Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Czech Republic lies in the heart of Central Europe, occupying a plateau which is surrounded by low mountain ranges.
For most of the twentieth century, the lands constituting the present Czech Republic formed a part of Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was disassembled in 1938–9, re-established in 1945 and divided once again into the Czech Republic and Slovakia at midnight on 31 December 1992.
The modern Czech Republic largely coincides in extent with the historic provinces of Bohemia, Moravia and ‘Austrian’ Silesia. In the Middle Ages, Bohemia and Moravia constituted an independent kingdom. After 1526, Bohemia and Moravia were incorporated along with Silesia in the Austrian Habsburg empire. Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia retained rights of self-government throughout the four centuries of Habsburg rule, although most of Silesia was lost to Prussia in 1740.
For most of its history, the territory of the modern-day Czech Republic was ethnically diverse. Inter-war censuses record that almost a quarter of the population of Czechoslovakia were ethnic Germans, most of whom lived in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. There was also a long tradition of Polish, Jewish and Roma settlement. During the Second World War, the Jewish and Roma minorities were almost entirely eliminated. After the war, about 3 million Germans were forced to emigrate. As a consequence, the population of the modern Czech Republic demonstrates considerable ethnic homogeneity.
In 1989, the communist regime which had ruled Czechoslovakia since 1948 was overthrown. Elections held in 1992, which demonstrated sharp divisions between Czechs and Slovaks over economic issues, led to Czechoslovakia’s division into two independent states. The Czech Republic joined the European Union (EU) on 1 May 2004.
The Czech Republic has attracted a substantial migrant community, partly because of its burgeoning economy and partly because it is a convenient transit point between Western and Eastern Europe. In 2005 there were an estimated 480,000 foreign workers in the Czech Republic, of whom some 40 per cent were estimated to come from Slovakia and are mostly employed legally, unlike many workers from countries that are not members of the EU. The next largest groups are estimated to be Ukrainians, Poles and Vietnamese. The majority of these foreign workers are employed in the building sector, especially in Prague, and are subject to discriminatory wages and often live in poor conditions in barrack-style housing. Others, such as Koreans and Chinese, whose numbers are unknown, work in textiles or producing cigarettes.
Main languages: Czech, Slovak, Polish, German.
Main religions: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (mainly Lutheran).
Minority groups include Moravians, Slovaks, Polish, Germans, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Russians, Roma, Silesians, Jews, Bulgarians, Croats, Ruthenians (Rusyns), Greeks and Serbs.
According to the 2001 Census, a ‘nationality’ other than Czech was reported by 980,283 persons (9.4% of the population). The largest groups were: 380,474 Moravians (3.7%), 193,190 Slovaks (1.9%), 51,968 Polish (0.5%), 39,106 Germans (0.4%), 22,112 Ukrainians (0,2%), 14, 672 Hungarians (0.1%), 12,369 Russians (0,1%), 11,746 Roma (0.1%), 10,878 Silesians (0.1%). While the 2001 Census figures indicate that there are 11,746 Roma and 23,211 speakers of the Roma language, unofficial estimates, which are not contested by the authorities, put the real number of Roma living in the Czech Republic at 150,000–200,000. The Jewish community, which numbered over 180,000 people before the Holocaust, is variously estimated at between 3,000 and 8,000. There are also small numbers of Bulgarians, Croats, Ruthenians (Rusyns), Greeks, as well as Serbs.
The census figures show a marked decrease, since the previous census in 1991, in the number of persons declaring an ethnic origin other than that of the majority. The authorities see this as reflecting an increasing tendency on the part of respondents not to identify with national minorities. Various reasons for this have been suggested, for example, greater homogeneity within Czech society, the optional character of the ethnic question, increased integration of certain groups, refusal or reluctance to declare an ethnic origin other than that of the majority, or terminological confusion (failure to distinguish the terms indicating Czech citizenship and ethnic affiliation). Minority representatives, on the other hand, consider that this is also due to certain organizational shortcomings of the census, such as failure to publicize the availability of forms in minority languages, and a lack of transparency in selecting persons belonging to national minorities to serve as census-takers. In the run-up to the census, certain media pointed to the danger that personal data might be misused, and this also seems to have been a significant factor.
As in the previous census, ‘Moravians’ or ‘Silesians’ (comprising 391,352 persons) figure again among large groups amongst the population on the basis of self-identification. However, the size of both groups was considerably reduced, in both absolute and relative terms: over 1.36 million or 13 per cent of the population identified themselves as ‘Moravian’ in 1991, while 44,446 or 0.4 per cent of the population identified as ‘Silesian’ in 1991. According to the authorities, this self-identification in no way denotes ethnic affiliation, but simply reflects these persons’ wish, for historical or other reasons, to associate themselves with a regional identity, instead of indicating an ethnic origin.
In December 2004 Radio Prague stated that: ‘There are over 30,000 Vietnamese living in the Czech Republic and according to estimates some 3,500 are involved in business. Many work at the Vietnamese-run open-air markets familiar all over the Czech Republic, selling everything from underwear to electronics. There have been several occasions when customs officers have discovered and confiscated counterfeit merchandise at these markets, and sometimes these raids have even led to violent clashes with the vendors.’
In advance of the separation of Czech Republic from Czechoslovakia, a new constitution was promulgated by the Czech Parliament and came into force in January 1993. The constitution affirmed the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, passed by the Czechoslovak federal assembly in 1991, which forbids discrimination on grounds of race, religion and ethnicity, and makes provision for minority-language education.
The constitution, however, deals only briefly with the rights of minorities, permitting their right to identity and the use of their own language in public affairs, and their protection from the will of the majority (Article 25).
In 1990, an official Nationalities Council was instituted to provide a forum for consultation between the government and representatives of minorities. In 1997 an advisory body for Roma issues was created (see Roma). In 1992, a new law on citizenship was passed, which contains provisions that many considered discriminatory – citizenship was conditional upon a prior two-year residency and five years without a criminal conviction; this especially affected Roma, many of whom failed to meet the criteria, thus increasing their social marginalization. In the 1990s the principal legislative acts of the Czech Republic provided for the protection of minorities and for the preservation of their identity. Nevertheless, the policies pursued by the Czech government indicated a strategy of benign neglect which was likely to lead to the gradual assimilation of minorities.
In July 2001 the National Minorities Act was enacted. This does not list officially recognized national minorities, but does make citizenship a criterion for being a ‘member of a national minority’. In practice, those officially recognized as such belong to groups represented on the Council for National Minorities, a government advisory body. These are Bulgarians, Croats, Hungarians, Germans, Poles, Roma, Ruthenians, Russians, Greeks, Slovaks and Ukrainians, as well as Serbs, who have recently been included. This recent inclusion of Serbs shows that the Czech authorities favour an open approach to the personal scope of application of minority rights. This approach is also illustrated in respect of the Jews, who are covered by the state support programmes for national minorities, despite the fact that most of them regard themselves as a cultural or religious community, rather than a national minority.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Keersmaeker, G. de, ‘Citizenship law in the Czech Republic’, Helsinki Citizens Assembly Quarterly, no. 10, summer 1994, pp. 19–20.
Krejci, J., Czechoslovakia at the Crossroads of European History, London, Tauris, 1990.
MRG (ed.), Minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, London, MRG, 1993.
Liégeois, J.-P. and Gheorghe, N., Roma/Gypsies: A European Minority, London, MRG, 1995.
Tritt, R., Struggling for Ethnic Identity: Czechoslovakia’s Endangered Gypsies, New York, Human Rights Watch, 1992.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in