In neighbouring Slovakia several hundred Romanies clashed with police in the Eastern town of Trebisov Monday evening. Rocks and empty bottles were thrown, and several shops were looted. The incident was part of a chain of protests following the Slovak government's decision to cut back social welfare. The story has also hit the headlines in the Czech papers, as this country also has a large Roma minority. As in Slovakia Czech Roma are among the poorest in society, and the great majority of them have their roots in Slovakia. Could the same kind of protests also happen in the Czech Republic?
For the Czech government the recent emergency in Slovakia is certainly a lesson in the kind of problems that can result from drastic changes in social policy. Cseslaw Wellek heads the Office of the Council for Roma Community Affairs in the Czech Republic. He feels that the huge welfare cuts were not properly thought through.
"Obviously in my opinion this is an understandable policy if you give recipients of social benefits alternatives such as job opportunity. But, when you think geographically where the Roma in Eastern Slovakia live, there are no jobs. And with their education they even have less of a chance to find any employment whatsoever in this part of Slovakia. But that is my personal opinion."
Could you tell me the difference between Slovakia's situation and the one in the Czech Republic in terms of giving alternatives? Does the Czech system have something better in place?
"Well, regarding employment I don't think so. The main difference is we haven't lowered social benefits. The situation of the Czech Roma is in some ways better than the situation in Slovakia in terms of standard of living. Here they don't live in settlements and so on. But to be honest regarding employment the Czech government is not providing too many alternatives, we still have to work on it. On the other hand we have certain programmes that are better developed here. For example social field work, or the pilot project which our office together with the Ministry of Interior is working on the fight against usury."
Many Roma from isolated rural settlements in Slovakia have migrated to the Czech Republic in recent years - both before and since the split of Czechoslovakia. The latest wave of unrest has led to concern that many more Slovak Roma will want to move to this country. A Czech-Slovak working group is set to meet on the 5th of March and Mr. Wellek of the Council for Roma Community Affairs will play an active role.
"Obviously we are concerned with what is going on and if the Slovak government were to ask us for help we would be ready to give any help that we possible can."