Written by: Petr Poledňák
Photo by: Vojtěch Vlk
As the Czech General Consul in New York, he lived through the nerve-wracking aftermath of 9/11. After coming home to Ústí nad Labem, he helped build ramparts against the floods. Two months later he was elected Lord Mayor of the city.
People in this country are generally allergic to the experiences of outsiders. How does one become Lord Mayor of a city where he hasn’t lived in ten years and who spent five years overseas?
Sometime before the end of my term in New York members of the Ústí nad Labem ODS leadership asked me to run for Lord Mayor. I think it was because of some of my statements on improving the city’s safety and economic prosperity. I was inspired by how Mayor Giuliani had managed to totally change New York’s image, and I spoke about it constantly.
You used the motto “zero tolerance“, which you borrowed from Giuliani, in your election campaign. But do New York and Ústí nad Labem have any similarities?
You can’t compare them, but they share many similar issues. The main problem was safety, the general feeling of uncertainty – drug dealers in the streets, constant disruptions and petty crime, many people living on social support for years. This had a very negative impact on the city’s image. Giuliani came up with a zero tolerance policy, sometimes also called the broken window policy. According to this theory, it is necessary to deal firmly with any disruptions of the public order, because one must create an atmosphere in which the interests of honest citizens supersede criminal behavior. New York was the “capital of crime and social support“, and the same could be said of Ústí. From the very start I strived to restore a feeling of safety among the citizenry.
Nowhere else in the world do so many nationalities and races coexist as in New York. While you were there, what did you think of “your Ústí“ entering world history with its unique Matiční Wall, which your predecessor built to separate “white“ homeowners from Roma neighbors?
Ethnically, Ústí is one of the most complex cities in this country, but it has never had true racism or racially motivated crimes. The Matiční affair was always about local order and coexistence of socially different citizen groups. Cases when a certain quarter deteriorates because socially weak and problematic citizens start moving there for some reason are universal. The original residents can either leave under conditions when their property cannot realistically be sold, or demand that the city restore order. This was the case of the residents of Matiční, where conditions were worsened by an influx of families whose rents were in arrears. So City Hall decided to separate the two groups somehow – with a fence, or a wall.
Not everyone knows that Ústí is marvelously scenic, lying in a dramatic canyon of the Labe. But everyone knows that Ústí was devastated by industry and has a “special demographic mix of residents“. Do you have a good solution that’s more than a political proclamation?
Ústí will never be able to compete with picturesque, historical cities. The bombing at the end of the war and the razing of the center by the communists caused irreparable damage. Now we’re trying to gradually rebuild the center, but we want to do it sensitively, and we place great requirements on investors, so it isn’t going as quickly as we’d like. But Ústí’s beauty was always that it provided opportunities to those who dared to come. They usually reached positions in their work that they would have had to wait far longer for where they came from. Interesting countryside by itself cannot attract specialists, but it can serve as a factor in deciding when opportunities arise. Most of those people lead active lives, and the possibility of biking to the mountains in twenty minutes can also be important to them.
Decide about what opportunities specifically?
Foreign investors are coming, and thanks to our EU accession and the new highway to Germany, the city is starting to develop as a true regional center. Ústí is now associated with global companies like Kone, Arcelor, and Black and Decker. Serious talk is beginning about a 100-hectare zone by the highway, near the border, to provide space for light industry, research and development, and logistics.
But what about Spolchemie, which constantly brings the city negative publicity? None of the Lord Mayors have succeeded in moving the factory outside the city’s “walls“. What’s your solution?
Spolchemie occupies dozens of hectares near the city center. Eliminating it would mean not only the loss of jobs, it would mainly leave a vast polluted area, and no one could afford a clean-up. I support a solution whereby operations that pose a danger to the city are phased out, and investments are gradually made in new technologies. Already the production program is based mainly on the modern production of resins. Hardly anyone knows that their laminated boats or windsurfing boards can be made with substances made in Ústí.
The Ústí region lies in the former Sudetenland. The issue of the expulsions and the Beneš decrees live on. Does this directly effect you?
It’s little-known that Ústí residents were holdouts in their inclination towards Henlei-nism, and that Ústí’s Lord Mayor Pölzl was known for his anti-fascist positions. We all agree that the tragic aspects of our common history can’t be lived down. We must discuss them and stress the positive things through which we affected each other. An investigation is slated to be conducted by a new institution whose working name is Collegium Bohemicum.
You’re also the ODS shadow minister for regional development. People follow the work of the real ministers every day in the media, but they don’t know much about the shadow ministers. How would you describe your “shadow“ work?
The shadow government’s main task is preparing conceptual materials in individual areas of public life for potential use instead of current government policy. In most cases the issues are complex and thus not as attractive for the media as individual scandals or powerful proclamations. But I’m glad that there’s time to thoroughly discuss individual problems in the shadow government. It’s simple to say what I don’t want, but proposing realistic solutions is more complicated. But you’re right, people should know more about the shadow ministers.
In the 2006 elections at the latest you’ll be facing your next crossroads in life: to continue in community politics, or shift to politics at the highest level.
That question is premature. I have lots of work ahead in Ústí. But entering national politics wouldn’t be anything new for me – in the early nineties I had a chance to try it. I know that some things can’t be changed without influencing central politics. I’ll just have to weigh all the arguments.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
My whole life I have been used to taking opportunities as they come, not to plan life in five-year-terms. So in ten years – at least I hope – I will still be doing something good and meaningful.
How would you describe yourself?
An optimist who accepts challenges.
How would you want people to remember you?
As someone who took things serously and who managed to do at least part of he set out to do.