Anti-Roma sentiment in Central Europe has been deep-rooted for centuries—think of it as the “ur-prejudice” in this part of the world—and while it was not clear what the results of the DS vigilante activity would be, the announcement of the “patrols” received a high degree of support from many self-described “decent” citizens. Even now it is not clear how many of these “decent” folk genuinely understood the full extent of what they were supporting. However, even if the neo-Nazi nature of the DS were not completely clear (to any educated reader) from the material on the party’s website, their exploitation of the terminology of “adaptability” should be enough to give any student of the Holocaust pause. Unfortunately, since this term was widespread under communism (which contributed its own particular set of horrors to the history of Czech-Roma relations), this language is still considered part of the “normal” vocabulary for discussing Roma-related matters in the Czech Republic.
After announcing their intention to “patrol” on the web, the DS members came to the housing estate dressed in uniforms of their own design. The event marked a turning point in Czech-Roma relations. The usual response of Roma communities throughout the Czech Republic, when faced with organized right-wing aggression of the sort that has resulted in murder and violence against them and other minorities ever since 1989, is to disappear indoors, if not to flee the country altogether. In Litvinov, however, the local Roma turned out with makeshift weapons and made it very clear that they would not submit to being “patrolled.” Unfortunately, this moment of self-defense produced images of the Roma that racists will be mining for their “scare value” for some time to come.
Undaunted, the DS returned to Litvinov several weeks later. They convened an unannounced “demonstration” on the town square, which was also attended by members of two other neo-Nazi skinhead groups (the Autonomous Nationalists and National Resistance). The “demonstration” then turned into a march on Janov that was clearly a prelude to a pogrom, if the rhetoric of the speakers and their obvious preparations for violence were anything to go by. When the mayor attempted to disperse the gathering, on the grounds that it had not been properly announced to the authorities beforehand, the crowd turned on him, and he would have been injured but for the police presence; one officer and several bystanders were injured as a result of the violence. At the housing estate itself, observers later reported that it was only through sheer luck that the police managed to avert a major clash between the Roma community, ready to defend itself should the police fail them, and the neo-Nazi thugs.
As a result of this event, civic groups around the country began circulating petitions calling for the DS to be banned. Defamation of any group is a crime in the Czech Republic, and the party’s activities were clearly in violation of the law. Police observers were sharply critical of how ill-prepared the police had been to respond to the threat which a gathering of this sort obviously posed to anyone familiar with the neo-Nazi scene. Roma community groups from Janov traveled to Prague to plead with Interior Ministry officials and the Human Rights and Minorities Ministry to do something about the unrelenting attack on their community. Already the DS had properly registered its next demonstration there for Nov. 17, a state holiday honoring what is known to the rest of the world as the “Velvet Revolution,” the transition to democracy in 1989.
By Nov. 17, the authorities seem to have gotten the message that the DS and their hangers-on are not some sort of glorified Dungeons and Dragons group, but a serious organization completely committed to harassing the “inadaptable.” Since the town authorities refused to exercise their prerogative to ban the gathering, the state police were out in force for the “demonstration”—at least a thousand riot squad officers were on the ground, backed up by a helicopter. The marchers were cheered on by local non-Roma residents, who yelled “Let them through!” at the police and hurled racist epithets at the Roma who had gathered for their own demonstration in their part of the estate. At the first opportunity—when the marchers attempted to deviate from their originally announced route and to disperse into the Janov housing estate—the police cracked down.
This marked yet another turning point; instead of standing down, as they usually do when confronted by a superior force, the neo-Nazis seemed eager for the clash and engaged the police long into the evening—ultimately injuring seven officers, including ones on horseback. Thus it was that on the 19th anniversary of the peaceful transition to democracy, Janov was like a war zone, covered with tear gas and echoing with the crackle of the firecracker-like devices used by the police for crowd control. It was the largest police operation in the country since the 2000 demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank in Prague.
Subsequent reporting and video footage taken from the police helicopter showed that at least one segment of the neo-Nazis were extremely organized. Not only did they simultaneously attack different points on the estate (where they were routed by groups of police strategically placed in between the buildings), but police also later confirmed that the neo-Nazis themselves had access to materiel which could only be purchased by members of the armed forces. In other words, people with fairly high-level military and/or police training were involved in the assault on the side of the neo-Nazis.
The Roma of Janov were unarmed this time. In the aftermath of the ordeal their leaders officially thanked the police for protecting them. The town of Litvinov was flooded with announcements by various groups—from a Jewish group to local residents to other neo-Nazi organizations—of various demonstrations there in the days to come. But this time the town hall decided to ban almost all of the other events in the interests of preserving the peace.
The DS is not the only party of its kind in the Czech Republic. However, it is causing trouble as no other extremist group has here for some time. The Topolanek government has asked the Supreme Administrative Court to review whether it should be banned in light of these events, but other voices critical of its methods were and are few and far between. Their fellow racists seem to be emboldened now, especially with regard to confronting the police. In the aftermath of Litvinov, even as racist attacks on the Roma occurred across the country, the police themselves were singled out for attack in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second largest city. A group of 70 armed, drunken and masked neo-Nazis demolished two parked city police cars and the entrance to a hotel there; they also attacked officers in a vehicle responding to the incident. Nine of the rioters were arrested.
The neo-Nazi movement seems to be energetically embracing its “outlaw” profile, and there is relatively little public condemnation of it. On the contrary, recent reporting in the Czech press has revealed that skinheads serving time for violent offenses in Czech prisons are well-served by organizations that send them racist literature and pay their legal fees. Ironically, as the content of their websites is illegal in the Czech Republic, these groups use US-based web servers, an issue the Czech Helsinki Committee has recently raised with US authorities.
ROMA DEMAND REMEMBRANCE
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by Gwendolyn Albert, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, March 2008
From our Daily Report:
Czech security forces participated in anti-Roma pogrom?
World War 4 Report, Nov. 24, 2005
Special to World War 4 Report, Jan. 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution