Czech Republic

The anatomy of Czech Right. Who beat up the homeless in Mladá Boleslav?

Vaclav Drozd visits Mladá Boleslav to see, why did a politician who is strongly against foreigners win the election.

I can still remember well how depressed I felt when I was passing by the wall of the Škoda factory for the first time on my way to the bus station in Mladá Boleslav. To the right you could see the staff entrance, to the left – the grey cube of the Bondy shopping centre with a small station pub. A drunk man was staggering outside the pub, talking to me in poor Czech with a strong Ukrainian accent. I offered him a cigarette and asked what he was doing in Boleslav. He took out his Škoda employee badge saying he had just been fired. Now he was living on the streets, without any clue what to do with himself. He was considering trying his luck in another city or going back home to Ukraine. A few hundred meters further away there was a road running across the fenced factory area going to the municipal cemetery. You can find graves of mostly Škoda workers and their families there. Constantly growing factory floors have gradually surrounded the entire cemetery and soon they will probably absorb it. The concrete wall with a cross was leaning against the newly developed paint shop that was promising a couple of hundreds of new jobs on one hand, but on the other hand – most operations would be performed by robots anyway.

Mladá Boleslav, Photo by Petr Zewlak Vrabec

A few months later, just after municipal and Senate elections I revisited Mladá Boleslav to see, why Raduan Nwelati won here again: a politician who is strongly against foreigners and supports municipal police convicted for harassing the homeless.

You wanna work? Stick to the rules!

“In the past two years the safety dropped. The reason is the influx of foreign workers who come to work for Škoda and are employed by agencies. The blue collars are often dismissed, they then stay in Boleslav, turn homeless, do drugs” says, sipping his coffee, an active member of the local division of the Civic Democratic Party (Občanská demokratická strana, ODS), who wished to remain anonymous. He gave me an interview without the consent of his party fellow member, mayor Nwelati. He is concerned that an interview for a leftist paper might turn against him. We meet so that I can better understand why people such as himself actively support the strongest right wing party that tries to attract voters with ideological mixture of individualism, conservatism, and – most recently – also with the more and more raucous opposition to migrants.

“In order to save money as many as ten people share one apartment. They mess, they go drinking all the time” the politician says insisting that this is how the locals perceive foreign workers in the town.

Other people in Boleslav tell the same story, claiming that the town is not prepared to welcome the inflow of new inhabitants.

“In Kosmonosy, where I live, you can see social problems with the naked eye. Blue collars who don’t work, drink a lot. This is why the locals are becoming more and more radical, they respond to simple messages. Drugs are another problem. Meth is the part of the daily life in the factory, I know a person who sells drugs there” claims Bára who has lived in Boleslav all her life and works for an insurance company.

Mayor Nwelati offered the voters an uncompromising solution and started his summer election campaign with the claim Boleslav for Boleslavians. Here is what you could find in his programme: “Zero tolerance for foreigners. You want to work here? Stick to the rules! Otherwise, you are not welcome!” In October elections he secured the mayor’s office for the fourth time. He also succeeded in the Senate elections.

“I think he used the wrong words. And I believe he was misunderstood by many. He personally does not mind foreigners. He only minds that they make a mess of this place and destroy everything that ODS has been building for twelve years and that he deserves most of the credit for” a fellow party member comments on the mayor’s campaign. He also does not agree with the claim that the mayor resorted to the rhetoric of hate in his campaign. “Recently he even declared that the town would be happy to welcome migrants, provided they were specialists and would not make all the mess. ODS is not a xenophobic party, we don’t see eye to eye with Okamura, all we want is safety.”

Safety is the key issue emphasized by ODS both locally and nationally, and the municipal elections demonstrated well that the party appealed to the voters for whom otherwise the openly xenophobic SPD of Tomio Okamura would be the alternative choice. Okamura’s party lost in the municipal elections. The voters held them accountable for their lack of action in the parliament.

