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Autumn 2004

Minority Protection and Language Policy
in the Czech Republic, by Carolin Zwilling

This article gives an overview of the actual situation of national minorities living in the Czech Republic focusing on the State’s language policy. Starting from a legally not binding “Concept to Issues Concerning National Minorities in the Czech Republic” in 1994, this new member state developed a largely satisfactory legal framework for the protection of national minorities during the last ten years preparing the accession to the European Union.

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1. Introduction

2. General information: census and settlement areas

3. Legal framework

4. The use of language
4.1. In communication with authorities
4.2. Names and topographical signs
4.3. Media

5. Minority Education

6. The Roma national minority

7. Political Representation and Institutions for the Protection of Minorities

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The Czech Republic is one of the ten new members who joined the European Union on May 1, 2004. Its 10.2 Million inhabitants today form 2.2% of the total number of all EU citizens.

After the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I, the Czechs and Slovaks declared their independence in 1918 and were united as a democratic Federative Republic of Czechoslovakia. Immediately subsequent to the division of the Czech and the Slovak Federative Republic on January 1, 1993 and the creation of two independent unitary states, the Czech Republic started to establish a close relationship to the European Union. The European Association Treaty from 1993 by which the Czech Republic acquired the status as an associated country entered into force on February 1, 1995 and already in January 1996 the State applied for membership in the European Union. One condition for the membership was compliance with the so-called Copenhagen criteria which include the protection of human rights and respect for and protection of minorities. (1) The accession negotiations were successfully concluded in December 2003 and the Treaty of Accession was signed on April 16, 2003. The majority of Czech citizens supported EU membership in the referendum held on 13-14 June 2003.

2. General information: census and settlement areas

In contrast to the strongly heterogeneous ethnic structure of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic became an almost homogenous country. According to the most recent Population and Housing Census (2) carried out by the Czech Statistic Office (CSO) in co-operation with the secretariat of the Council of the Government for National Minorities on March 1, 2001, only 9.9% of the population (1.022.318 persons) declared a national identity other than Czech, but including the Moravian and Silesian ethnicities (392,524 persons, i.e. 3.8%). (3) The census sheet and methodology instruction were printed also in the minority languages Polish, German, Roma, Ukrainian and Russian, as well as in English, French, Vietnamese, Arabic and Chinese. The 2001 census featured under the heading “ethnicity” an open question, so that any identity could be expressed.

The representatives of national minorities participated both in the preparation of the census, especially by informing their members publishing regularly in minority periodicals, and the performance as assistants or census commissioners. Nevertheless, the representatives of the Polish minority criticized both the shortage of official information in minority languages published by the Government and the media, which repeatedly underlined the possible misuse of personal data.

The most numerous non-Czech census group are the Moravian and the Silesian national identities. Even so, the citizens of Moravia and Czech Silesia do not form a recognized national minority. These national identities were introduced during the process of social transformation after the change of regime in 1989 and the issue of minority protection was politicized by leaders of the Moravia-oriented movements during a discussion about the so far unresolved status of Moravia and Silesia in the territorial and administrative structure of the Czech Republic. While all data on persons of other than Czech ethnicity are in decrease in comparison to the previous census of 1991, the decrease of theses national identities reaches a dramatic 70%: from 1.362.313 Moravians and 44.446 Silesians, in 2001 only 373,294 respectively 11,248 declared these identities.

The proportion of the non-Czech population varies with districts and regions of the Czech Republic. With exception of numerous but dispersed groups of Slovaks and Roma, no national minority occupies a prominent position in the current ethnic make-up. Most members of the Slovak national minority, as the largest one, but dispersed throughout the entire Czech Republic, live on the territory of the Moravian-Silesian Ústí region, Prague, the South-Moravian, Middle-Bohemian and Karlovy Vary regions. Contrary to their dispersed settlement and due to history, there is a significant concentration of members of the Polish minority along the state border with Poland where, in the districts of Frydek-Mistek and Karvina, they amount to more than 8% of the local population. Persons belonging to the German national minority live in the eastern, northern and western border regions, in an environment of former German language islands. Despite territorial dispersion throughout the Czech Republic, the Roma population can be considered as concentrated in industrial cities in Northern Bohemia and Northern Moravia as well as in Prague. In the same way, the less numerous national minorities of Bulgarians, Russians, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Greek, Bulgarians, Romanians and also Jewish minorities living dispersed throughout the country are concentrated especially in Prague and other industrial cities

3. Legal framework

National minorities’ rights are protected by international law, (4) constitutional laws and domestic laws for some specific areas. (5) Worth mentioning are bilateral agreements between the Czech Republic and neighboring countries, in particular the Federal Republic of Germany, Poland and Slovakia, which guarantee the protection of rights of persons belonging to the respective national minority. Article 10 of the Constitution of the Czech Republic gives human rights treaties precedence over domestic law.

