Hundreds again march in Varnsdorf
Dubious reports of crime spark ethnically charged protests
Posted: January 18, 2012
Flags of the Workers Party for Social Justice fluttered in Varnsdorf Jan. 15 as crowds listened to populist warnings of rising crime.
Another wave of ethnic unrest may be in the cards for the north Bohemian town of Varnsdorf, a troubled locality where clashes between Roma and non-Roma residents could act as a trigger for ethnic violence throughout the region.
Around 200 residents, onlookers and right-wing extremists participated in a racially charged demonstration in the town Jan. 15, the first time since a series of provocative demonstrations fizzled out some three months ago, following a summer of fierce clashes that cost the town some 75 million Kč.
Under the banner of "Justice and Safety," protesters spoke out against a New Year's Eve incident in which a group of Roma men allegedly assaulted a non-Roma man with his family.
The incident comes on the heels of a separate tragic event in Tanvald, a town some 80 kilometers from Varnsdorf, where a 63-year-old man shot to death a Roma youth during a New Year's Eve scuffle.
During the Varnsdorf demonstration, flags of the Workers Party for Social Justice (DSSS), the reincarnation of the now-banned right-wing extremist Workers Party, fluttered among the crowd as populist speakers warned participants about the town's allegedly high crime rates and lack of security.
"Gypsy aggression is on the rise," Petr Heinrich, a political organizer tied to last summer's anti-Roma demonstrations, told the gathering.
Town officials say the demonstration's leaders are exploiting the Jan. 1 attack, whose details are yet to be clarified, for their own political gain. During this summer's protests, organizers were known to use fictional accounts of Roma attacks against the majority population to garner citizen support.
"The whole thing seems biased against the Roma," said Varnsdorf Deputy Mayor Karel Dubský.
The Jan. 15 demonstration, in which three young people were detained after making racist remarks, indicated the possible resuscitation of an incendiary movement.
According to Dubský, the Jan. 1 incident was triggered by M. Udlich, a drunk non-Roma resident who picked a fight with a young Roma man while passing a Roma housing complex with his family.
"When the drunk man started beating the Roma boy, two more Roma men ran out of the building to help," Dubský said, citing police reports.
Panicking, the drunk man produced a gas gun - which Dubský said looked remarkably like a handgun - and fired it at the Roma boy, burning the side of his face, according to Dubský.
Police, meanwhile, have detained two Roma men in connection with the incident, stating one of them had racial motives for assaulting Udlich.
Ethnic tensions in Varnsdorf have their roots in a segregated housing complex opened by local officials in 2002. Inundated by complaints from voters, who criticized the poor Roma population's tendency to skip out on rent and pilfer scrap metal, Varnsdorf Town Hall allocated a defunct factory warehouse that year, transforming it into a housing complex for "maladaptive" Roma families, who have been flocking to the region by the hundreds in search of housing opportunities.
"It was a lodging house for nonpayers, a place where such people could be concentrated so that it would be easier to collect rent from them," recalled Varnsdorf Mayor Jaroslav Poláček. "In this way, we founded our very own little ghetto."
A decade later, that ghetto has made Varnsdorf a hotspot with the potential to trigger ethnic unrest in similar localities throughout north Bohemia. Frequently the site of minor clashes between Roma and non-Roma residents, its existence has given rise to extremist movements intent on exploiting existing animosities for their own profit, creating an explosive dynamic of racial intolerance.
Animosity between the two groups reached fever pitch when Lukáš Kohout, himself a convicted conman, obtained an agreement with Varnsdorf Town Hall to hold public demonstrations in the main square for an entire month at the end of summer 2011.
"He seemed to have this ability to turn people into a herd," Poláček said. "There was something unnatural about it, and it reeked of racism."
Kohout, who is linked to the extremist DSSS, has also been tied to Ústí nad Labem City Councilor Petr Jakubec, a Social Democrat whom Dubský described as the éminence grise behind Kohout's activities in Varnsdorf.
Since the demonstrations ceased in October 2011, however, it appears Kohout's former accomplice Heinrich has turned the political tide to his own advantage, effectively pushing his former leader out of the limelight.
"Kohout is slated to go to prison soon for breaking parole, so Heinrich has decided to bypass him and take up his own activities," Dubský said.
Markéta Hulpachová can be reached at
Tags: varnsdorf, north bohemia, workers party, ethnic tensions, roma rights, economic recession.