Monsoon season in Ostrava

By July 22, 2009Article, Atlantic Eye

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic, July 22 (UPI) — Nineteen years after communism’s demise, the Czech Republic is mostly a model of success. Still, many in the Prague political classes are less interested in public policy than in their own political legacy. A Social Democratic mayor in the Moravian-Silesian Region and the conservative regional governor are good examples of political cooperation across party lines and thinking out of the box.

A big problem facing the Czech Republic, as with many new economies, is brain drain. Universities are still filled with many academics whose sole academic merit is having been a member of the Communist Party. For a long time, the brightest students saw no reason to hang around, and they up and went to attend universities elsewhere. Other young people were enticed to leave their home countries by offers of high salaries in more developed economies. However, despite the reality of the former nomenklatura dominating too many segments of the economy, change is afoot.

Under the leadership of Lord Mayor Petr Kajnar, the city of Ostrava has been actively doing something about this. Ostrava has long been associated with coal, mining, energy and pollution. A city of some 350,000 — the third-largest in the Czech Republic — Ostrava is 10 miles from the Polish border and 35 miles from Slovakia. It is 250 miles west of the capital, Prague.

Before World War II, Ostrava was one of Europe’s principal coal-producing areas. It was wealthy — a mixture of Czechs and Germans; Jews, Catholics and Protestants lived here. The Rothschilds were among the leading property owners in the area. The various communities got along well enough. Then came Nazism, the loss of the Jewish community and the subsequent banishment of the Germans under the Benes decrees.

The communists were happy to have Ostrava be the “Iron Heart of Czechoslovakia,” polluted and dirty — and the emblem of the communist worker ideal. In the early days of communism, workers were housed in grandly designed buildings. Later, older German and Moravian villas would be knocked down in favor of hideous cheap panelaks (high-rise blocks).

I had a three-hour conversation with Mayor Kajnar, the 1st International School of Ostrava’s Executive Director Brett Gray, the Prague Society’s Barbara Day and the Ostrava-based Irish business leader Jason Fitzgerald. We covered many issues relating to today’s Czech Republic. Despite some strong critiques, all were hopeful for the future.

The mayor is a business-friendly Social Democrat and is keen on seeing investments in the region. He is not much rewarded for his hard work. In the Czech Republic, almost all taxes are collected for the government in Prague. It in turn redistributes the taxes according to population base rather than as a share of GDP produced — a highly de-motivating system. The Moravian-Silesian Region has often felt it does not get its fair share. Many other regions complain that too much hard-earned tax money ends up in Prague coffers to pay for the pet projects and political interests of the capital.

The mayor acknowledges the transition from communism to free markets has been a hard fight. “Even 20 years on, there is enormous work to be done,” he says with a sigh. But he is proud of the transformation of Ostrava. The coal mines are now closed, and thanks to cooperation with Ostrava’s partner city Pittsburgh and the Carnegie-Mellon Foundation, strides have been made toward diversifying the local economy. In just four years the region has seen $3 billion in foreign direct investment.

Brett Gray has witnessed many changes since he first arrived in 1991. Hailing from a Canadian-U.S. family, he was teaching English when he realized he did not readily understand the complicated historical relationship of the area. He wanted to foster change.

He reminded me of the story of the grandfather who was born in Ostrava in 1915 in the monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, first voted in the independent democracy of Czechoslovakia, served against his will in Hitler’s Nazi army under the annexed protectorate of Bohmen und Mahren (Bohemia and Moravia), and then suffered for it under the communist Soviet-controlled regime, only to live out his days in a newborn Czech Republic. Such is the complicated history of the region.

Gray continues to struggle with the Czech Ministry of Education, a nest of former apparatchiks to this very day. As more global companies arrive, there is a need to hire workers who can communicate in a language other than Czech. Hyundai is building a modern plant just a few miles from the Ostrava city center. Bang & Olufsen has its first factory outside Denmark here. Indian companies have invested in the region. I crossed paths with India’s Ambassador D.P. Srivastava. “A nice area,” he said.

Jason Fitzgerald summed it up nicely: “I have had to work hard to find staff that will provide service with a smile, and brave enough to communicate with clients from abroad in English. There is incredible opportunity here, but there is still a steep learning curve for the service industry to go through.”

Evan Tosenovsky, the regional governor, has seen his region change dramatically. Just seven years ago unemployment was at 18 percent. Ostrava, within the European Union, has become a strong investment market on the border of Poland and Slovakia. At 6 feet 6 inches, this tall man has a soft soul. He is also one of the most respected and powerful leaders in the Czech Republic.

On a weekend when the annual outdoor Colors of Ostrava International Music Festival was taking place, golf-ball-sized hail struck from the skies in weather more akin to Thailand. The 20,000 fans of this mini mud-soaked Glastonbury didn’t seem to mind much.

I was startled at the weather, and the remarkable changes in a region I had passed through, but not visited, for 20 years.

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society for international cooperation.)