Tereza Bottman

Teresa Bottman (Dzeno Association): Teresa immigrated to the US from the Czech Republic in her early teens. She then dedicated herself to understanding immigrants and marginalized youth and worked for Slavic American Youth Zane, an online magazine of writing and art by Russian-speaking American youth; Community Art Share, a showcase of artists from underrepresented group; and Czechs in America, a bilingual pod cast highlighting the experiences of Czech immigrants in the US. Teresa holds a Master’s of Education degree from Portland State University. At the time of her fellowship she was teaching high school Language Arts, English-as-a-Second-Language and Drama in Portland, Oregon. After her fellowship Teresa wrote: “I fell in love with human rights journalism. The fellowship was an incredible experience. I learned a lot, became more confident about my ability to interview people and present issues in an in-depth and informed way."

Speaking Truth to Power: A Conversation with Karel Holomek, a Vital Voice in the Roma Rights Movement

30 Aug

Earlier this month, following the Roma Holocaust commemoration ceremony at the site of the former “Gypsy” concentration camp near the town of Hodonín u Kunštátu, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Karel Holomek, one of the most esteemed Czech Romani community leaders.

He shared with me his concern about the recent political developments and their impact on his future cooperation with the Czech government as a human rights activist.

“I will speak about politics now, because politics for me is a fundamental thing. Everything stems from there,” said Mr. Holomek, sharing a table with me in the breezy, contemporary, urban, yet relaxed setting of the cafe at the Museum of Romani Culture, an institution he co-founded nearly twenty years ago in the Czech city of Brno.

Mr. Holomek is the son of the first Czech Romani university graduate and the father of the historian and Museum of Romani Culture director Dr. Jana Horváthová. He is a celebrated international human rights advocate, chairman of the Society of Roma in Moravia and current Ambassador of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005 – 2015, an initiative that brings together the governments of twelve European countries and NGOs “to accelerate progress toward improving the welfare of Roma.“

[Ing. Karel Holomek, photo by Chad Evans Wyatt]

“I reject the attitude politicians display toward the people who challenge them,” Holomek continued, “in the vein of ‘don’t meddle in our dealings; we are now discussing culture, we are discussing language, we are discussing literature.’ Politics doesn’t belong in these types of conversations, they say. But, unfortunately, it does belong there, and in a very significant way.”

“My big topic at this time is this,” said Holomek. “The government, after the (May Parliamentary) elections came out with its new policy outline. The administration announced, to the satisfaction of everyone with common sense, that it is an administration whose priority is a balanced budget.”

“We accept that,” Mr. Holomek elaborated. “But I always add that government savings measures do not have to mean going broke.”

Holomek went on to criticize Prime MInister Petr Nečas’ choices of staff: “The new administration took the next step of making changes in staffing. It nominated the ministers. Pavel Drobil, who was named the Minister of Environment, is a man who is dedicated to the industrial lobby. He does not even hide that fact. He says such nonsense as ‘nature is there for the people, not people for nature,’ which is a completely primitive slogan, almost as if meant for simpletons. The Minister of Environment is only proof of what the government plans to do regarding the environment. They don’t have to play the charade that they will work for the people.”

“The second concern I have is the new advisor on human rights to the Prime Minister,” Holomek went on. “I consider Roman Joch to be on the borderline of acceptability. I would go as far as to say, and many would agree with me, that, opinion-wise, he is a neo-Nazi. His opinions include: the constitution is the only force needed to protect human rights; everyone is equal in the court of law; the courts should decide.”

Holomek asserted that Czech courts are often incapable of carrying out just judgements, because they are corrupt, a sentiment I have heard echoed from many activists, even a long-time human rights lawyer in this country.

Regarding the lack of legitimacy of Czech courts, Holomek said: “In reality, we have a judicial mafia here. Some people do not realize this, but most of the nation understands that the highest posts are occupied by a judicial mafia.”

“All the people the Prime Minister has selected come from the Václav Klaus administration,” observed Holomek. “And that epoch had a very negative effect on the cultivation of the society, morale, but even in economics. Nečas is probably, with these staffing choices, making deals or amends with Klaus’s political party. That is his problem. But there is no reason we should tolerate this.”

Holomek was referring to the years, specifically the early to mid-90s, following the Velvet Revolution when the regime shifted practically over night from a centrally-planned socialist economy to “free-market” capitalism. The Czech government relatively quickly privatized the majority of state-run business, selling disproportionately large amounts of assets to foreign-owned entities. This transition resulted in significant job losses (in the Czech Republic namely in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors) and wage depression. What followed was a societal reorientation towards rampant consumerism and the general weakening of social safety nets.

“My dilemma is now with this,” confided Holomek. “On July 1, the Czech government took over the presidency of the Decade for Roma Inclusion. I was there in a meeting with still the previous Prime Minister and I was selected to be, so to speak, the face of the Decade. They even call me the Ambassador.”

Holomek’s reaction was mixed. He said that he would be happy to represent the Decade if it had the power to bring about concrete change: “It makes me smile, because it is a highly honorable, but unfortunate function and, of course, without a crown. If I were an ambassador who could do something, who could be the person who receives and allocates the funds dedicated to the initiative, it would be a whole different thing.”

“There are two problems here,” Holomek explained. “The decade is a completely ‘sterile’ project, which has so far taken only the form of international conferences. These are completely insignificant events, during which twenty, thirty or forty like-minded people get together and complain about how things are not working and how something should be done, and during which not a single government official ever participates, let alone to say: I acknowledge you and what should we do about it on our part?”

“When I accepted my role as Ambassador,” explained Holomek, “I said we have to do something concrete. There needs to be a shift forward. I don’t think I will continue being the face of the initiative, if no development happens. I went to the administration and proposed some measures to be taken (toward Romani integration), but I was told immediately by the Office of the Government that there is no money for those efforts.”

Holomek said that the combination of a having a person in office with whom it is impossible to cooperate, and the prospect of no expected progress in sight, makes it so that he cannot possibly continue being the face of the Decade: “I would accept it all and continue to risk and move forward if there were at least someone in the administration who would be supportive.”

“With my years of experience,” Holomek contended, “I am a trusted person and I am willing to do anything (to improve the situation for the Roma), but not with these people in the government.”

“Now I just have to wait and see whether the PM will grant me a meeting with him,” Holomek concluded, “so I can tell him eye-to-eye, bluntly as is my style, how I see the situation and how angry he has made me.”

Karel Holomek is one of the signatories of ProAlt, a grassroots initiative opposing the new Czech government’s priorities. I, too, have signed the initiative, which I hope will constitute a vital force that keeps in check the new conservative administration who, so far, seems deaf to the concerns of human rights and minority advocates.

Posted By Tereza Bottman

Posted Aug 30th, 2010


  • chad evans wyatt

    August 31, 2010


    “Speaking Truth to Power,” indeed. No one impressed me more with depth of thinking and commitment during my time in CZ. Karel Holomek is an honest broker with a well-earned reputation for trustworthiness. The government would do well to heed his advice, or risk losing it. Moreover, his comments about the Decade are that rare true phrasing that make one sit up and take notice. Those who might truly lead, are instead co-opted into meetings and conferences, whose principal purpose is to discuss the next meeting. There will come a time when the Roma can no longer rely on the kindness of strangers. Indeed, with the ever-darker events of past months, one might well argue that the governments of Europe have little commitment to even the bare-bones enforcement of the laws, provision of education.

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