Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the municipal authorities in the Czech town of Usti nad Labem are busy erecting another wall, this time, to segregate a Roma (Gypsy) neighborhood from a slavic neighborhood.
Despite the objection of the Czech leaders, the European Commissioner for Human Rights, and European governments, the Usti nad Labem municipal authorities continue to construct this memento to Central Europe's dark past of ghettoes and ethnic discrimination. This wall was intended as a provocation. The local politicians are catering to a racist electorate. But they have a bigger agenda: to prevent Czech integration into the European Union, to build a wall around themselves.
Usti nad Labem was a Sudeten German town named Aussig until its German inhabitants were expelled after World War II. The Roma and most of the Czechs there today were settled in empty German houses. The town's economy is based on heavy industry that uses the lignite coal. If the Czech Republic joins the EU, it will have to restrict use of the polluting brown coal. Free competition with Western European manufacturers will likely destroy what is left of the Communist-era heavy industry. Some residents are afraid the original German inhabitants may try to get back their homes in return for German support for Czech integration into the EU.
More than anti-Gypsy, the Usti nad Labem wall is anti-European. The Roma were simply handy in creating a provocation that could postpone the inevitable changes that will sweep away their otherwise miserable way of life.
Officially, all the Czech parliamentary parties, with the exception of the Communists, favor integration into the EU. The task of removing the wall may go to the Czech Constitutional Court, which will have to decide whether the construction of the wall is unconstitutional.
Western Europe's interest in the wall comes more from fears of Roma emigration than concern for their plight. In the Czech Republic, Roma emigration was triggered a few years ago by a TV documentary on the Romas in Canada. For the first time in their lives, Czech Roma saw professional middle-class Gypsies living in nice houses. Hundreds then tried to emigrate to Canada and Britain. Most were denied. A similar process took place in Slovakia, whose Roma have been trying to emigrate mostly to Scandinavia, Austria, and Belgium.
European countries have responded with threats or actual imposition of visa restrictions on citizens of countries whose Roma attempt to emigrate. Western Europeans fear that once they grant asylum to some Roma, East Europe's 5 million Roma will follow.
The plight of East Europe's Roma is real and acute. They cannot get equal education and suffer severe discrimination in housing and employment. High unemployment leads to poverty, petty criminality, welfare dependence, high birth rates, high infant mortality, and resentment by ethnic majorities.
Western pressure on East European governments to better protect the rights and improve the lives of their Roma inhabitants is helpful. But anti-Gypsy racism is so deeply entrenched in East European cultures and the need for scapegoats in a painful time of transition is so dire, that I doubt government action can seriously improve the lot of the Roma, or even be politically possible. The Roma are "the new Jews" of Eastern Europe. Emigration, the solution that many Roma prefer, may well be their best option.
*Aviezer Tucker, who is an editor of the East European Constitutional Review at the Law School of New York University, lived in the Czech Republic for six years.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society