Czech 'civilisation' demands gypsy expulsions

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The Independent Online
THE language has a sinister ring to it: 'No gypsies allowed]'; or, again, 'Due to bad experiences in the past, we do not serve gypsies', writes Adrian Bridge.

Change the word 'gypsies' to 'Jews', and it could be Germany in the 1930s. Replace it with 'blacks', and it could be South Africa just a few years ago.

But these signs can be found in bars and restaurants throughout the northern part of the newly formed Czech Republic. And they are just the most blatant manifestation of rising anti-Romany feeling triggered by the influx of tens of thousands of gypsies from the less prosperous Slovakia immediately before and after the break- up of the former Czechoslovak state at the beginning of the year.

'Even in many places where there are no such signs, gypsies will find that their entrance is barred,' says Petr Janyska, deputy editor of the Prague-based liberal daily, Lidove Noviny. 'It is, quite simply, a form of apartheid.'

The display of such blatantly discriminatory signs is illegal under the Czech constitution, which guarantees all citizens equal rights. But most local authorities in the northern Bohemian towns to which the gypsies have migrated simply turn a blind eye.

To the authorities - and local Czech inhabitants - the gypsies are uneducated, uncivilised and largely to blame for steep increases in crime. Hopeful of a better economic future in the Czech Republic, or neighbouring Germany, they often live crammed into rooms with families or friends or squat in houses due for demolition. Not only are they unwelcome as drinking partners. They are not welcome at all.

'We are talking about areas where civilisation is disintegrating,' protested Lukas Masin, mayor of Usti nad Labem, a city 80 miles north of Prague which late last year witnessed a series of skinhead attacks on its vastly expanded Romany community.

In order to prevent any further rise in tension, Mr Masin and other north Bohemian mayors want new powers to expel back to Slovakia what they term 'unwanted' elements and impose tough restrictions on those seeking to come in - effectively putting up a barrier at the currently open border between the Czech and Slovak republics.

Their cause has won the backing of Jiri Setina, the Prosecutor General of the Czech Republic, who last week asked parliament to approve measures that would, among other things, allow police to search private premises, impose a five-day limit on visits other than to relatives and oblige would-be visitors to obtain approval from local authorities.

According to Borek Valvoda, the mayor of Most, the extra powers - which would be directed almost exclusively against gypsies - 'have nothing to do with gypsies as such, the point would be to reintroduce law and order'.

But gypsy representatives and many MPs have condemned Mr Setina's proposals as racist and a clear infringement of basic human rights. Leaders of the Romany Civic Initiative have warned that they will organise a campaign of civil disobedience if the government does not condemn the proposed measures unequivocally.

Most observers in Prague believe that parliament will reject Mr Setina's plan on the grounds that it contravenes the constitution. But there is widespread recognition that relations between Czechs, Slovaks and the two republics' gypsy populations - officially put at 300,000; unofficially estimated at 800,000 - are on a knife edge.

'In comparison to the calls of many (Czech) citizens for the 'liquidation and expulsion' of the gypsies, Mr Setina's proposals are a model of innocence and humanity,' commented the Lidove Noviny newspaper.

'The Prosecutor General's initiative must therefore serve as a stimulus to help find a solution to the 'Romany problem'. The laws we already have are sufficient for that.'

(Photograph omitted)