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Havel accepts Czech guilt for gypsy pogrom

The Czech President, Vaclav Havel, this weekend formally acknowledged for the first time the complicity of his countrymen in the extermination of thousands of gypsies during the Second World War.

Inaugurating a monument to the gypsy dead in the small village of Lety, south of Prague, Mr Havel - frequently termed the conscience of the nation - said that, although the Nazis had been responsible for setting up the former concentration camp on the site, it had been run by Czech guards. At the same time he warned that anti-gypsy sentiment remained strong in the country.

Lety was one of two camps in the Czech Republic in which some 5,600 gypsies, including many children, were either killed or detained pending transportation to Auschwitz. For the past 50 years, Czechs have simply ignored what happened there - and many would have preferred to have carried on doing so.

"The gypsies were not considered an integral part of Czech society ... resulting in a lack of trust, respect and rejection," Mr Havel told the crowd that had gathered at the pig farm now standing on the site of the Lety camp. "And their suffering seemed to escape the general memory."

In addition to a critical re-evaluation of the past, the President expressed concernover continuing racist attitudes towards gypsies in the Czech Republic. "Even today we can still hear people shout 'Gypsies to the gas chambers'," he said. "Even today we see indifference to such calls, quiet support to the callers and cowardly onlookers."

Mr Havel's words were unlikely to strike much of a chord in a country where, according to recent surveys, two out of three adults dislike the gypsy minority and blame it for the upsurge in crime since the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989. But he is used to that. In his self-appointed role of moral guardian of the nation, he believes it his duty to speak out on controversial issues and to raise questions many would rather leave unasked. He is used to championing unpopular causes. In the initial flush of success after his appointment as President in 1989, Mr Havel and his followers genuinely believed they could build a democratic society in which morality would be the guiding principle.

Within months of taking office, the former dissident playwright ordered a generous amnesty for prisoners of the former regime (thereby leading to a sharp increase in crime), pledged to wind up the country's extensive arms industry and, most controversially of all, publicly apologised for the expulsion of some 3 million Sudeten Germans after the war.

It was an idealistic approach, and, although it had its supporters, it was soon judged to be impractical among a populace, whose main concern was economic transformation.

"We hoped for a miracle: a unique new society," said Daniel Kumermann, a Havel supporter and co-signatory of Charter 77. "In the fervour of the times, we genuinely thought we could achieve it. But we soon discovered it was not to be."

According to some, President Havel's significance has been on the wane since. He bitterly opposed the partition of Czechoslovakia, but it happened anyway at the beginning of 1993. A staunch proponent of what he terms a "civil society" and the goal of the common good, he has been unable to prevent a growing emphasis on the individual and an ever greater materialism.

On the political front, moreover, Mr Havel appears to have been convincingly outflanked by Vaclav Klaus, the Thatcherite Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, who swept to power in the June 1992 elections and who has frequently criticised what he terms the President's "aberrant" proposals.

President Havel's detractors have long since written him off as an irrelevance. But although it is true that in the get-rich-quick atmosphere of the times, most Czechs do not appear to pay particular heed to what he is saying, they still think he deserves a platform.

Opinion polls consistently give President Havel a higher rating than Mr Klaus. Official listening figures, moreover, indicate that the President still enjoys a large radio audience for his weekly talk, in which he puts his moral spin on the issues of the day.