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Living in fear

Rob Cameron, OstravaAugust 30, 2013

There has been a surge in Czech neo-Nazi activity this year, with marches and demonstrations held in towns and cities across the country. DW looks at what effect this movement is having in the Czech Republic.

Image: Martin Nejezchleba

"The marches are on the increase. They're on the increase, and people are afraid."

David Tiser is a young Roma professional. Educated and erudite, he is the director of a Prague NGO and a member of the government's council on the Roma minority. Nursing espressos in the courtyard of Prague's Aero art house cinema, it feels a long way from the housing estates of Plzen, Ceske Budejovice and Ostrava, turned into virtual war zones in recent weeks as riot police fired volleys of stun grenades to disperse crowds of rampaging far-right extremists.

"I must correct you - if you'll allow me," Tiser told DW.

"These are not just marches by extremists. Regular citizens are joining in as well. And this is what is dangerous. This is why the foreign media are interested. This is why you are talking to me today."

Cowering in fear

Last Saturday more than 1,500 people - mostly, but not only, as David points out, far-right skinheads - marched angrily through half a dozen Czech towns and cities. In some locations, the demonstrations passed off peacefully. In others - like Ostrava - mobs of skinheads were only prevented from carrying out what Jews in Tsarist Russia would have called a pogrom by a huge police presence.

A total of 62 people were arrested in Ostrava alone. A police spokeswoman said more than two dozen officers were injured, and police confiscated wooden stakes, baseball bats and machetes.

David Tiser says often the media focuses on the cost of the police operation and the civic inconvenience as city centers are locked down. But what's hard to enumerate is the psychological stress and fear among the local Roma community, cowering in their council flats as the marchers shout "gypsies to the gas chambers."

Symbolbild Rassismus Nazis Neonazis
Right-wing extremism is on the rise in the Czech RepublicImage: Philippe Merle/AFP/Getty Images

"It's not just that they can't leave their houses. There's an element of psychological terror too, especially for the children," David Tiser told DW.

"You'll remember the case of the 10-year-old Roma boy who looked out of his window at a neo-Nazi demonstration and saw his primary school teacher marching alongside them shouting 'black bastards'," he went on.

"The kid refused to go back to school, understandably. This is what we have to eliminate."

Historical tensions

Last weekend's scenes have become wearily familiar to TV viewers - there have been many such demonstrations in the past few years, as neo-Nazi groups seek to exploit the country's economic woes and historical tensions with the Roma.

But the political response has been muted; none of the major political parties had anything to say about this weekend's violence. The exception was the president, Milos Zeman, who singled out 'neo-Nazi gangs' as a threat in his inaugural speech. He repeated that again the day after the marches, in his regular radio conversation.

"These skinhead gangs are best recognized by their shaved heads and their chants of 'Czechia for the Czechs!'. But as I said at the Lidice Memorial this year, whenever they shout 'Czechia for the Czechs', what I hear, what comes to my mind, is the Nazi chant 'Juden Raus!.'"

Anti-Roma Proteste in Tschechien
Many Roma families in the Czech Republic fear for their safetyImage: Martin Nejezchleba

Political reasons

David Tiser says the silence from the major parties is easily explained; unlike Mr Zeman, those parties have an election to fight in two months' time, and defending the Roma minority is hardly a vote-winner.

But while the skinheads are largely being restrained from reaching their targets by lines of riot police, and while there has been a laudable upsurge in civic activity against the neo-Nazi demonstrations, many observers are worried about the atmosphere of intolerance in the Czech Republic.

"The situation is extremely tense in the Czech Republic at the moment, with far right groups rapidly gaining in influence. Many Roma families ... fear for their safety, in particular ahead of demonstrations like those planned for [Saturday]" said Dezideriu Gergely, Executive Director of the European Roma Rights Centre, in a statement issued on Amnesty International's website.

Amnesty concerned

"We have seen a deeply worrying trend over the past year with entrenched discrimination against Roma reaching new heights. This is a fundamental issue that the Czech authorities can't ignore," added John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Program Director for Amnesty International.

And while the summer "marching season" is drawing to a close, there seems to be no letup in sight; far-right groups are already planning another demonstration in Ostrava. It's scheduled for September 27, and once again marchers will try to reach an area home to a large, socially excluded Romany population.