Prague, 23 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Throughout Central Europe, Gypsies and members of the majority society view each other through a haze of misunderstandings and hostility, often exacerbated by racism condoned by their political leaders.
Gypsies, or Roma, as they prefer to be called, are the region's most visible minority group. They say they are discriminated against daily because of their dark skin and distinctive looks, held back in school, denied jobs, and condemned to a life on the welfare rolls. Members of the majority society, including representatives of many Central European governments, in turn, argue that Roma account for a disproportionate amount of crime and, in some countries, a majority of the prison population. Rascist attacks -- usually by skinheads -- on Romanies of all ages remain common throughout the region and are not always loudly condemned by political leaders.
For Ondrej Gina, a Roma activist in Rokycany, a small city 80 kilometers southwest of Prague in the Czech Republic, the gulf between the two cultures is so great "that the word misunderstanding doesn't even come close to describing it."
He says his life is a daily struggle against racism. His colleague, Ilona Ferkova, co-ordinator of a kindergarten for Roma children in Rokycany, says Romanies are banned from any kind of public life in the city where they make up about seven percent of the population. Roma children are banned from swimming pools, she says, and adults are banned from cafes, restaurants and discos.
Ferkova says: "When they come to the door, they are told, "you are gypsies, you are not allowed to enter'."
Last year a Rokycany district court exonerated the manager of a local restaurant on charges of refusing to serve Gypsies. In many cases, the discrimination is quite blatant. In one incident that garnered nationwide publicity last year, a politician who owned a hotel in southern Moravia in the Czech Republic, posted a sign reading "Because of repeated stealing, access is banned to those of Romany nationality."
In a rare public statement, the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Jenonne Walker, recently criticized discrimination against the Romany minority as a fundamental exception to the generally good level of human rights in the country.
But the problem is more widespread than just the Czech Republic. The U.S. State Department, in its annual report on human rights around the world, pointed to problems with the treatment of Roma in much of Central and Eastern Europe.
In Romania, it said, "Roma continued to be subjected to discrimination, harassment, beatings and violence." In Hungary, the Romany unemployment rate is estimated at 70 percent, and Roma constitute a majority of the prison population. It cited disproportionately high levels of poverty and unemployment among Roma in both Slovakia and Bulgaria.
Slovakia, where Roma are the second largest minority after ethnic Hungarians, is the scene of almost regular horrific attacks on Roma, usually by skinheads. Romany activists and human rights campaigners have been disturbed by the reticence of Slovakia's government, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, to condemn such attacks.
Other Slovak politicians have been accused of condoning racism. Jan Slota, leader of the Slovak National Party, a minor nationalist partner in Meciar's ruling coalition, said in 1995 that the only way to deal with Gypsies was with "a big whip and a small yard." Health Minister Lubomir Javosky once promised the Meciar's government "will do everything to ensure that more white children are born than Romany ones."
In the Czech Republic, such sentiment has frequently been voiced by right-wing politician Miroslav Sladek, who now is facing criminal charges for allegedly racist statements against another group, Germans. In his first speech to parliament last year, Sladek said that "Gypsies should be subject to prosecution starting from the time of their birth, because being born is practically their biggest crime." He has also called for expelling the Czech Republic's Roma minority, estimated at 300,000 people.
Sladek calls them "criminals" and "darkies."
Although such language is never heard from mainstream politicians, the courts and government in the Czech Republic have only belatedly -- and under great pressure from inside and outside the country -- begun actively combatting racism.
Ladislav Body, who was the country's only Romany member of parliament until he was defeated in last year's elections, admits that "Romanies sometimes bring problems on themselves."
He describes Romanies as "colorful clans. We are four clans -- musicians, craftsmen, businessmen and thieves." It is the thieves who make life difficult for all other Roma, he says.
"We can tell who belongs to which clan according to his way of talking. But the majority can't tell whether a Roma is a decent person or not. You can see a well-dressed Roma but he can be the worst kind of thief," he says. "It's just a minority of Romanies who are thieves, but it forms the general view of Romanies."
Ilona Ferkova, the Rokycany kindergarten worker, can tesfity that this is the case. She said she recently led a group of religious Romany women to Prague, which they thought of as "a multicultural city with a lot of tolerance."
But she and her companions were horrified to be turned away from a Catholic church where they wanted to pray. A Czech woman there screamed at them: "We know you, you're all alike -- criminals. We don't want you here."
Ferkova adds that the attitude of honest Roma towards the Roma criminals is the same as anyone else's.
"We are dealing with those criminals the same way you do," she says. "They are outcasts in our community as well."