Majority of Czechs hit hard by recession, says Social Watch report for 2012

The Czech Republic might have just begun its recovery from the longest economic recession on record. But the depressed economy has taken a severe toll on most Czechs, with the most vulnerable groups having been hit particularly hard. This is one of the findings of the 2012 report by the Czech branch of Social Watch, an NGO that monitors poverty and other social issues. Entitled Decline and Resignation, the report also says a recent rise in ethnic tensions seen across the Czech Republic is closely linked to the deteriorating social standards. In this edition of Marketplace, I talk to the report’s editor, Tomáš Tožička.

“The Czech Republic is stagnating. The EU is moving ahead but we are lagging behind. The situation in the Czech Republic is still below the 2008 levels, which is quite tragic. Also, people and the civic society are rather resigned, and do not participate in public life, in providing public services which is a prerequisite for any change in the society.”

In the report, you say that economically speaking, the situation of a majority of Czechs deteriorated in 2012. What do you base this on?

“It’s based on statistics. We saw a rise in inflation and in prices. There was a hike in the VAT which was very rapid, one of the fastest in the EU. These are some of the factors that affected a majority of the population but mostly the most vulnerable groups. These include people living under the poverty line, who live in socially excluded areas, as well as women and of course the Romany community.”

You blame this for the most part on the policies of the previous, centre-right government. But don’t you think you overlook the effects of the global economic downturn, and even the situation in Germany to which the Czech economy is closely tied?

“Yes, you are right about the Germany economy. Four months ago, Social Watch published a report about the global situation and some national reports, and we know there are global problems and that the crisis is not over. But when you look at other countries and other responses, and also their debates about possible solutions, you’ll see there are many different approaches than just austerity. That was the problem of the previous government which really undermined economic growth.”

You make a very immediate link between the depressed economy and the government’s austerity measures and the escalating ethnic tensions we have seen in the Czech Republic; you say that attempted pogroms targeting the Romany community are closely linked to these economic issues. What makes you think so?

“It’s a historical experience, and we also see that in what’s happening in some Czech cities. There, tensions escalate in searching for an enemy. What’s very paradoxical for me is that when we look at the regions where this is happening, like Duchcov and Rumburk, the same things were happening there some 80 years ago before WWII.

“The Great Depression brought intense social tension to these industrialized regions, leading to problems between Czechs and Germans at that time. There was no particular reason for such hatred between the nationalities because the people had been living there in peace for centuries. But something similar is now happening with the Romany community.”

Do you think this also work vice-versa? In other words, when the economy recovers, with more public investment focusing on the poorest people, will this bring a decline in the tension between the majority and Romanies?

“To some extent, I think. When people have something else to do that struggle to get by in their lives, I think they will find better hobbies than rallying against the Romanies. They will be looking at their own problems and other issues. But this critical economic situation is a bib problem. However, I also think this is only part of the issue. Various international studies show that the correlation between the social situation and crime levels for instance is not so clearly given. A crucial aspect it to involve both groups in the decision making process so that they participate in the reconstruction of their communities.

“What we see now even with the middle class is that the local authorities take over in caring of people’s daily lives. But we don’t see things that were common some 15 or 20 years ago when people participated more in the activities of their towns. And I think we must look for ways to boost this cooperation.

“The Czech police have already started some programmes of community policing and so on which is a good move. I also see that within the police force, there are more professionals and more good will to tackle the problem than in many of the local councils.”

Photo: Kristýna Maková One of the reasons your report is entitled Decline and Resignation is that you observed Czechs are increasingly resigned to participation in public life. Is that also an effect of the economic recession?

“Well, the economic downturn affects everything but we cannot say every problem is caused by that. I think that it just sped up the process. Since the 1990s, the Czech society has become less active in the public arena. For example, none of the mainstream political parties encourages this. They sometimes talk about participatory democracy, referenda and so on. But that’s often only related to the top level of politics. They are not open to debates, and they don’t encourage people to participate.”