Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Angus Bancroft (1999) '"Gypsies To The Camps!": Exclusion and Marginalisation of Roma in the Czech Republic'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <>

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Received: 4/5/1999      Accepted: 25/7/1999      Published: 30/9/1999


Under Communism the Roma minority in the Czech Republic were subject to severe state directed assimilation policies. Since the end of the Cold War they have endured a combination of labour market exclusion and racially motivated violence. The apparent historical discontinuity between the Communists' strategies of assimilation and the current forms of exclusion and marginalisation is often explained by pointing to the social and economic upheaval caused by the transition to capitalism, or the resurgence of 'ancient ethnic hatreds'. When examining anti-Roma racism (or other examples of ethnic conflict) in the former Communist countries of Europe, commentators tend to regard it as signifying the backwardness of these nations. These perspectives ignore racism's modern aspect. In contrast this paper seeks to highlight some of the continuities between the situation of Roma today and their historical position. It uses Simmel's concept of 'the Stranger' as applied by Bauman to understand the ambivalent place of Roma in European modernity, at times subject to coercive assimilation, at other times on the receiving end of racial violence. It challenges narratives which attempt to Orientalise racism as the preserve of 'uncivilised and backward' nations or a white underclass. It seeks to put racism in its place as a part of European modernity and its deployment of assimilative or exclusionary strategies against 'Stranger' minorities.

Czech Republic; Gypsies; Marginalisation; Modernisation; Racism; Roma; Social Exclusion; The Stranger


This paper was written as part of a project comparing the exclusion and marginalisation of Roma in the Czech Republic with that of traditional Travellers in Britain.[1] The project seeks to describe how the constitution of European modernity excludes outsider groups within Europe. It takes the perspective that regulatory functions and narratives make and remake Europe as a restricted ideological space and geographic entity, a space from which Roma and Travellers are excluded.

The paper examines the upsurge in anti-Roma violence and discrimination in Central and East European countries since the revolutions of 1989, focusing on the Czech Republic. When explaining the extent of anti-Roma feeling in the post-Soviet states West European commentators in particular have tended to assign it either to the transition problems they have faced in switching from command to free market economies, or to the revival of 'tribal' ethnic hatreds (e.g. "From Our Own Correspondent", BBC World Service 13/11/97). These narratives are familiar from descriptions of the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia, which regularly describe the tragic events there in terms of the resurgence of ancient ethnic enmities which had supposedly been suppressed by the Communist Party government (Glenny 1993; Calhoun and Pfaff 1998).

The purpose of this paper is to counter these assumptions, which attempt to Orientalise racism as the preserve of the 'backward' nations of Central and Eastern Europe. It seeks to place anti-Roma feeling squarely within the traditions of European racism and European modernity. To do so it examines the role of 'the Stranger' in European thought, drawing on the work of Simmel (1950) and Bauman (1995). It acknowledges the long history of anti-Roma racism in Europe. Contrary to the opinions mentioned above it argues that anti-Roma racism in the Czech Republic has to be understood in terms of the modernisation of the former Communist states and in the context of the 'new racism' which has emerged in Western Europe. It also acknowledges the continuing legacy of 'old' Communist racisms for Roma.

The Roma of Europe

The Roma are peoples who speak various dialects of the Romani language and are part of a recognisable culture, distinct from that of the societies in which they live. Linguistic (Hancock 1997), anthropological (Lee 1997) and some genetic (Bernasovsky et al., 1994) evidence indicates they are descended from nomadic groups who were displaced from India beginning in the 10th Century. At that time, they began a great migration north and west, eventually entering Europe through the Balkans and also possibly crossing the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa. The majority of Roma are based in Central and Eastern Europe, and have largely ceased to be nomadic in their lifestyle. In some cases this is because of government policies of forced settlement, such as those which affected most of the Czech and Polish Roma under Communism (McCagg 1991; Jurova 1993).

Historically, both Roma and Travellers have had an impact on the history of the societies they encountered that often goes unacknowledged, except when they are considered as a social problem. They are seen as a people without history (Trumpener 1992). Yet national folk cultures have been strongly influenced by them. In countries such as Russia (Lemon 1991), Scotland (Braid 1997) and Spain (Soravia 1984), Roma and Travellers became indispensable to the survival and revival of the national culture of folk music, storytelling and dance. They have carried out significant economic functions, some groups being nomadic craftspeople whose services were important to feudal and early-modern societies (Tomka 1984). Although traditional trades have declined in utility they have been quick to adapt to changing economic circumstances where possible (Sway 1984).

