Czech Roma See Discrimination Begin to Ebb ; New Antiracism Efforts, Mixed Housing, and Recent Court Decisions Signal Change

Article excerpt

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. …