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Czech Republic: Russians Again Flocking To Famous Spa

The curative waters in the Czech spa resort of Karlovy Vary have long been drawing the rich and powerful -- many of them from Russia. Now, Russians are again coming in droves -- this time not only to sip from the springs but to invest in the spas themselves. Many local Czechs resent the Russians' presence, while others acknowledge that the town's well-being in part depends on them.

Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic; 10 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russians have been coming to Karlovy Vary for centuries. Peter the Great swore a dip in the city's famous thermal springs improved his sexual potency. Tolstoi gulped down a gallon a day of the sulphur-rich waters to improve his digestion. Under communism, trade unions sent model workers there on all-expenses-paid junkets.

Today, its Russia's post-communist nouveau riche who are coming in droves, many of them on a daily direct flight between Moscow and the city of just over 100,000 people. One of them is Igor, a ruddy-faced burly Russian with a gravely voice who has made the nine-hour trek from his home in Vladivostok on Russia's Pacific Ocean coast to Karlovy Vary three times. He explains the love affair Russians have for the spa:

"Russians like it because of the climate, the conditions, Czechs -- more or less -- speak Russian, the service is great, the waters, the spas -- in a word, the Russians like it here, that's why there are so many."

According to the city's information office, Kur-Info, more than 13,000 Russians visited the city's spas last year (1999). That's down from 1998, when nearly 18,000 filled the city's hotels. Karlovy Vary officials attribute the drop to Russia's financial meltdown in the summer of 1998.

Now, hotel proprietors are worried that the Czech government's imposition of visas on visitors from the east early this year could further reduce the number of high-spending Russians. As a result, they are casting their nets wider to lure tourists from other countries, especially Israel and Kuwait.

Many of the Russians who still come to Karlovy Vary end up in the Imperial Hotel. It sits atop the wooded hillside overlooking the Tepla River which snakes through the center of the spa town.

Martin Loyda, a local realtor, says the hotel has long served a Russian clientele. He says that after the war, the then Czechoslovak government made a "gift" of the hotel to the Russians as a token of its gratitude for Soviet efforts in freeing the country of the Nazis. Russian ties to Karlovy Vary are perhaps best symbolized by the Saint Peter and Paul Orthodox church. Built in 1897, the church's gilded cupolas and bright blue ringed spires rise majestically above the town.

It's down below, however, where things bustle with a distinctive Russian flare. Signs in Cyrillic adorn many of the boutiques enticing shoppers with mostly gold, fur, and crystal, the kind of high-priced trinkets many Russians favor. But gold and jewelry are not all that has caught the eye of Russia's well-heeled.

Czech officials won't say how many, but a spokesman for the town's mayor says a majority of the town's spa hotels are owned by Russians. The Elishka Hotel, for example, next door to the Saint Peter and Paul Church, is Russian-owned. And while no one will cite names, some officials say Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and even Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev may have a stake in the local real-estate market.

But there is no firm evidence of either official's financial involvement in the city.

With memories still lingering from the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Czechs here fear the Russians are making a new bid to re-occupy the Czech lands. As one waiter put it, "what the Russians weren't able to accomplish with machine guns, they've accomplished with money."

Many of the city's residents also believe the Russians are using their city to launder ill-gotten gains from back home. One of them, 73-year-old Zdenek -- who moved to Karlovy Vary the same year Soviet tanks rolled through Prague -- says:

"I'm convinced these are people without good credentials. They have only money, so they buy anything they can and launder their dirty money here."

The town's mayor, Josef Pavel, has been one of the biggest boosters of Russian investment in Karlovy Vary. His spokesman, Jan Kopal, says the city has no proof their city is being used to launder Russian mob money.

"We have no concrete indication [of money laundering]. Of course, if we had such information, we would want to -- or feel obligated -- to investigate. But we don't have any proof about the laundering of dirty money, terrorist money, or that Karlovy Vary has become a conspiratorial center. We just don't have it."

With unemployment now hovering around 8 percent, Kopal says the city welcomes any new investment, regardless of where it comes from. He says without Russian investment, the city's development would have been put on hold in recent years.

"The truth is if that wave of Russian investment had never come, the development of Karlovy Vary would have been set back. In the past five years, Karlovy Vary has come a long way."

Kopal, like realtor Loyda, say Russian investment in Karlovy Vary is no greater than in the Czech capital Prague. It's just more evident, they say, given Karlovy Vary's small size and the high-profile nature of the investment -- the spas.

Kopal explains that, among foreign investors, only Russians have consistently shown an interest in investing in the town. He notes that German interest was high for a while, but peaked in the early 1990s and then quickly waned. He says Germans -- whose name for Karlovy Vary is Karlsbad --- sunk money in the town on a speculative basis. Many German investments, he says, have been left fallow as their backers wait for real estate prices to rise in hopes of selling at a profit.

As for anti-Russian sentiment among Czechs, Kopal says the spa's residents have always been wary of one group or another. During the communist era, the city was a bastion of anti-red feeling. In the early 1990s, he says, anti-German sentiment rose as people in Karlovy Vary worried that their culture and language would be swallowed up by a tide of Germans. He points out, too, that when the Thermal -- a tombstone-like hotel in the very center of the town -- was bought by Arab investors, anti-Arab feelings rose too.

Kopal notes that, with their spa holdings, the Russians are now the city's biggest employers. He concludes that many of the city's Czechs will either learn to live with the Russians or find themselves out of work.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.