Long the darling of the West for its seemingly painless transition from communism to democracy and capitalism, the Czech Republic finds itself under an undesired spotlight this summer for its treatment of its minority Gypsy population.
A recent report by a Czech television station showing a Gypsy family living a prosperous life in Canada has created a flood of applicants by Czech Gypsies to Ottawa for approval to emigrate.
That rush, coupled with an enthusiastic support for such action from local Czech government officials, has bared a glaring disparity in how Czechs treat Gypsies versus how they treat themselves.
An Aug. 6 television report in Prague showed a Czech Gypsy family living in comfort in Canada while immigration authorities considered their case.
The Czech news agency CTK now reports that thousands of Gypsies in the eastern Czech town of Ostrava believe the Canadian government has set up a special asylum program for them. As a result, they have started selling their property and buying airline tickets to Canada. Up to 5,000 Gypsies plan to emigrate to Canada because of the TV broadcast, CTK reports.
Following the TV broadcast, the mayor of Marianske Hory, a town east of the Czech capital, Prague, said her town council would help pay for airline tickets for Gypsies who wanted to leave. In exchange for financial help with the tickets, the Gypsies must give the town council their apartments and relinquish their permanent-residency status.
"We have two groups of people, Gypsies and whites, that live together, but can't and don't want to," Mayor Liana Janackova, a member of the ruling Civic Democratic Party, told the Czech daily Mlad Fronta Dnes. "So why can't one group take the first step towards finding a solution? I don't think it's racist. We just want to help the Gypsies."
Known as Roma, the Gypsies are believed to have arrived in Europe from India and the Middle East some 700 years ago. Accurate census figures for the group are difficult to obtain. But Gypsy advocate groups estimate that between 150,000 to 300,000 Gypsies live in the Czech Republic, and more than 20 million live throughout Europe.
Their nomadic culture and dark skin have made them easy targets for discrimination across Europe.
While the overall unemployment rate in the Czech Republic is 3 percent, it is conservatively estimated at 30 percent for Gypsies. In Slovakia, Gypsies are 30 times more likely to drop out of high school. Gypsies are frequently refused service at public businesses.
Czech President Vclav Havel has expressed concern over the reports about the Roma exodus, conceding the case reveals racism in Czech society. In July the European Commission released a report charting the progress of 10 ex-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe in their transition to democracy and free-market economies. The EC recommended the Czech Republic could begin talks as early as next year to join the European Union.
But the EC report was mixed. One of its criticisms of the Czechs was for their treatment of Gypsies. And in a report delivered to Czech Prime Minister Vclav Klaus on Aug. 14, the government Council on Nationalities accused the Klaus Cabinet of failing to do anything fundamental to help bridge the growing gulf between Roma and the "white" population.
But Czech government officials counter that they have taken several measures in the past few years to try to reduce discrimination against the Roma. Those steps include government support of Romani cultural groups and hate-crimes legislation introduced last year that establishes tougher sentences for those who commit crimes against others because of their race.
Mr. Klaus said last week that in the coming weeks his government would discuss longstanding problems in the Gypsy community, including employment, housing, and discrimination. Many Gypsy leaders hailed Klaus's announcement as a step in the right direction and urged members of their community to stay in the Czech Republic.
But Pavel Bratinka, chairman of the Czech government's Council for Nationalities, is critical of the Klaus government. He says that even the idea of a mass exodus of Gypsies from this country is a disgrace to the Czech Republic. "A country which wants to preserve its reputation, cannot resolve its problem by exporting it," he says.