Nicolas Dirda, a Roma man, was stabbed to death on June 10 on a tram in the Czech Republic as he travelled to a firework display at a lake just outside the country’s second city, Brno.
The murder sparked angry protests among the Roma, a significant minority who number about 250,000 in the country of 10.5 million.
Media reports pinned the murder on a Ukrainian person without any confirmation from police authorities.
Powered by rumour and fake claims of further crimes, a series of confrontations has followed. Roma are clashing with members of the group of 350,000 or so Ukrainian refugees that the Czech Republic has taken in since Russia’s President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Roma activists and government officials have called for the rejection of collective guilt, pointing out how the minority itself is victimised by the same process.
“Have we already forgotten the marches against the Roma?” Lucie Fukova, the government commissioner for Roma affairs, asked in an appeal to the community.
But the tension has continued to build.
Multiple episodes of violence and intimidation have been reported as radicalised sections of the Roma community claim that Ukrainian refugees are being handed social housing, benefits and school places that should go to Roma.
The trouble has pushed Prague into action.
“The government acutely acknowledges the urgency and delicacy of the current escalation,” Fukova told Al Jazeera, noting that a working group dedicated to addressing “prejudicial violence” has been launched.
However, she acknowledges that the root cause of the radicalisation of sections of the Roma minority is enduring racial discrimination.
Despite some signs of progress in recent years, a majority of Czechs are still prepared to report (PDF in Czech) disdain for Roma.
This deep racism results in unequal access to housing, education, and jobs, leaving many Roma stuck in squalid ghettos and establishing a vicious circle that helps to confirm the bigotry.
These long-standing issues have helped make the populist political opposition’s narrative – that government support for Ukrainian refugees comes at the cost of locals – potentially potent for some in the community.
“Some Roma resent feeling weaker than the Ukrainians because refugees are generally perceived as a more vulnerable community,” suggests Marketa Kocmanova, an expert on radicalisation at Prague’s Charles University.
Formerly numbering just a few tens of thousands, Ukrainians have also tended to be looked down upon by Czech society. But over the last 18 months, they have become a sizeable cohort and have received much attention.
The disquiet this has brewed has been latched onto by radical Roma activists and social media influencers. The likes of David Mezei have done much to stoke the anger, pumping out claims of knife-wielding Ukrainians who should “go back where they came from”.
“These figures have a huge impact among the most economically deprived sections of the Roma community, which, as in mainstream Czech society, are the most vulnerable to radicalisation,” says Miroslav Broz, a veteran Roma rights campaigner from the nongovernmental organisation Konexe.
But as well as the Roma communities’ own hatemongers, nationalist right-wing and anti-system extremists have sought to exploit the situation.
These groups have long preached hatred against the Roma. But they have decided that, for the meantime at least, Ukrainian refugees are the better target, and so have perversely jumped aboard the bandwagon in a bid to encourage the radicalisation.
Jana Zwyrtek Hamplova, a senator who earlier this year called for Roma children to be placed in segregated schools, has supported the protests. Other extremist activists have turned up mob-handed at Roma events.
They have often been turned away, but Broz suggests a remarkable crossover can be witnessed as some of the more radical gatherings start to adopt the language and symbols of Czech nationalism.
When the minority demonstrates for equality, only the Roma flag is raised. But at the recent anti-Ukrainian events, the Czech flag has featured prominently, while the soundtrack is of slogans such as “we were here first”.
Other actors and levers are also seeking to manipulate the community.
Disinformation networks, which bloomed during the coronavirus pandemic, quickly moved on last year to spread Russian narratives regarding the invasion of Ukraine.
They have turned to churning out hate speech against Ukrainians and broadcasting archived news stories of racist attacks on Roma in Ukraine.
The government’s Fukova refers to “Russian propaganda about alleged Nazism in Ukraine and the purported legitimacy of Russian aggression in Ukraine”.
The tactics appear to be working. Some of the recent Roma demonstrations have featured chants of “Glory to Putin!”
Stressing the sensitivity of the issue, a spokesman for the Security Information Service (BIS) refused to confirm whether the Czech counterintelligence agency has evidence of Russian involvement in radicalising Roma, but noted there is a “large amount of disinformation” involved.
Russian intelligence has form when it comes to the Czech Republic’s Roma issues. During the dark days of the 1990s, Moscow is understood to have supported neo-Nazi skinhead gangs that preyed on the minority. Russian links to the country’s extremist political parties through the years are well-documented.
“We can assume that undercover Russian operations are working to encourage this radicalisation,” asserts Kocmanova. “They know that these divisions are one of Czech society’s weaknesses.”
Illustrating the point, Russia’s foreign ministry recently issued a report labelling discrimination as a “chronic” Czech problem, alongside “Russophobia” and a “destructive foreign policy”.
Moscow will have noted with delight that the tension between Roma and Ukrainian refugees has provoked arguments among senior members of the governing coalition, as some have sought populist gains.
Experts say that many politicians do not understand that while discrimination persists, it will remain a national security risk. But the centre-right government, which was elected on an anti-populist platform, appears unprepared to address the issue.
Some officials have suggested the government will look to raise media education in Roma communities, but Fukova says there are no plans to update wider Roma or refugee policies.
Researchers and activists warn that Czech society must be helped to understand that the real roots of the radicalisation lie not in the minority’s relations with Ukrainian refugees, but in structural racism.
However, they also assert that widespread violence is unlikely to stem from the Roma side, noting that community leaders have moved quickly to oppose the incitement of external forces.
“We’ve never witnessed Roma terrorists,” Kocmanova points out, “even though the community suffers most of the conditions that tend to promote political violence.”