Last week saw one of the biggest gatherings of Czechs abroad in Prague. Organised by Charles University, with the support of the City of Prague and the Foreign Ministry, hundreds of Czechs who have migrated to other countries were invited to meet and discuss current relations with their country of origin. It was a full week of exhibitions, seminars, lunches, and discussion forums all concentrating on topics involving Czechs abroad - from light issues such as architecture and film, to more complicated topics like the restitution of property and citizenship. It is the latter that triggered much heated debate as many of those who left Communist Czechoslovakia are still not able to acquire back their Czech citizenship - over thirteen years after the fall of the communists.
Senator Jitka Seitlova who chairs the Senate Committee for Czechs Abroad explains:
"The current law stipulates that any Czech citizen who adopts citizenship of another country immediately loses his Czech citizenship. Only a specific group of people can enjoy dual citizenship - those who left Czechoslovakia during the totalitarian regime between the years 1948 and 1990 can apply for Czech citizenship. In the case when a child is born to a Czech citizen who is abroad, the right to dual citizenship is divided into two periodical categories. The first applies to all children born before 1993. At that time it was required by law that parents apply for their child's Czech citizenship within six months after it was born. If they failed to do so, the child no longer had the right to become a Czech citizen. In 1993, a new law was adopted, according to which any child born to a Czech abroad from January 1 1993 automatically received Czech citizenship. In any other case, the Czech Republic does not recognise dual citizenship."
In other words, those of Czech origin who are currently living abroad can only acquire Czech citizenship if they were persecuted by a totalitarian government between the years 1948-1990 or have one parent with Czech citizenship - but that's if they were born after January 1st 1993. If they were born before 1993, they can wave good-bye to Czech citizenship if their parents did not apply for it within six months after birth. But many parents point out that this information was kept from them at the time, leaving them with a child who has Czech citizenship and others who have not because they were born before 1993. And what about those who were Czechs but then got married to a foreigner, moved away and had to adopt the citizenship of another country to be able to work, get health insurance and so on?
"My name is Andrea Nimmerfrohova and I have come here from Italy because my husband is Italian. I have been living in Italy since 1990, for thirteen years."
Why have you decided to come to this conference today?
"Because I would like to speak about Czechs who are living abroad."
And what is one of the biggest problems that you are facing at the moment?
"Citizenship is the biggest problem. In 1991, when I married my husband, I immediately asked for Italian citizenship. It was possible two have two citizenships and that is why I asked for the Italian one. Then in 1993, I got the Italian citizenship but the Czech law had changed in the meantime and I didn't know about it. I didn't know that there was a new law that said it was impossible to have two citizenships from the Czech side. So I lost my Czech citizenship."
So does that mean that you only have the Italian one now?
"Yes. I only have the Italian citizenship now."
But you still have family here in the Czech Republic...
"Yes, sure. I have two children who both speak Czech very well and they also feel half Czech and half Italian. They spent a lot of time here in the Czech Republic. Paradoxically, one of them has Czech and Italian citizenship and the other can only be an Italian citizen because he was born after I lost my Czech citizenship. It's impossible!"
If you're confused and think that the current law on Czech citizenship is somewhat unjust, you're not the only one. Many say it is due to a certain lack of will on the part of Czech politicians to be forthcoming to those who leave the country, a kind of punishment to everyone who left for whatever reason. Senator Seitlova:
"While you may find the current law to be unjust, they think it is fair. I disagree with this and believe that any one who was Czech in the past should have the right to be so for the rest of his life, should he decide otherwise. I think those politicians who have been blocking dual citizenship do so because they feel it is some sort of a privilege to be granted Czech citizenship."
But according to Jiri Karas from the sub-committee of parliament's foreign committee for relations with Czechs abroad, the arguments against dual citizenship, such as it causing problems regarding military service, or health insurance, can no longer be made and therefore the requirements of Czechs abroad can now be met:
"You see, after 1989 politicians had completely different tasks on their minds. Don't forget that they had to concentrate on the transformation of the economy and the entire legal system. That was followed by preparations for EU membership when they had to change a whole lot of new laws. So, they were focused on these things and whatever wasn't absolutely necessary was repeatedly delayed. I think that now the time has finally come when this problem can and should be solved. We are currently stuck in this waiting period, as we're about to join the European Union. We therefore have to be patient as we need to prepare a completely new concept for Czech citizenship. All of this, of course is linked with EU membership. Whoever will have Czech citizenship will also be an EU citizen so we have to bear this in mind while we're working on this new concept."