Ethnic Czechs Seek to Escape Ukraine for Ancestral Home

Czech authorities have received hundreds of requests from ethnic Czechs living in Ukraine to move back to their ancestral homeland so they can escape the conflict with pro-Russian rebels in their current country.

About 270 Ukrainians with Czech roots from across Ukraine, including areas near war-torn Donetsk and Simferopol, the Crimean capital annexed by Russia in March, want to resettle in the Czech Republic, said Vera Dousova, head of the Prague-based Seven Rays association, which monitors ethnic Czechs abroad. Their reasons include frustration with Ukraine’s contracting economy, rising crime rates and fear of being drafted to fight separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions, she said.

“They’re all suffering because their husbands and sons have to fight in the war,” she told Bloomberg in an interview today. “Even those living in western Ukraine are afraid because the entire army and most of the police have been moved east, so crime rates have skyrocketed.”

The requests have provoked a political spat between President Milos Zeman and Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek. Zeman, who has tried to leverage his mostly ceremonial position to have more influence in the country’s foreign policy, supports the repatriation. Zaoralek, whose ruling Social Democrat party has clashed with Zeman, its former head, has met with representatives of ethnic Czechs in Ukraine and says it would be more effective to provide aid locally.

Imperial Russia

Many Czechs moved east into imperial Russia, including Ukraine, two centuries ago after the Czar offered land and guarantees of religious freedom to those willing to settle and bring agricultural know-how to underdeveloped provinces.

There are about 6,000 people with declared Czech origins living in Ukraine today, according to Dousova, who helped resettle ethnic Czechs from the Chernobyl region following the 1986 nuclear disaster, as well as other families in the 1990s. Many communities have maintained knowledge of the Czech language and cultural traditions, she said.

The fighting in Ukraine has both soured ties between the government in Kiev and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government and obscured a clear path for the country to join the European Union and NATO, an ambition Russia opposes. While ethnic Czechs moving to Prague may be seeking a better economic future, they won’t have it easy, Dousova said.

“Those who want to come here are well aware that they’ll have to start from scratch,” she said. “A university-educated teacher can end up washing dishes. They just want to live in peace.”

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