Despite the contribution Roma and Travellers have made to European life, throughout the continent they are reviled as scroungers and parasites, as incorrigibles and, in the words of the former Slovakian Premier Vladimir Meciar, 'social unadaptables' (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 31/6/98). In Britain, Travellers are increasingly restricted from pursuing a nomadic way of life (Hawes and Perez 1995; Bancroft 1996). In the former Communist countries of Europe Roma are excluded from the labour market, and are frequently the object of populist violence supported by police indifference (Barany 1994, 1998; European Union 1997).

The Area of Research

Currently, there are some 250-300,000 Roma in the Czech Republic (Liegeois and Gheorghe 1995). It was considered important to investigate the situation of Roma in the Czech Republic specifically for a number of reasons, principally ease of access, but also the nature of the country itself. It occupies a significant position in the mental geography of Europe, having been a part of Soviet Eastern Europe, but also considered to be the most Western of the former Soviet states. The Czech Republic's position on the border (Mendras 1994) - or buffer zone (Wallace et al., 1996) - between the two symbolic halves of Europe makes it an especially illuminating area to work in, allowing the racialisation and marginalisation of Czech Roma to be placed in a wider European context.

The paper is not the report of an empirical study of Czech Roma. Rather it attempts to place their experience within a broader analysis of the situation of Roma in the former Communist countries. To do so it draws on a variety of sources, including documentary material, journalists and commentators, to try and develop some themes and concepts relating the position of Czech Roma to that of Roma in Eastern Europe. Using these themes and concepts it seeks to contribute to a broader analysis of the position of Eastern Europe's Roma and the problems and challenges which they face.

Research consisted of an investigation of various documentary sources: contemporary newspaper and wire service reports, discussions with informants via e-mail and in electronic newsgroups, as well as an examination of government documents, reports of human rights monitoring groups and newspaper archives (see bibliography for specific details). These were supported by a number of interviews with informants in the Czech Republic, in addition to a period of fieldwork there during summer 1998. The specific sources were chosen with the intention of placing developments affecting Czech Roma within the context of the resurgence of anti-Roma racism in Europe.

I have quoted from several interviewees here. 'Mirka', 'Kara' and 'Lana' are Czech journalists working with Roma. They were asked questions relating to the overall position of Roma in the Czech Republic and relations between Roma and Czechs. The geographical area covered in the field research took in Prague as well as towns in Bohemia and Moravia. It included Usti nad Labem, whose town council planned to build a wall separating a Roma community from its neighbours. Although the plan was abandoned recently, similar schemes to ghettoise Roma have since been announced in other parts of the country. It was considered important to examine the situation of Roma both in areas that were well off and those that were comparatively poor. This would allow some consideration of the relationship (if any) between anti-Roma sentiment and the rapid social and economic changes that the Czech Republic - and the rest of the former Communist states - have gone through during the 1990s.

Race, European Modernity and the Stranger

It is a contention of this paper that the exclusion of Roma can only be properly understood in terms of an examination of European modernity. Modernity is understood here as a set of organising principles which revolutionised the relationship between individuals and society, and especially between internal outsiders and nationalised-states. It includes the establishment of nation states and bureaucratic systems of surveillance and categorisation. The period of 'classic' or 'high' modernity may have passed (Harvey 1989), but its legacy remains strong. Certain processes of regulation characteristic of classic modernist principles, especially those of spatial division and management (Sibley 1981, 1988), have resonance for the contemporary racialisation and exclusion of Roma, particularly relating to the construction of the category of the 'Stranger.'

It has been shown that the development of European modernity and of the concept of race are intertwined, the project of modernity including race as a core innovation in its conceptual framework (Goldberg 1993: 3-4, 15-20; but see also Malik 1996: 39-43). Yet race or ethnicity are not fixed identities. The meaning of race has varied throughout modern European history (Banton 1980: 31-7; Solomos and Back 1996), as has the social meaning attributed to phenotypical differences such as skin colour within racialisation practices. Racial categories are formed and deployed as practical strategies of boundary maintenance. They are constituted in terms of state structures and practices, intellectual and everyday discourses, and balances of social power. They have the particular utility of providing a 'common sense' theoretical and practical way of dealing with the tensions between universality and specificity which characterise modernity.

