Czechs' Attitude to foreigners, emigres must change

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Date: Sat, 4 Jul 1998 09:58:00 +0300 (EET DST)
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Subject: Czechs' Attitude to foreigners, emigres must change

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Czechs' Attitude to foreigners, emigres must change

Attitude to foreigners, emigres must change
By Jiri Pehe
Prague Post, June 24, 1998
One of the most important political tests of the Czech Republic on its
"journey to Europe" in the next few years will be the question of
whether or not we will succeed in changing our attitude toward
foreigners who live in the Czech Republic, and toward Czechs living

Although foreigners make up only 1.5 percent of the total population,
many Czechs feel endangered by their presence. Once accepted into the
European Union, we will become part of a closely bound community of
countries in which typically foreigners comprise up to 10 percent of
the population.

A not-always-friendly attitude toward foreigners may be detected not
only in the rhetoric of the Czech ultra-rightist or ultra-leftist
parties, but even in some pronouncements of certain politicians of the
democratic parties. The media and many police personnel only rarely
forget to stress that the perpetrator of this or that crime in our
country is a foreigner. Thus an impression is being created that most
of the major crimes are committed by foreigners, and that we would be
better off without them.

There has been debate for some time now on how to further restrict
foreign residency, even as many foreign companies are already
complaining that existing bureaucratic conditions are making it too
expensive and troublesome for their employees to stay. If further
restrictions are applied, we can expect many foreign investors - of
which we now have precious few compared to Poland and Hungary - to
decide to abandon the Czech Republic or stay away altogether.
Sophisticated explanations from various politicians that our
immigration laws are really very liberal will not alleviate this
situation. Any foreigner who has experienced firsthand the torture of
compiling the multitude of various permits and documents, and then
suffered the long hours of waiting at the Foreigners' Police, will
never erase these experiences from his mind.

If our administrative officials are mainly interested in preventing
the influx of criminal gangs and economically disadvantaged immigrants
from the Eastern Europe and Balkan regions, it would be better
accomplished by re-introducing visa requirements for some countries
(as, by the way, we will be required to do by the EU), as well as more
effective border controls. The adoption of sweeping, across-the-board
legal or administrative regulations will have discriminatory
consequences for all foreigners.

There is another side to the coin of suspicion-ridden attitudes toward
foreigners. On its flip side is suspicion toward emigres and Czech
citizens who live abroad. It is an outrage that these Czech citizens
have no right to vote. One of the basic civic rights is thus denied to
them. It is also an outrage that the Czech Republic, almost nine years
since November 1989, has not managed to come up with a more friendly
legal framework to enable emigres to regain their Czech citizenship,
perhaps in such a way that they could have dual citizenship. There are
many emigres who, for one reason or another, could not avail
themselves of the comparatively liberal opportunity that existed
between 1990 and 1992 on questions of citizenship - the majority of
Czech-Americans, for example, who at that time were prevented from
regaining their Czech citizenship by the 70-year-old bilateral
Czechoslovak-U.S. Agreement. Another glaring example concerns the
approximately 40,000 Czechs in Slovakia, who after the split of
Czechoslovakia found themselves in a foreign country without even
emigrating. In spite of that, dual citizenship is denied them. By far
the most outrageous example - one for which the Czech Republic has
been criticized many times - is the situation of thousands of Romany
(Gypsy) citizens who have been rendered stateless as a consequence of
the Czech citizenship law.
It would be in the interest of the Czech state to seriously ponder
these questions in the years to come. By our attitudes in these
matters, we are sending the world a signal that to a certain extent we
have not managed to mature and that we are not prepared for genuine
participation in the complex integration processes. It is clear that a
hesitant attitude toward foreigners and emigres, aside from being very
Czech-provincial, basically had to do with three areas of problems in
the past: Sudeten Germans, the split of Czechoslovakia and property
restitutions. Taking steps toward the EU is not only giving us an
opportunity, but directly forcing us to consider the problems of
foreigners here and of the Czechs abroad more responsibly than the
Czech political elite was capable of doing in the past.
-- The writer is senior political adviser to President Vaclav Havel

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