Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Greed Will Tear Us Apart

Stanislav Vojkovsky looks out across acres of fields covered in a quilt of snow in Nošovice, in the eastern hinterlands of the Czech Republic. A few tidy log homes dot the landscape backdropped by the jagged Bezkydy mountains in this idyllic setting. For six generations, the Vojkovskys owned most of these lands, despite a fifty year hiccup under the communists. Until now. The Korean automaker Hyundai was smitten not by Nosovice’s beauty but its location smack dab in Europe and the eager masses there and nearby willing to work for meager wages. The carmaker wants to build a plant here and has managed to convince all the people owning land to sell, including Vojkovsky who held out as long as he could.

Vojkovsky says the fat payout Hyundai offered split the town in two between those willing to sell and those wanting to stay. „The money turned people into hyenas,“ he told the Czech weekly „Respekt. „ We used to all go out for beer, play the harmonica at the bar… now people don’t do anything together anymore,“ he laments.

Vojkovsky, like the other last holdouts, said they gave in after anonymous threats of violence and even death that made the rounds in Nosovice. Many of the threats were uttered in the local drinking hole, ironically named „The Friendship, „ where many of those eager to sell met and vented against their obstinate neighbors.

Bar owner Anna says all that tough talk was nothing more than empty words fueled by lots of beer. Instead of the grimmer side of events, she’d rather talk about the Koreans who were kind, polite and all smiles when they visited her drinking establishment. Plus, she says, the local beer was to their tasting, and they left generous tips. As for who threatened whom, the police say they are investigating, but no one is holding their breathe.

Not everyone in Nosovice is despairing. The eager ones say the money the Koreans offered was just too generous to turn down. Honza Brabec, lives with his father in a home slated for demolition to make way for the car plant. The twenty-year-old has no regrets at all. „We’ll just move and that’s that. The price offered was very fair, „ he told Respekt.

Marie Olsarova also sold right away. She looks on her decision through more altruistic eyes. „There’ll be thousands of new jobs. That plant will simply help a lot of people.“

The town’s mayor, Dana Ticha, says a community spirit fostered over time has forever been destroyed by the dispute. „It’s pretty sad here. Threats and violence are still in the air. People, who were forced to sign [over their land], feel humiliated. People who once trusted one another, now don’t even say hello,“ she explains.

The auto industry has been something of a savior of the Czech economy, accounting for a full fifth of all industrial production and employing more than 200,000 people. So keen was the government to entice the Koreans to Nosovice, it threatened to seize the land of stubborn owners, in a move taken out of the communists‘ playbook. Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek also offered a raft of tax breaks plus promises to build infrastructure for the plant. Critics wonder whether all that public money is worth it, questioning just how many Czechs will get the new jobs. They point out a similar plant in Kolin, about 50 miles east of the capital Prague, has not been the local job bonanza as first promised. Many of the spots at that plant producing cars for Toyota and Peugeot have been filled by Poles and Slovaks. The vice-governor of the Czech national bank, Miroslav Singer, doubts Hyundai or the other car plants here are the key to securing the country’s economic future. Singer says the Czechs aren’t inputting anything other than cheap labor. And he wonders what will happen in ten years, when the Czechs adopt the Euro, and prices rise, including salaries for the workers at Nosovice. In all likelihood, Hyundai and other automakers, will move further east to the cheaper pastures of Bulgaria, Romania or Ukraine. By then, Vojkovsky and others will long have moved on. But for those left in what remains of Nosovice, they may ask if it was all worth it.

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