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Czech Republic: Roma Population Protests Division Of Town

Prague, 5 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Usti nad Labem, a small industrially depressed Czech city on the Elbe river has became the latest flashpoint in the ongoing tension between ethnic Czechs and Roma.

Czechs in Usti nad Labem say they're fed up with the ongoing trash, smell and general rowdiness emanating from two tenements housing 39 Roma, or Gypsy, families in one of the city's more blighted and crumbling neighborhoods.

The city has responded by proposing to spend 350,000 koruny ($10,900) to build a four-meter-high wall to separate what the town's mayor calls the decent from the non-decent residents living on Maticni street.

To the Roma, frequent victims of skinhead attacks, the wall is further proof of Czech racism. They say the wall is just the latest effort to marginalize and isolate them in ghettos.

International human rights monitors say the plan in Usti nad Labem and a proposal to build a fenced-in compound on the outskirts of the southern Bohemian city of Plzen that would most likely be filled with Roma, are further indications of the creeping specter of racism not only in the Czech Republic, but across the whole of Central and Eastern Europe. The European Union, which the Czech Republic hopes to join, is also carefully monitoring events in both places.

The Czechs say they've been unfairly singled out, accusing the Western press of sensationalizing the story and politicians of exploiting it for their own gains.

Usti nad Labem's mayor, Ladislav Hruska, wrings his hands explaining how he felt forced to resort to such a measure.

Hruska explains that the decision was not ideal, and was difficult for him to make, but he felt compelled to take some action seeing that the situation was only worsening.

Three days ago (June 2), a group from the Association of Roma in the Czech Republic, followed by a pack of Western and Czech reporters, handed Hruska a petition demanding that plans for the wall be scrapped.

Josef Sivak, the group's spokesman said, "If we allow this here, other towns will follow suit and then you will have ghettos, followed by ovens, and that will be the end of the Roma."

Hruska granted the Roma a three-month reprieve to, in his words, prove they can maintain order at the two tenements. But, he remains skeptical, saying some Roma leaders are unwilling to sit down and address the issues.

The problems on Maticni Street date back to 1994 when local authorities herded the Roma into the tenements, opposite ethnic Czech families. According to ethnic Czech residents the nightmare began shortly thereafter.

They say the Roma hurl their trash from windows to dirt lots below where it festers for months, creating an unbearable stench. They say the trash was only cleared after the town threatened to put up the wall. Czechs also say the Roma loiter and drink on the street at all hours of the night making it impossible to sleep.

To 55-year-old Jirzina Puhaltova, the wall is a long overdue measure to bring a semblance of peace to the neighborhood.

Puhaltova explains how Roma families throw trash about, loiter on the streets for hours, and she also explains that the wall is needed to merely maintain order and cleanliness on the street.

But a twenty-year old Roma woman living in one of the housing blocks sees the building of a wall as a form of collective punishment that will stigmatize all the families living there. She admits that there are problems on Maticni but explains that is the fault of a few individuals.

She says that all are being punished because of the acts of a few.

The woman is a symbolic case of the chronic poverty plaguing the Roma. At fourteen she dropped out of school. Six years later she finds herself without work waiting to have her second child out of wedlock.

Ivan Fischer of Amnesty International in London explains that the Roma have been hardest hit by the economic transformations in the former East bloc countries.

Fischer explains that though the economic conditions are better in the Czech Republic, Roma there are no better off than in more economically strapped countries like Bulgaria or Romania.

Fischer also criticizes the Czech government for taking inadequate measures to integrate Roma into Czech society.

Czech President Vaclav Havel suggested this week (June 1) that a deputy prime minister should be appointed to deal with human rights. He also said that the Czech's dealings with the Roma community must be a long-term priority of whatever party wins this month's elections.

The Czech extremist Republican Party of Miroslav Sladek has struck a chord in many Czechs with his pre-election message of law and order, coupled with anti-NATO, anti-Romany and anti-German propaganda. Although Sladek's party garnered only eight percent of the vote nationally in 1996's parliamentary elections, the Republicans did well in depressed areas with sizable Roma populations, such as Usti nad Labem which suffers from eight percent unemployment.

Recently on TV Nova's "Kotel" program, Sladek said: "So they want to build a four-meter wall [in Usti nad Labem]. Well, I say, 'Not high enough."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.