Like other ethnic minorities, Roma in Europe have been the object of racial practices and racialised conceptual structures. Unlike most other ethnic minorities, they have existed at a curious juncture between racial categories, sometimes held up as romantic bohemian outsiders, at other times subject to rapid processes of racialisation and destruction. Nazi ideology combined both perspectives, romanticising 'true Aryan Gypsies' at the same time as Roma and Sinti were herded into the concentration camps (Willems 1997: 222-6, 45). The connection between Nazi racial science and pre-Nazi mainstream social thought has been made many times (Friedlander 1995: 248-9). Less often examined is the degree of continuity between the racialisation of the Roma before, during and after the Nazi regime, which continues to have a legacy for Roma today. There are common themes running through the state's treatment of Roma and Sinti in Wilhelmite Germany, the Weimar Republic, the Nazi regime and the Federal Republic. The Nazis were able to rely on the work of the Munich police centre dedicated to monitoring Roma and Sinti (1997: 197) which was set up in 1899 and remained in place until the 1970s. Post-war German courts also accepted the Nazis' claim that Roma had been interned as members of a 'criminal underclass' (1997: 196).

The continuity between the racialisation of Roma by the Nazis and that in pre- and post-war Germany should alert us to the possibility of similar continuities in other countries. After the Second World War the Communist state in Czechoslovakia set about developing a state science of marginalised populations which bore some resemblance to Nazi racial science. It defined the Roma as a social problem to be dealt with by a series of coercive measures which included forced sedentarisation and sterilisation. The attitudes of the bureaucracy underpinned a generalised social contempt for the Roma among the population which transferred fairly smoothly to an explicit racism after the fall of Communism (Kohn 1995).

Although the racialisation of Roma fits into the general deployment of racial categories within European modernity, it also has some characteristics of its own relating to their position as a 'Stranger' minority:

"The Stranger is thus being discussed here, not in the sense often touched upon in the past, as the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but rather as the person who comes today and stays tomorrow. He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer ... He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning ... He is near and far at the same time"
Simmel, The Stranger (Simmel 1950)

The Stranger is a fixed member of a spatially located group, but is not of it. Strangers represent a combination of proximity and apartness, closeness and distance. Simmel takes European Jewry as the archetype of the Stranger, noting several defining characteristics. The 'Stranger' minority possesses a strangeness of origin. The Stranger is also 'no owner of soil'. The term is usually taken literally to mean that the Stranger is not an owner of land. It has more resonance when taken metaphorically to mean that the Stranger is not identified with the land. He or she is not attached to the meaning of locality by bonds of shared identity. They are 'out of place.' Perhaps most important, the Stranger is disturbing through proximity. 'The distance of a being from us signifies in everything the psychological unity of that being' (Simmel 1994) and it is the proximate other which is disturbing, threatening to overthrow that psychological unity (Beck, U. 1998: 127).

Although Marlene Sway (1981) overstates the case to some degree, the concept of the Stranger helps to explain the continued paradoxical position Roma have in countries in which they have lived for centuries. They possess a strangeness of origin, of which there are still many myths in circulation. They are also 'no owners of soil', and again this can be taken literally and metaphorically, though it is in the second sense that it is most important. They are rarely if ever accepted as part of the locality, part of its meaning of place. They are not fixed within a spatial context. Certainly, Czech Roma feel that they have no attachment to the place. They were quite literally uprooted (from Slovakia) and as various informants stated boldly, are still not seen as part of the Czech nation. In Kara's words:

"[In answer to the question 'Do most Roma see themselves as part of the Czech nation? Do most Czechs see the Roma as part of the Czech nation?']
They are not given a place in the nation, they have no identity as Czech ... their conditions are so terrible that they can't really identify with the Czech nation. Czechs don't see the Roma as Czech either. They seem them as something else, they don't let them be a part of the nation."
Kara (Interview April 1999)

The way Czechs see Roma may be in part be related to their Slovakian origin and so more to do with Czech nationalism than anti-Roma racism, but it doesn't seem to explain the extent of the antipathy they face compared to non-Roma Slovakians living in the Czech Republic. Roma are seen neither as Czech nor as Slovak. They are Strangers, neither foreign nor part of the nation. They are not defined as 'belonging somewhere else', they are seen as belonging in no place. Zygmunt Bauman (1995) defines two approaches to the Stranger within European modernity, the assimilation of the liberal project which destroys the Stranger's strangeness, and the exclusion of the racist-national project which excises him/her altogether. Both approaches he identifies have historically been deployed against Roma in the Czech Republic.