Not the centre, but rather extreme right

ODS, on the other hand, in the last municipal elections confirmed its position of the hegemonic rightist power and of the strongest opposition party for ANO of Andrej Babiš. Thanks to the head of the party, Petr Fiala, who brings to mind a political sciences professor, they successfully pose as a liberal European right wing party. Personal changes in the steering committee only enhanced the impression that the party “cleared itself” of its dubious past. What past one has in mind? Under the government of Mirek Topolánek and then Petr Nečas ODS became the symbol for clientelism and corruption on all levels to the sound of constantly repeated mantra about the need of savings and cuts. This is the party that launched transformation of the Czech economy in 1990s and significantly contributed to the fact that the principle of excluding everything alien – Roma, the poor, the homeless, migrants, became an essential ingredient in politics. The founder of ODS, former president Václav Klaus, together with his son, Václav Klaus Jr. today are one of the main representatives of the ultraconservative right – he actively supports restricting minority rights and denies the existence of any climate change.

ODS today is still closer to the rightist pole of the Czech political scene rather than its centre. It was well demonstrated by the speech delivered by Petr Fiala during the last party convention: “We are on the fast track to the collapse of our social system. Not only us, but Europe as a whole, at a different speed. You cannot maintain a welfare state in the current format, when there is less and less of us and when we substitute the need to have children with the influx of workers from other cultures who do not want or cannot integrate with us. (…) We need to adjust and limit our social policies. And we need to start with those who don’t need social benefits, and abuse them at the same time.” In the past ODS used to fight mainly against losers, who could not catch up with the high pace of the society, while today they openly stand against the foreigners and the poor.

Mayor Raduan Nwelati

The mayor of Mladá Boleslav, Raduan Nwelati, also represents the ultra-rightwing ODS. Last year his name was all over media because of the court case of two municipal police officers, Roučka and Bělský, who systematically tortured physically and psychologically the homeless in Mladá Boleslav.

This was why I came here for the first time in autumn last year. I witnessed up close what the party politics looks like when their declarations of expelling foreigners and socially vulnerable people were put into action. Two days before the main hearing Nwelati awarded one of the defendants with a medal for his ten years of loyal service to the municipality. The municipality even paid the attorney fee for the indicted officers and they were regularly employed as monitoring system operators until the sentence was given. In court they received the support from the chief of the municipal police, Tomáš Kypta, who was also an ODS candidate in the elections. The officers were self-confident, they did not plead guilty until they were sentenced and they complained about insufficient competencies the municipal police can execute with respect to the homeless. An ODS member that I interviewed about the case was absolutely terror-stricken by the violence of the officers and denied that they were expelling the homeless based on any political instructions.

Social city cleansing

The witness I visited in autumn last year in hospital, where he was being treated for longterm injuries after he had been attacked by the municipal police, recounted how they threw him, drunk, into the Jizera river. In his wet clothes he then had to somehow hobble down back to the town and suffered frostbites in his legs. One was later amputated, the other would never recover. They also took him repeatedly with their car out of town, took his shoes and told him to go back barefoot. The humiliation and physical brutal bullying was their way to pacify the rebelling homeless, who kept coming back to the banned spot in the town centre.

The spot by the Jizera river weir where the policemen would throw in the homeless. Photo by Petr Zewlak Vrabec

When asked about the root causes of the problems with the municipal police, he insisted that “They would attack the foreigners the most, they especially hated the Poles. The Poles would always take a beating. The police would drive them out to the forest and kick them around. They would leave them there, take their clothes and shoes away. They would beat them up for example for drinking alcohol on a bench. They were agency employed foreigners and the agencies abused them. Many were fired from Škoda, some of them asked for this, others did not, but they could not even afford a ticket back home, so they remained here. The town hall decided to have a purge. But then they completely blew off the foreigners and decided to have a go at us.”

Allegedly in the past they tried to report their brutality to proper municipal police authorities, but the effect was opposite than intended. Reportedly as the result of the complaints the assaults only escalated.

