Being accepted into the law faculty of prestigious Charles University is a formidable achievement for anyone in the Czech Republic. For Jaroslav Drobek and two other Romany students who will begin classes later this month, it is revolutionary.
Only a handful of Roma (often disparagingly called Gypsies) have ever attended university in the Czech Republic, but this is changing. In June, Drobek was among the first 25 graduates to emerge from the Romany Secondary School in Kolin, the only Romany high school in the country. Twelve of them have been accepted to institutions of higher learning here and abroad.
"This is our moment of breakthrough, like 1968 was for black people in America," says Drobek, the son of a single mother who worked as a maid. "The Roma have awoken. We have so many more opportunities than our parents did. I could become a lawyer or enter the civil service.... The main thing is to throw off the primitive stereotypes about Romanies being stupid."
After centuries of discrimination and isolation, life for Czech Republic's Romany population appears to be changing for the better. This year has brought several high-profile prosecutions of neo-Nazis who attacked or murdered Romany citizens, crimes that were rarely punished in the past. Czech schools and city councils are now hiring Romanies, which make up about 3 percent of the Czech population, as advisers. While a few years ago Roma were insulted in public by the country's top politicians, this fall the Czech government announced a far-reaching anti-racism program.
Still, enormous hurdles remain for Roma in Czech society.
Government reports show that 75 percent of Romany children are channeled into segregated schools for the mentally retarded, a practice sharply criticized by international human rights groups. Unemployment among the Roma is about 80 percent, while the national average is 9 percent. Last year, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported that Czech towns are systematically moving Roma into isolated ghettos with substandard services. Czech authorities registered 400 racist attacks against Roma last year, several of them fatal.
As a result, some 70,000 Czech Romanies have fled the country, according to the Czech Helsinki Committee, many applying for political asylum in Canada, Britain, and Scandinavia. The European Union has reacted by pressuring Prague to combat discrimination and reform its legal system.
In mid-September Deputy Prime Minister Petr Mares held a press conference to detail the government's $200,000 antiracism campaign, including education programs for schoolchildren, policemen, teachers, and social workers. "We cannot continue to hide from the problem of racism," Mr. Mares said. "I have been shocked several times during just the past few weeks by expressions of racism in the current electoral campaign." Violent attacks on Roma and their relegation to ghettos are alarming, he said.
But significant progress has already been made, despite ups and downs along the way. The extreme nationalist "skinhead" movement in the Czech Republic has been partially driven underground by a series of court cases. Last winter, two members of neo-Nazi groups were sentenced to seven and 13 years in prison, one for attacking two Romany men and a pregnant woman and the other for stabbing a Romany man to death and circulating a poem celebrating the killing. While the sentences were a sign that Czech authorities are serious about getting tough on racist crimes, police did nothing to stop skinheads outside the courthouse from shouting racial insults at Romany observers leaving the hearings.
"The neo-Nazi movement is extremely dangerous to this society," says Ondrej Gina, a top Romany civil rights leader. "However, today there are also a growing number of young Czechs who accept the Roma. In 1996, polls showed that 85 percent of Czech expressed racist attitudes. By 2000, that was down to 70 percent. Roma today have more opportunities than ever before."
One sign of hope is the Coexistence Village in the northeastern Czech town of Ostrava, which was unveiled last month. Thirty families, half Roma and half Czechs who lost their homes in 1997 floods, are moving into a newly constructed community of gabled row houses. It is the first place in the Czech Republic where Czechs and Roma actually asked to be neighbors and worked on their homes together.
"This country is finally changing," says Marek Mika, one of the Romany residents of the Village as he hangs curtains in his new kitchen. "Tensions between Roma and Czechs are starting to thaw. We don't have to fight each other or lose our culture."
At first some Czech neighbors protested and signed petitions against the Coexistence Village, fearing it would bring more Romanies to the district. The local city council refused to apply for state flood relief funds to build homes for Romany residents. After four years of negotiations with international activists, the Czech government invested almost $1 million in the village, a third of the project's total cost.
"The people of this village are forging a great change in this country," says Vitezlav Zamorsky, an official at the Czech Ministry of Regional Development. "If Roma and majority Czechs can live together in peace, there is no enemy that can hurt us. Those of us in the central government should take this as a lesson."