Roma in the Czech Republic

Roma were well established in Bohemia by the 14th Century (Fraser 1992: 111). They carried out many functions valuable to the feudal lords of the Czech Lands, serving as blacksmiths, soldiers and so on. However, records indicate an increasing level of hostility towards them from the time when the first anti-'Gypsy' legislation was passed in Moravia in 1538 (Crowe 1995: 34). In the upheaval following the Turkish conquest of central Hungary, Roma were targeted as Turkish spies and murdered by local mobs. Following Maria-Theresa's accession to the Austro-Hungarian throne in the 18th Century they became the objects of a reformatory policy which was designed to sedentarise nomadic Roma and assimilate them into the settled population.

The supposedly enlightened policies of the Habsburgs were abandoned in the 19th Century. Reactionary absolutism was re-established after the end of the French Revolutionary wars in 1815 and the project to assimilate Roma came to an end until the second half of the 20th Century. The Magyarisation of Hungary after 1867 also affected Slovakia and Slovakian Roma, as the rights they could claim as Slovakians were diminished in the face of Magyar cultural assimilation. After the establishment in Czechoslovakia in 1918 the Roma made some headway, the country's Constitution giving them full rights as citizens and recognition as a national minority, and although they made no great gains from the new state, they were allowed considerable space to develop. However, dark clouds began to gather in 1927, with the revival of anti-nomadism ordinances. In 1928 an anti-Roma pogrom in Slovakia signalled the worsening of relations between Roma and their Czechoslovak neighbours (Crowe 1995: 45-8).

With the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 the net began to close around the Czech Roma. The Nazis defined the Roma as a threat to the German race and subjected them first to internment and then annihilation. Beginning in 1940, many were rounded up and forced into 'labour' camps along with Jews. 2,400 were sent to the Czech concentration camps of Lety and Hodonin. In 1943 the inmates of these camps were taken to Auschwitz along with another 3,000 Czech Roma who had retained their liberty up to that point (Kenrick 1998: 43-4). Few Czech Roma survived the war, most murdered in the Porajmos ('devouring') (Novitch 1984). Altogether between a quarter and half a million of Europe's Roma were killed, compared to population of between eight and nine million resident in Europe today (Kenrick 1998: 4). Slovakian Roma escaped extermination, the puppet state established by the Nazis subjecting them to harassment but not, for the most part, participating in their systematic destruction as a people (Nir 1993). They were moved into the Czech lands after the war to become 'shock labour.'

After the Second World War the Roma became the objects of an assimilative state policy under the Communist Party government:

"[Under the Communist Party government] we Roma weren't hounded through the streets by skinheads, we apparently got support, and we had social privileges of all kinds. On the other hand, for fifty years we were also inadaptable, we stole, we were crooks, and I don't know what else. Well, just Gypsies. Instead of elementary school, our children went to special schools and that was just fine with everyone. How perverse ... as if we had never lived in this country. Right from the beginning, the Communists shoved us out to the edges of society. And woe to anyone that might want to change their label of inadaptable person"
Anna Polakova, Radio Prague

Nomadic Roma were forced to settle, and then pushed into low wage jobs to replace the Sudeten Germans who had been expelled from the country (Kostelancik 1989). With the exception of a few years following the Prague Spring they were denied official recognition as a minority. A campaign of forced sterilisation of Roma women was put in place in the 1950s and continued into the 1980s. There was a deliberate attempt to destroy Roma culture through forced assimilation, as much as the Nazis had attempted to eliminate them physically through extermination (Ulc 1991). After Communism was overthrown in 1989 there was some optimism that the Roma would be able to take an accepted place in national life, with the formation of the Roma Civic Initiative. It was not to be, and the Roma have paid a heavy price for democracy, in the form of unemployment, discrimination and racial violence:

"In the middle of 1991, I began to feel in society a certain tension in people's behaviour. During afternoon walks, I noticed swastikas and under them anti-Roma slogans like 'gas the gypsies'. It was horrible, because Marecek and Helenka [her children] were already able to read. And the children in school started to be more aggressive than before. They started to have bigger problems in school because they were Roma"
Anna Polakova