The case had also an unpleasant epilogue for the LUMA MB organization that offers free assistance to crime victims. First the assaulted people came to the social worker, Martina Brzobohatá, who advised them to file a report about the crime with the police. Defenders of the municipal policemen claimed before the court that the social worker schemed with the homeless against the defendants in order to have her share in the compensation for damages. Martina Brzobohatá repeatedly commented on the case in the media. The town hall turned their back on the organization, even though until then they supported the operations of their counselling centre with one hundred thousand korunas a year.

“This year we are not getting a dime from the town hall. As I understand, this is because our organization helped the homeless assaulted by the municipal police, their case was reviewed by the police and ended up in court” explained the social worker who claims that it was the deputy mayor Zdeňka Veškrnová from ODS who targeted her organization. Before the October vote in the town hall regarding the financial support for social services the politician responsible for the social policy referred to the organization saying that “After the year-long monitoring of Ms. Brzobohata actions I move for awarding Luma organization the funds from the budget in the total amount of zero korunas.”

Martina Brzobohatá, the social worker who helped assaulted homeless. Photo by Petr Zewlak Vrabec

Repression instead of social work

According to the head of the local centre of Naděje (a charity NGO that, based on Christian principles, helps people in need, the homeless, the lonely, the handicapped, the socially excluded), Tadeáš Hrabovský, in order to understand local tensions you need to have a closer look at the policy of the Škoda factory: “In the last couple of years the number of foreigners in Mladá Boleslav, coming to work in Škoda from Poland or Slovakia, has been rapidly growing. They are employed by agencies that operate here in large numbers. Some foreigners don’t get a job, others quickly lose it. Even the town hall decided that the agencies are the real issue here and that they are responsible for the homelessness” he admits and adds that “The workers’ hostels for foreigners are also highly problematic. We had reports of many instances when the foreigners claimed these places were impossible to live in and they rather moved out. A lot of people stay in a single room, it is all very messy. The foreigners often end up on the street for a while, until they find a better place to stay.”

Head of the Naděje branch, Tadeáš Hrabovský. Photo by Petr Zewlak Vrabec

Lucie Ditrychová, an NGO social worker from the Centre for Integration of Foreigners (Centrum pro integraci cizinců, CIC) who runs a counselling centre for the migrants, says “A huge problem is that there is not enough accommodation options for people coming to work here. Rents are comparable to those in Prague. It is virtually impossible to find a place to stay. It happens quite often that people share flats in large groups. Although agencies provide accommodation for their employees, the employees still have to pay for a bed as much as 200 euros” Ditrychová explains. At the same time she challenges the claim that the workers pose a serious safety threat, so extensively discussed by the municipality representatives: “I think that Boleslav is one of the safest towns in general. The municipal police operates in such a way that nobody would dare to do anything there. What we are dealing with is at worst littering in public places, disorder or squabbles committed by foreign workers in their free time.”

When asked if the town allocates enough funds for social services that could help introduce a systematic solution to the problems above, she claims that “In Mladá Boleslav repressive solutions prevail, however, there are some social services available for these people. But there is not enough of them.

Where does the money go?

When you look at this year’s city budget of Mladá Boleslav it becomes clear why despite above average earnings and visible prosperity of its inhabitants, who are largely employed in the successful car factory, the social problems are still experienced to such extent. From the total budget of 1.2 billion CZK the town allocated just a little over 26 million CZK, i.e. 2 percent to the Social Affairs Department. From this pool the city is funding eighteen organizations providing all sorts of social services for clients with various needs, from drug addicts to the blind. The LUMA MB counselling centre and intervention centre were not included in this year’s budget. The only organization focusing on assistance to foreign workers in Boleslav is the already mentioned Centre for Integration of the Foreigners whose clinic is open only on Mondays from 10 a.m. till 4 p.m.

