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Czech Republic: Grassroots Is Path To Power For Kazakh-Born Minister

By Ron Synovitz and Katarina Solikova Czech Minister without portfolio Dzamila Stehlikova (RFE/RL) January 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It's a long way from Kazakhstan to the Czech Republic.

For the Kazakh-born Dzamila Stehlikova, it has been an arduous journey from her childhood there to her new job as a minister in the Czech government. Appointed on January 9 as a minister without portfolio, Stehlikova is now the Czech cabinet's top official in charge of minority issues and human rights.

As a young girl living in Kazakhstan in the 1960s, Stehlikova never dreamed that she would one day be a member of the Czech government.

Her path to power has taken her through medical school in Moscow, work as a doctor and a psychiatrist, and grassroots politics as an environmental activist in the coal-mining regions of northern Bohemia.

Village Life

Although Stehlikova and her family lived in the city of Alma-Ata -- now Almaty -- when she was a young girl, she says her earliest memories are of a small village in Kazakhstan.
"So from helpless citizens, I got into the local administration because I had a goal. My goal wasn't to have a career in politics. My goal was a concrete issue. And I understood that people around me showed their solidarity. They helped me."

"For me, it was very important every year to visit a small village, Karakorum, which is in the border area of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan," Stehlikova says. "My grandfather -- the father of my father -- was born there. My roots are there. I was born in Alma-ata, but I remember my friends [in Karakorum], riding on horseback, and playing childhood games there. So if we speak about where the path of my life began, it was at this village on the border of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan."

Stehlikova's family sent her to Moscow at a young age to study. As a Moscow medical student, she focused on general medicine. She also worked as a psychiatric researcher -- living among minorities from across the Soviet Union -- until 1988. That's when, at the age of 26, she married a Czech man and moved to the northern part of what was then communist Czechoslovakia.

"My journey into politics was very down-to-earth," Stehlikova says. "I traveled to [Bohemia] from Moscow, where I had studied and started working. I arrived in a small town in northern [Bohemia.]; I was surprised how people in that region treat nature and cultural heritage. In north [Bohemia], there are coal mines, and the coal is exploited in open strip mines. So whole villages and towns with historical monuments are simply destroyed. For me, it was such a shock that I spontaneously decided to fight against it. We organized several demonstrations, but I understood that they had no effect. Even after the Velvet Revolution [in 1989], the villages were still being destroyed. Churches and houses were destroyed. People were moved to other towns. Then I understood that if I wanted to influence what happened around me, it was necessary to go into politics."

Early Local Activism

Stehlikova says it was her work as a psychiatrist that gave her direct exposure to the psychological impact of large-scale coal mining on the people of northern Bohemia. That, combined with her grassroots activism, brought her into local politics as part of the country's fledgling Green Party.

"It is said that a citizen can do something in a small town," Stehlikova says. "I entered the municipal government and joined the Green Party. Later, the path continued like this. Other members of the Green Party entered the local administrations in the region where the coal is exploited. Our voice became louder. People could hear us. They followed us. People don't want to move and see the houses of their ancestors torn down. They don't want to abandon the cemeteries where their ancestors lie."

Stehlikova says she never considered politics as a career. But she remained active in the Green Party while continuing her work as a physician and psychiatrist through 2006. She also taught at the University of Jan Evangelista Purkyne in the Czech town of Usti nad Labem until 2006. She credits Czech voters' environmental concerns for her rise to a government ministry post:

"The biggest success was that, when we entered the government, it was proposed that the next governments should start to deal with this problem -- that the country was being destroyed in order to mine coal," Stehlikova says. "So from helpless citizens, I got into the local administration because I had a goal. My goal wasn't to have a career in politics. My goal was a concrete issue. And I understood that people around me showed their solidarity. They helped me."

Political Agenda

As one of four ministers from the Green Party appointed to the new Czech government in early January, Stehlikova says she has several important goals on her agenda.

In the field of human rights, she wants to prepare Czech anti-discrimination legislation similar to the laws of most other European Union countries -- and rally political will to push the legislation through parliament.

She also wants to create an agency that deals with the social exclusion of minorities in the Czech Republic -- especially the Romany community.

Stehlikova also wants the government to move more quickly on purchasing a pig farm at the Czech town of Lety. The farm lies on the site of a Nazi-era concentration camp for Roma. Once the land is purchased from its private owner, she wants a proper memorial there for Romany victims of the Holocaust.

Finally, Stehlikova wants to improve access for the handicapped to public buildings and transportation in the Czech Republic.

(Contributors to this story include Abdigani Zhiyenbay of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service; Ainura Asankojoeva and Janyl Chytyrbaeva from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service; and Indira Biktimerova from RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.)

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