Notoriously, many Czech Roma were denied citizenship of the newly formed Czech Republic under the Citizenship Law of 1993 (Beck, J. 1997):

"The citizenship law still excludes [the Czech Roma]. There has been much criticism of this, and the government has made some changes but they are mainly cosmetic. Most Roma still do not have citizenship, and this excludes them from many rights which Czechs take as normal"
Kara (Interview February 1999)

The complex processes by which the meaning of place is established can be seen in the workings of the Czech citizenship law of 1993. It excluded many Czech Roma from citizenship, pushing many further to the margins of society. Many Roma living in the Czech Republic were technically considered Slovakians, having been moved there from Slovakia after the Second World War. They were not given automatic citizenship of the new Republic. To apply for it they had to leap a series of hurdles which seemed to be designed to prevent them gaining citizenship status. As Kara emphasises, some Roma have asserted their right to be part of the Czech nation. In contrast, many others reject this identification as unrealistic:

"Some Roma activists, such as Emil Scuka, say 'we are Czechs' - other Roma criticise them for saying that, saying that they have no place in the Czech nation. They don't feel Czech."
Kara (Interview April 1999)

Racial Discrimination in the Labour Market

In the former Communist countries labour market discrimination has been a fact of life for Roma:

"[The Czech Republic has] 4% unemployment, but among Roma it is 80%. Not very many of them can find jobs, even when they do get the right education. The Czech Roma were brought in from Slovakia to replace the Sudeten Germans. After the freeing up of the labour markets in 1989 most Roma lost their jobs. With the liberalisation of the labour market, Czech Roma were laid off. Employers sacked them, and were not prosecuted for it. They still discriminate against Roma, and they are not punished when they reject Roma who try to get jobs. Most of the unskilled jobs the Roma used to do were replaced with the labour of people from [further] Eastern Europe, Romanians, Hungarians, etc."
Lana (Interview February 1999)

The employment situation of Roma in the Czech Republic has been the result of the historical interaction between ethnicity, state-politics and labour market processes. The expulsions of the Sudeten Germans created a demand for labour in the former Sudetenland (Cornwall 1997). The Communist government brought in Slovakian Roma as 'shock workers' (Kalvoda 1991). They were part of a large movement of people into the former Sudetenland (Crowe 1995: 54) but in the case of the Roma the Communists had a distinct social engineering aim in mind. Working as unskilled labour would help extract 'social and labour conformity from Gypsies', and as the Communists' control of the National Front government intensified during and after 1946 so did the harshness of government policies towards 'Gypsies and other workshy vagabonds' (1995: 55).

To enforce their participation in the socialist labour system, the Czechoslovakian government passed the 1958 Act on Permanent Settlement of Nomadic People. Under it, nomadic Roma were subject to a policy of forced settlement which lasted from the 1950s to the 1980s (Crowe 1995: 60). Their horses were killed and their caravans destroyed. Their basis for independent economic activity was much reduced (see also (Mirga 1992), and many had no choice but to take up the low paid posts on offer. The Czechoslovakian government represented this as a success. To them, the Roma were normalised and had become a part of the socialist labour force. What the government had failed to do was to tackle the anti-Roma prejudice which pervaded Czechoslovak society. Indeed its actions had if anything reinforced that prejudice by forcing many Roma into low wage and low status occupations. When the labour market was freed up after the Velvet Revolution most Roma were thrown out of their jobs and became unemployed. Their positions were filled not by other Czechs but by unskilled labourers from Romania, Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe which have suffered badly in the transition.

Czech and Slovak Roma in the Czech labour market have been first mis-placed and then dis-placed. They were forcibly inserted into jobs in the former Sudetenland by the Communists. When Communism fell, they were left without work of any sort, having been replaced by non-Roma immigrant labour. As a result the level of unemployment among Roma is enormous, and this in a society which has for the most part benefited from the transition to capitalism. The situation is similar in most of the former Communist states (Gheorghe 1991).

Anti-Roma Violence and Police Indifference

"The Documentation Centre for Human rights estimates 107 attacks against Roma last year (1998) in the Czech Republic."
Lana (Interview February 1999)

Racial violence has been on the rise throughout Europe during the 1990s, with Roma across Europe being the object of racist mobilisation (Project on Ethnic Relations 1997; CSCE Digest 4/98).

