They Ain’t Digging It

With Mining’s Extinction, Ostrava Faces Identity Crisis

By Madeleine Overturf

The decline of coal mining in the city of Ostrava, a fifteen-minute drive from the Polish border, is spurring concerns for the livelihood of the one million residents who live in the region.

Although it was once the mining capital of the Czech Republic, today not a single industrial plant exists within Ostrava’s city limits. Shut down smokestacks loom over the town, a decrepit reminder of an economic failure. Experts worry ethnic tensions in the city, already high, will skyrocket due to high unemployment rates.

Unrefined coal is a key resource for Ostrava’s once booming steel industry. Photo courtesy of ________

Unrefined coal is a key resource for Ostrava’s once booming steel industry.
Photo courtesy of 123rf.com

Earlier this month, New World Resources announced its plans to shut down the Paskov coal mine, one of the largest employers in the Moravian-Silesian region, eight miles from the city’s center. This closure will immediately cut at least 2,500 jobs, affecting nearly ten times more in a ripple effect, adding to Ostrava’s current unemployment rate of 20%.

“It’s a very scary thing for us,” said lifelong city resident George Danielse, a waiter at Ostrava’s U Kocova Bar. “The factory shuts down, that’s 20,000 jobs; it’s very scary.”

Further contributing to this fear is the population’s realization that the global demand for coal is declining.

“The industrial era is closed,” said Karolina Ryckova, 24, a tour guide at the Vitkovice steel mill. Ryckova sees Ostrava moving in a different direction on a daily basis as Vitkovice — once Ostrava’s largest ironworks — is now rebranded as a memorial park. “We cannot mine into this century,” she added.

While residents know that Ostrava must change, no immediate solution exists. Some refer to an influx of IT jobs and Ostrava’s recent appointment as the European City of Sports for 2014 as signs of hope, but neither have had an immediate effect on the staggering unemployment rates.

“The next five years will decide whether the city can survive or not.”

This has drawn out fierce anger among the population, calling for a government initiative to sort out the city’s woes. But in Ostrava, some project their frustrations onto the country’s largest minority, the Roma.

In addition to nine official anti-Roma protests this year alone — many gathering close to one thousand supporters — the Czech Republic has had over 48 violent attacks against Roma in the past four years. The most noteworthy case occurred in 2009 in Vitkov, an Ostrava suburb, when Neo-Nazis set fire to a Roma household, nearly killing two-year old Natalka Kudrikova. The toddler lost two fingers and 80% of her skin due to the attack.

As Moravians rely more on social services, they view the Roma — also referred to as Gypsies — as beggars poaching precious government aid. “They fight with Roma for resources, which are distributed by the state,” said Salim Murad, a professor of political science at the University of South Bohemia. The Roma’s proximity to frustrated Ostravans makes them a target, even though they’re not involved with the mine closures. “The Roma live in your neighborhood—the Prague politicians live somewhere sky high.”

Politicians like former Ostrava mayor Liama Janackova add to this rhetoric by publicly stating her desire to throw a grenade into Roma settlements. Janackova’s political party, Hlavu Vzhuru (Chin Up), also currently boasts an Anti-Roma billboard proclaiming “Stop Discrimination of Law-Abiding Citizens.” The party, one of 23 on the upcoming special elections ballot, includes former Czech president Vaclav Klaus among its supporters. According to political analysts, Hlavu Vzhuru’s chances of success are high in border regions like Moravia-Silesia, where Czech nationalism is pervasive.

Meanwhile, residents are wondering what can replace the city’s industrial base.

The bleak beyond.
Photo by Petr Josek, courtesy of http://www.wsj.com

“The next five years will decide whether the city can survive or not,” said Dominika Saktorová, an Ostrava university student. “This is the effect of the industrial system.”

Ostrava’s survival is unclear, however a rocky transitional period is inevitable. With poverty and fear running the city, citizens anxiously anticipate what happens next. “I don’t want to tell you we are before a revolution,” said Ryckova. “But it happens.”

Madeleine Overturf is in the NYU Tisch class of 2014. Her hometown is Anchorage, Alaska.

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Categories: Fall 2013 Issue Number 2, News

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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