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Are Prague's Russian Souvenirs Just A Front For Money Laundering?

Traditional Russian nesting dolls, or matryoshkas.

Traditional Russian nesting dolls, or matryoshkas.

The influential Czech weekly "Respekt" has taken a hard look (in English here) at why the heart of Prague is still filled with shops hawking Russian and Soviet tchotchke and faux memorabilia, long after appetite appears to have dwindled for such glimpses into the former Soviet Union.

What on earth has become of Prague's coronation route, known as the Royal Way, the paper wants to know.

It is tempting to regard the question as an uncharacteristic traipse into xenophobic territory, harnessing Czech bitterness over treatment at the hands of the Soviet Union and the more recent presence of conspicuously affluent Russians in the capital and in resort areas like Karlovy Vary.

Except that the strongest criticism comes straight from the mouth of the mayor of Prague 1 himself, and is echoed by the opposition and other officials. (Prague has district mayors, in addition to a lord mayor.)

Today, Nerudova street and the whole Royal Way are lined with shops full of matryoshkas (Russian dolls), Russian hats (ushankas), cut-glass vases and myriad other trinkets. The shop windows are more colorful than M&Ms, the Gothic portals decorated with shawls bearing the slogan "Prague – Drunk Again", and Baroque façades offering discounts to anyone buying two or more glass deer. "The Royal Way is indeed flooded with kitsch and it isn't something Prague should be proud of," says Oldřich Lomecký (TOP 09), the mayor of the Prague 1 district. But he is quick to add: "In this regard we are still influenced by the '90s."

The mayor points out that the fate of much of this downtown area is in private hands, since "Prague 1 owns just 10 percent of all the residential space" along the former king's route to the Castle. So long as shopkeeper tenants are paying their rents, and landlords are happy, what's the trouble, right?

Comes the answer, according to "Respekt":

...[H]ere's the biggest mystery: The number of tourists entering the shops is noticeably very low. Over the course of a one-hour observation period, for instance, there were only five. Some of the more talkative local shop assistants admit they don't sell anything on some days. But how can the tenants afford to pay 150,000 crowns per month? The obvious question is: Is money laundering involved?

"Yes, I have heard the same question asked by locals," says Kaucký [Lukáš Kaucký, the opposition Social Democratic city councilor responsible for tourism and culture]. Is he planning to do anything about it? And why does he think that jewelry that nobody buys is the right type of product to be sold along the Royal Way? "Well, we actually want to take a walk along the Royal Way and record all the business going on there -- what tourists are interested in buying, find out the identities of the vendors and learn more about the money-laundering allegations. In fact, we are only just getting started with the Royal Way."

-- Andy Heil

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