"The law does not recognise racial attacks. They [Czech police and courts] tend to blame the victim. I mean, the statutes are there but they are not enforced, and anti-Roma violence is not punished. They don't prosecute racial attacks as such, they tend to deny the racial motive as such."
Mirka (Interview March 1999)
"Many Roma [in Bulgaria] are familiar with police violence. They are beaten in pubs, at marketplaces, in the street, and in their own homes. Scores have been shot dead or beaten to death by law enforcement officials"
(Petrova 1997: 1)

There seem to be two processes by which the police institutionalise racial violence against the Roma in the post-Soviet states. In certain countries, such as the Czech Republic and Poland, they apply a tacit or active indifference to the actions of skinhead mobs (ERRC Press Release 3/6/97 'Anti-Roma Violence In Poland'; Press Release 2/3/98 'Racial Discrimination In The Czech Republic'). The latter are left to do their business in the knowledge that they will be largely unchecked (Edginton 1994). In others the police take an active role in applying random violence and disruption to Roma communities in order to 'keep them in line' (e.g. ERRC Press Release 23/3/99 'Police Violence In Hungary'). It is as if there is a tacit understanding between the population and the police that the latter will do the job for them:

"In Romania the mob violence against Roma that was typical from 1990 to 1993 was replaced in 1994 by a pattern of police raids on Romani communities."
(Petrova 1997: 1)

It has been said that the police in parts of Central and Eastern Europe - especially Romania, but also Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Ukraine - seem to be taking on the role of racially motivated mobs, carrying out extra-legal attacks on Roma neighbourhoods. The decline in popular mob actions against Roma in these countries does seem to be directly linked to the willingness of the police to carry out a similar role (European Roma Rights Center 1998). It is the nature of these mobs which will be looked at in more detail next, since they still play an important role in anti-Roma violence in the Czech Republic. An examination of the role of skinhead groups in the Czech Republic will show how racist cultural phenomena resonate across Europe, but are also interpreted and applied under local conditions.

Post-Modern Lynching: Skinheads and the Respectable Mob

"The situation in the Czech Republic was dangerous for me and for my children, as it is for most Roma living there. It is not possible to live over there. I had to accompany my children to school. My father was attacked. I was too. I've been attacked by skinheads several times. They threw petrol bombs into our flat. The last time I was attacked, six months after the previous attack, they told me that beating me was not enough and they called me a Gypsy whore. If I were to go to the doctor after being attacked, and say that I had been attacked by skinheads then he wouldn't examine me. I've got scars on my body and I've had my leg broken by skinheads. We couldn't go out into the street at all. We were living like animals in a cage."
"In the Czech Republic, when we used public transport, sometimes people would spit on my wife, and on my children. I have been beaten up several times by skinheads on the bus. Once I was coming back from my mother's, who is ill, and they beat me up on the platform. If you go to the police, they make a report, or don't make a report, and they say they'll look into it later. If you go to the doctor, he'll examine you, but if you ask for a report, he'll say, 'Sorry, but I can't give you that, because I don't want problems with the police and I don't want problems with the skinheads.'"
Czech Roma refugees, November 1998 (quoted in European Roma Rights Center 1999)

The skinhead subculture emerged from the peculiar cultural and sub-cultural mix on the inner city streets of Britain's cities during the 1960s (Walker 1980). The phenomenon - 'movement' perhaps implies too much coherence - spread throughout the world, in particular attracting young people from unstable backgrounds (Baron 1997) and in areas undergoing rapid socio-economic upheaval (Walsh 1992). However, it is hasty to dismiss skinheads as merely a delinquent subculture. German neo-Nazi skins represent their actions as in the interests of 'the nation' (Ostow 1995). Skinheads in general think of themselves as defending respectable working class values (Brake 1974; Farin 1995). It is equally misleading to imagine that what are called 'skinhead mobs' in the Czech Republic constitute an a-social underclass. It is a contention of this paper that the anti-Roma violence in Central and Eastern Europe is not aberrant, but is socially legitimated.