“We provide specialised services in the area of social counselling, we meet with foreigners, but usually it is the workers of Naděje or town hall representatives who come to us asking us to address the problem of foreigners. These are usually people without a roof. We provide some basic assistance: food and clothes” Lucie Ditrychová, CIC operational director describes provided services.

The municipality used to fund the operations of this organization with 50 thousand CZK. Local politicians feel that it is not only the foreigners who are the problem, but also the homeless people. According to official municipal police estimates last year there were 169 people living on the streets of Mladá Boleslav (in 2016 it was reportedly only 30, which means an increase by 560%).  The only organization providing assistance to these people is the local branch of Naděje that only offers 16 beds in their shelter. This year they received 560 thousands CZK from the city budget. Another 150 thousands CZK is to be invested in a tent that will serve as a shelter for the homeless during in the sharpest frost.

A low-threshold Naděje center in Mladá Boleslav. Photo by Petr Zewlak Vrabec

For comparison: annual operational expenses of the municipal police amount to 41 million  CZK (excluding equipment and motor vehicles), which represents 3% of the budget. The city will spend 15 thousand CZK more on its CCTV system than on funding social services by Naděje. Also Mladá Boleslav employs the so called safe city assistants for roughly 4 million CZK, who patrol the town unarmed in high-visibility vests. One of them during a short interview explained the rationale behind his work: “We are the ears and the eyes of the police. Our goal is to clean the town of the homeless. We deal mainly with beggars, the stink and the alcohol in the streets.

In Mladá Boleslav the repression apparatus is financed way better than social services, however, as a result the reported criminality is rising, together with the number of people in need, still, there is nobody who can help them. The municipal police can never substitute social work, they deal with the problems in their own way, which is later extensively covered by the town hall media. On Mladá Boleslav facebook page municipal police describes their intervention as follows: “On Tuesday (16 Oct.) at 20.35 hrs municipal police officers were inspecting the area behind the Dr. Pírek Clinic, where, according to the statement of citizens, somebody allegedly put up a tent. Municipal police officers found three male foreign citizens on site.  Upon verification of their identity it was established that they were persons sought by the police. The men informed the officers that they are employed by an employment agency and are waiting for a place in the workers’ hostel. The officers instructed the men to remove the tent the following day when the next inspection would be conducted.”

Pulling in the same direction

When asked about the reasons why people vote for a party with such a controversial leader as Raduan Nwelati, an ODS member recites a list of investments: “The town receives large funding used for dynamic development. We have just finished the swimming pool, we renewed our beautiful old town with an underground car park. We are fixing pavements, there are many sports fields. The town operates well, so I am surprised that despite all this still many people voted for ANO.”

The municipal authorities invest a lot, especially in transport infrastructure, which is also due to the pressures from Škoda and their subcontractors, for whom properly repaired roads to the factory are a priority. When asked if the car factory contributes sufficiently to the municipal budget, he said that “Škoda has become more cooperative, however, they contribute mainly to projects than eventually bring them some benefits. This means infrastructure, roads or parking places.”

This year the company announced that they will establish a development fund that by 2020 is going to invest 750 million CZK, however, they reserved the right to decide what the money will be spent on. Municipality authorities have been mentioning in general the development of new apartments for workers and increased investments in the social area, nevertheless, we still have to wait for the specifics of the expense plan.

Photo by Petr Zewlak Vrabec

The old authorities managed to succeed again in the elections also thanks to the passive opposition who is suffering blows from the broad coalition of parties led by ODS. After the elections they have 29 out of 33 representatives. The opposition is now composed of mainly communists, one Christian Democratic Union member and one Green Party lady politician. Also the representatives managed to mobilize the voters by systematically pointing to people causing public disturbance and by interventions of municipal police against these people. The case of harassment of the homeless by the municipal police did not affect much neither the voters in Mladá Boleslav, nor the political opponents. It seems however that the main reason for the ongoing success of ODS are their massive construction projects funded from the generous budget. Such expenses allow the town authorities under Nwelati to maintain the political consensus regarding the directions of city development.