Ostrava braced for huge demonstration as economic decline continues

22-05-2003

The city of Ostrava - capital of the country's northeast Moravia-Silesia region - was bracing itself for a huge demonstration on Thursday, as union members arrived to protest at crippling unemployment and continuing economic decline. The region - once known as the steel heart of Czechoslovakia - employed tens of thousands of people in heavy industry before 1989. Today, the industrial giants are on their knees, and the people of Ostrava say they've been left on the scrapheap. The figures seem to back that up: more than 100,000 people are now out of work, in a region of 1.2 million. Petr Vanek is the head of the governor's office of the Moravia-Silesia region.

Trade unions, Ostrava, photo: CTKTrade unions, Ostrava, photo: CTK "The main problem is based on the fact that industry was concentrated in several extremely large companies. And when I say extremely large, before 1989 companies such as Vitkovice, Nova Hut and the mining company OKD had over 20,000 employees each. So the problems of the giants cause giant problems. Those big companies are going through big problems and this is the effect."

Obviously many post-Communist countries have had similar problems across the region, and the governments have tried to tackle those problems. I've spoken to many people from the Ostrava region, and they claim that the politicians in Prague have simply forgotten about them - that they've just left the whole Ostrava region on the scrapheap. Is that a justified complaint?

"I must add my voice to others saying this. It's definitely like they say, yes."

The present government is dominated by the Social Democrats, and you are a member of the opposition Civic Democrats. The people demonstrating today are angry not only at the Social Democrats, but also at your party - they say that when the Civic Democrats were in power, they too completely forgot about the whole Ostrava region. Do you think your party really cares any more than the Social Democrats about what happens to Ostrava?

"Well you can see increasing care and attention paid to the Ostrava region by the Civic Democrats now they're in opposition. And it's logical, because of the [relationship between] government and opposition. But it's a bitter statement, and I have to confirm this, that when the Civic Democrats were in government, they also did not pay much more attention to this region than the Social Democrats are doing. It's obvious: the government is trying to use an equal approach to all the regions around the country, not recognising the fact that the region and its problems simply needs more."

Do you think anything will change after today's demonstration? Do you think the government in Prague will finally realise the magnitude of this problem?

"That's what all the participants of this demonstration hope for, that the government and the parliament will read correctly the message sent by this demonstration, which the trade unions say is just the beginning of a massive avalanche of similar events. We do hope the government will understand what the message is."

22-05-2003