"Gypsy! Gypsy! to the camps!"
Chant of Czech mob, Rokycany, Czech Republic (Fieldwork notes August 1998)

The following incident involving Czech skinheads and Roma was recorded during a train journey from Prague to Rokycany:

"The train carriage was full of a large number of young men and women. Some of the men had close shaven haircuts, and some had t-shirts displaying the British flag, others had the colours of British football teams. These were not the black uniformed skinheads I had seen in other parts of the country, sporting neo-Nazi badges, carrying truncheons and holding large dogs on the leash. They were loud and a little rowdy, but nothing to seriously disturb any of the other passengers, who found their antics amusing. I stepped off the train at Rokycany, a small, quiet town which one of my informants had recommended to me as being a model of co-operation between the Roma and Czech communities. There were two Roma, a young man and a woman, in the train station. Immediately the 'skinheads' began a torrent of abuse."
Fieldwork notes (August 1998)

Throughout the journey the skinheads had been noisy and boisterous but not aggressive towards other Czech passengers. The term 'skinhead' has slightly misleading connotations. To West European ears the term suggests a sub-proletariat, highly alienated, highly visible and rejecting dominant social values. The people who are referred to as skinheads in much of the Czech and most of the West European media do not fit this stereotype. They are much more a part of the ordinary population, displaying an accepted and indulged laddish masculinity, rather than being a delinquent or degenerate grouping. Their result of their actions, in encouraging Czech Roma to leave the Czech Republic are tacitly approved and accepted, even if their methods are not. Racial violence has had a definite effect on the Roma population:

"Many Roma are still leaving, in the face of violence and lack of sympathy. They leave for Britain, Ireland, USA, Australia, and New Zealand, which doesn't have a visa requirement. They feel that things are not going to get better."
Lana (Interview February 1999)

The violent actions of skinhead groups in the Czech Republic do appear to be having the desired effect of rendering some areas 'Gypsy-free'. In doing so they are working with the general desire of a large part of the population that the Roma 'simply disappear.'

The Orientalisation of Racism

West European thought tends to construct skinheads and racists as 'other' (Pred 1997). Within West European countries racism is projected onto the white underclass (Pred 1998). Concern about it is also transferred onto the 'uncivilised Balkans', and the boundaries of Europe are redrawn to separate the barbarous and backward 'East' from the civilised 'West' (Kurti 1997). West European elite discourse in the 1990s has sought to Orientalise racism, and has a tendency to leap on instances of ethnic cleansing and ethnic conflict as evidence of the backwardness of East European societies (Todorova 1994).

The opposite process can be observed in some East European states, whereby racist violence is narrated as a product of Western decadence and national degradation. For example, the Serb Minster of Human Rights, Ivan Sedlak, was concerned to establish the skinhead issue as not being a Serbian problem, saying 'the skinhead movement is not an authentic product of our society but is brought from the West' (Nasa Borba, 1/12/98). He wanted to de-nationalise the skinhead movement, and Occidentalise them as the product of a decadent Western Europe.

The focus of this paper on the Czech Republic should not be take to suggest that anti-Roma and anti-Traveller racism is not prevalent in West European countries (see for example Lloyd 1996; MacLaughlin 1998; O'Connell 1998; Bancroft 1999). Robbie McVeigh (1992) in his examination of prejudice against Irish Travellers describes the way in which settled society engages in projecting its own insecurities on to them. In his words, "In pathologising the 'out-group' the 'community' de-pathologises itself" and, it might be added, establishes itself as a community. His statement could easily describe the attitude of many Czechs towards Roma. In Lana's words, "Czech people look down on them, say they are backward, they won't work, they are part of the past, they don't know how to live normally, how to live in houses. The Roma are associated with criminality, with ideas of primitivity, and danger."

Conclusion: 'Nothing Happens'

The end of the meta-narratives which had dominated intellectual life in Europe, the decline in power of the nation-state over national life, and the general divergence between globalisation on the one hand and neo-tribalist social fragmentation on the other, have created numerous collective and individual identity crises (Alund 1995). At the same time new and 'new-old' identities are being constructed, often in terms which are exclusionary and heterophobic. The resurgence of identity politics within Europe has produced numerous Strangers (Dessewffy 1996) and increasingly there is within Europe no single narrative of strangeness, no single scapegoat or enemy. Rather:

"Individual, social and national insecurity, the preoccupation with law and order, jobs and the nation are...combined into one complex syndrome in which external threats and internal doubts are hard to disentangle"
Peter Hassner (quoted in Welsh 1994: 53)