The basic protection of national minorities is determined by the Constitution (6) and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (7) as a part of the constitutional order. The Charter confers both collective and individual rights. It differentiates between national and ethnic minorities without defining this difference. In 1994, the Government of the Czech Republic formulated some legally not binding principles of the policy concerning national minorities in the document “Concept to Issues Concerning National Minorities in the Czech Republic”. (8) After a long period of difficult discussions, in June 2001 a Law on Ethnic and National Minorities (Minority Act) (9) was finally approved by the Czech Chamber of Deputies, entering into force on August 2nd, 2001.

This Minority Act specifies the rights of members of national minorities and the competence of ministries, administrative authorities and authorities of territorial self-administration units in relation to these rights. Although the Act was largely based on the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, (10) it differs in a fundamental way. § 2 Minority Act gives definitions for the basic terms “national minority” and “a member of a national minority”:

(1) A national minority is a community of citizens of the Czech Republic who live on the territory of the present Czech Republic and as a rule differ from other citizens by their common ethnic origin, language, culture and traditions; they represent a minority of citizens and at the same time they show their will to be considered a national minority for the purpose of common efforts to preserve and develop their own identity, language and culture and at the same time express and preserve interests of their community which has been formed during history.

(2) The member of a national minority is a citizen of the Czech Republic who professes other than Czech ethnic origin and wishes to be considered a member of a national minority in common with the others who profess the same ethnic origin.

Furthermore, the Minority Act foresees a Council of the Government for National Minorities as consultative and initiative body headed by a member of the Government. Nevertheless, this law is criticized not only by representatives of the national minorities, but also by NGO’s (11) since it offers considerably less protection than early drafts and it may have little relevance for Roma, given the 10% threshold for application. Moreover, the UN Commission for Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination repeatedly criticized the lack of legal provisions for the protection of minorities from discrimination, since the Minority Act was restricted to rights related to the development of national minorities without facing the problems of discrimination.

4. The use of language

Language and the ability to use the own minority language freely, in private as well as public life, serve for most minorities as a means of unity of the group and a source of self-identification for the individual

4.1 In communication with authorities

Neither the Constitution does contain any specific mention of an official or state language nor does any other Czech law define the official language or the one of official communication. The status of the Czech language as the official one is, however, implicit in some legal regulations. (12) German, Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Romany, Slovak and Croatian are spoken in the Czech Republic, though only the first four are recognized as official minority languages.

The right of ethnic and national minorities to use their language in communication with authorities is primarily based on the Constitution, Article 25/2/b. In addition, some legal regulations provide that every person who states that he does not speak Czech has the right to use his or her mother tongue before the court and before the bodies involved in criminal proceedings. (13) The expenditures connected to the service of an interpreter are covered by the state. However, the Government notes that “in respect of the Romani national minority, an unresolved problem is an entirely insufficient number of Romani interpreters”. (14)

4.2 Names and topographical signs

According to §7 of the Minority Act the members of minorities are allowed to use their names and surnames in their language. Since there are strict conditions determined by a special Act on registers, names and surnames (15) in practical terms only female citizen of the Czech Republic or the parents of a female child under legal age can ask for the entry of an unchanged surname into a register, if they make an affidavit of their membership in a national minority. Although all representatives of national minorities basically embraced this new Act on Registers, they underline that practical problems are not sufficiently reflected. For instance, they criticize the administrative fee of 1,000 CZK (16) for the change of an entry, especially for seniors.

In addition, the Minority Act stipulates that bilingual geographical names, as e.g. for communities, streets, public places, buildings of government bodies and territorial self-governing units, can be used. (17) But in practice, as stated by the Government’s Report on the Situation of National Minorities from June 2002, (18) the right to inscribe communities, streets and public places with names in the minority language has not been exercised yet. This arises probably from the fact that this right can be exercised only if 10% of the local citizens acknowledge membership in a national minority and 40% of adult citizens of them ask for this by petition. In September 2003, the Polish-speaking minority living in the region of Silesia started to collect signatures for bilingual signs. The largest town, called Český Těsín/Czeski Cieszyn, was divided into a Polish and a Czechoslovak part after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. The percentage of the Polish-speaking citizens nowadays stands only at 16.1% based on the last census. Furthermore, they entered into negotiations with the Czech Interior Ministry to introduce bilingual documents as e.g. birth, marriage and death certificates. (19)

4.3 Media

Broadcasting media and language-related regulations have a strong impact on the life of persons belonging to minorities. (20) While members of minorities have freedom of access to the media, at the same time, the broadcasters (21) have the right, guaranteed by law, to broadcast their programmes freely and independently. Therefore, interference with these broadcasters is only permitted on the basis of the law and within its limits.

The Law on Czech Television of 1991 (22) (CT) states that among the main tasks of CT is the creation and transmission of programmes and the provision of a balanced selection of programmes to all sections of the population with regard to their ethnic or national background and national identity and the development of the cultural identity of the population of the Czech Republic, including members of national minorities. But in practice, minority languages are still not used in public television. Because of the severe criticism by representatives of national minorities, the Council of Government for National Minorities launched initiatives for the improvement of co-operation between CT and national minorities.

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