Washington, 18 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A wall erected last week in a Czech town intended to isolate Roma residents from their Czech neighbors reflects the convergence of three disturbing developments across Europe: the willingness of local officials to play on ethnic prejudices, the inability of central governments to prevent them from doing so, and the unwillingness of the international community to intervene.
Last Wednesday, the city authorities in Usti nad Labem built a 65-meter-long reinforced concrete wall along a street that marks the line between a predominantly Czech neighborhood on one side and a predominantly Romany neighborhood on the other.
Local officials said they had taken this step to protect Czech residents from what they said was the noise, garbage, and crime emanating from the Roma section, and the city's mayor, Ladislav Hruska, argued that "this fence stands here as a symbol of law and order," adding "and please don't call it a wall. It's a fence. I insist."
But local Roma representatives have reacted angrily. "I want to have the same rights as the Czechs," one said. "I don't want to live behind a wall. This is a free country." And another said "this is like a concentration camp. If they want to build concentration camps, they might as well build gas chambers for us." To which Mayor Hruska responded, the new "fence" is "for their own protection."
By all accounts, the erection of the new wall enjoys widespread support among local Czechs, many of whom apparently blame the Roma for some of the social and economic problems they are now experiencing. Such xenophobic attitudes are not confined to Usti nad Labem or to the Czech Republic. In many places across Europe, officials are playing to such attitudes in order to build support for themselves.
Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, for example, has been conducting a campaign to expel Chechens and other North Caucasians from the Russian capital, an effort that polls suggest is widely popular and may even help to propel Luzhkov to the Russian presidency. And anti-semitic and anti-foreigner parties have done remarkably well in recent elections in Austria and Germany.
As disturbing as these developments are, still more disturbing is the fact that in virtually every case, central governments have been unable and perhaps in some cases unwilling to counter these moves. Czech President Vaclav Havel has repeatedly spoken out against the plans of the Usti nad Labem city authorities, and the leaders of other European governments have been critical as well.
But at present, many of these central governments -- especially in the post-communist part of Europe -- lack the means to prevent local officials from acting in this way or to force them to back down when they do. And it will be an important test of the Czech government's commitment to see whether it will fulfill the pledge of its human rights commission to remove the Usti nad Labem wall one way or another.
International reaction to the new wave of ethnic discrimination has been mixed. On the one hand, it has been highly selective, very critical of the actions in some smaller countries like the Czech Republic, and largely silent in the case of major powers like Russia.
This apparent double standard has only annoyed those engaged in such actions and limited the influence of international bodies to work against them. Mayor Hruska, for example, dismissed European Union criticism by saying "I consider it a great hypocrisy. Other countries also have racial problems, some far greater than ours. If the EU wants to be dictating what I should do, well, then, I don't want to be part of such an EU."
And on the other, many European governments themselves appear to be increasingly responsive to xenophobic attitudes among their own populations.
Over the weekend, 15 European Union leaders adopted a declaration at their meeting in Tampere, Finland, seeking to curb illegal immigration and cracking down on cross-border crime. While these leaders argued that they are seeking to improve the protections legal residents of their countries enjoy, their linkage of illegal immigration and crime may be exploited by nationalists as cover for their xenophobic activities.
Such fears, expressed by Amnesty International and other human rights groups, were downplayed by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a non-governmental pressure group. Its lobbyist in Brussels, Frisco Roscam Abbing, in fact said that "you cannot say that the final document of the Tampere summit is Fortress Europe. ...Indeed, we believe it is a step in the opposite direction."
But in the current climate, one in which some local officials are discriminating on ethnic lines or even building walls to shut off minorities, at least some people in Europe are likely to draw a different conclusion, one that could trigger even more unfortunate developments in the future.