Writing at the end of the 1990s, it is easy to forget that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism heralded an enormous wave of optimism about the future of Europe (Rittberger 1993). The various 'Civic Forum' movements, which had begun in Leipzig and spread rapidly throughout the Communist states, suggested new models of politics and citizenship. Their success in toppling a set of fifty year old totalitarian regimes was unexpected and unpredicted by most theories of social change (Mazlish 1990; but see also Mouzelis 1993). What was less surprising and perhaps all too predictable was that the optimism about new social forms generated by the revolutions disappeared fairly rapidly (Bozoki and Sukosd 1993), for Roma in particular. Not only did many of them lose their jobs, they were also the target of racial violence from their fellow countrypeople and, in some instances, the police. As has been shown in here, the difficulties they have faced have not been only or largely due, as is often asserted, to the reassertion of ancient ethnic hatreds supposedly characteristic of East European countries. Rather they have been a part of these countries' modernisation, their development from the institutional stasis of totalitarianism. As such, the denial and exclusion of Roma in Central and Eastern Europe can be related to the forms of exclusion Travellers have faced in Britain and in Western Europe as a whole. They are both constructed in terms of the basic structures of European political life, of state, nation and citizenship (Melcic 1994).

"Czech Roma are on the edge of society, with very low social status, suffer poverty and low social status ... For example, there was an opinion poll carried out in November 1997. 7% had a sympathetic view of Roma, 69% could not tolerate them."
Lana (Interview February 1999)

A common assumption about racism and ethnic prejudice is that it is the preserve of backward peoples. The evidence gathered for this paper indicates that this comfortable assumption is not the case. Racism in Western Europe is enhanced and legitimated by the establishment of a policy of Fortress Europe (Bunyan 1991) and the construction of a 'Euro-racism' (Webber 1991). Ruud Koopmans (1996) relates increasing racial violence in Western Europe to the behaviour of political elites which have shaped opportunities for racial mobilisation, for example by co-ordinating action against low-skill labour migrants and asylum seekers.

Recent developments in the Czech Republic at a political level have given some opportunities for new directions in ethnic and national politics, but there is some concern as to the extent to which the changes initiated by the new Czech government can combat racism and discrimination on the ground:

"The government hasn't taken any concrete steps yet to solve high unemployment among, the Roma, to prosecute racially motivated crimes. Czechs feel that the government is doing a lot for the Roma, but if you ask Roma they will say that the situation is getting worse, not better. They say, 'nothing happens, the situation is getting worse, despite the statements of the government, we can't find work, our children are still sent to special schools, the racist murders of Roma are not prosecuted'. In the street they are still attacked by the skinheads."
Mirka (Interview January 1999)

As well as highlighting a separation between actions at a government level and outcomes at a local level, the above informant's remarks indicate that Czech Roma and the rest of the Czech public continue to occupy two worlds. In the former there is discrimination, racial violence and police indifference. In the latter, there is economic progress and the bright future of EU membership.

"Roma do not have hope in a better future, so many are leaving the Czech Republic. But the Czech people will answer you that the situation is getting better, because they hear so much about the affairs of the Roma. Czech people and Roma people are living in two different worlds, and Roma are very sceptic about the future and Czech people are more optimistic."
Mirka (Interview January 1999)

Under pressure from the European Union and the Organisation For Security And Co-Operation In Europe the Czech government has instituted a number of programmes to improve relations between Czechs and Roma (Government Of The Czech Republic 1997). As Mirka points out, they seem to be more concerned with giving the Czech public and the EU and OSCE the impression that something is being done than with having a practical effect. She also indicates that the divisions between Czech and Roma communities are likely to become wider. As the Czech Republic develops socially and economically the Roma are likely to be left further behind, unless the patterns of violence and discrimination that have been described here change.


1Note on terminology. Roma is the preferred ethonym for the people more commonly known as Gypsies. 'Gypsy' is generally considered to be a pejorative exonym, and its use here has been avoided as far as possible. I include under the term 'traditional Traveller' English Romanichels, Welsh Kale, Scottish Travellers (Nawken) and Irish Travellers (Minceir). The study excluded New Travellers.


Media sources:

BBC News
Central Europe Online
CTK (Czech News Agency)
Daily Mail
International Herald Tribune
Itar-Tass (Russian News Agency)
Nasa Borba
Prague Post
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Radio Prague
RomNews Network
Sunday Times
The Times
Washington Post

Monitoring Organisations

Commission On Security And Co-Operation In Europe
Czech Helsinki Citizens' Association, Roma Section
European Roma Rights Center
Organisation For Security And Co-Operation In Europe
Project On Ethnic Relations


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