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Czech Republic: City Of Most Has A Long Way To Go

As yesterday's European Union progress report indicated, the Czech Republic -- often looked at as a model for other nations in transition -- has come a long way since the fall of communism more than 10 years ago. And its bustling capital, Prague, is definite proof of the successful Czech evolution. But other Czech cities haven't enjoyed as smooth a ride on the road toward a free-market society, among them the industrial city of Most.

Most, Czech Republic; 14 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Verdant hillsides and rocky mountains greet visitors who approach the city of Most by car from the south. But the scenery dramatically changes as the city nears. Smokestacks -- smoldering like massive cigarettes -- mar the landscape and pollute the air.

Most is the city that housed much of the industrial might of communist Czechoslovakia. The city was the center of the country's petrochemical and coal-mining industries.

The communists' blatant disregard for environmental controls, and their inclination for grandiose projects, meant Most and the surrounding region were ecologically devastated. The smokestacks bear testament to this, as does the scarred earth and huge pits left behind by the years of mining.

One of the trickiest things about navigating through Most is finding the town center. Essentially, there isn't one. In 1964, communist authorities decided they'd build a modern, Socialist-style city. To make way for the future, they had to sweep out the past. Or, more precisely, dynamite it.

In the early 1970s, the city's central old town was turned to rubble and in its place rows of drab apartment blocks sprang up like weeds. Not everything was destroyed, however. The gothic Deacon Church, dating back centuries, was literally taken apart and wheeled in bits and pieces to the outskirts of town, where it was reassembled and sits to this day, almost forgotten.

It's all part of the harrowing legacy the communists left behind in Most, which, more than 10 years after the fall of communism, is still struggling to find its feet, overshadowed by the capitalist success story that is Prague.

This city of 70,000 in northern Bohemia has the highest unemployment rate in the Czech Republic at 20 percent. Most of the coal mines have closed. Foreign investment is but a trickle. Crime is up. Drug use among young people is skyrocketing.

Bohuslav Helasic, the chief editor at the city's "Denik Mostecka" (Most Daily), says the city is struggling: "The environment is bad here. And now, according to statistics, they find that Most has essentially one of the lowest educational levels in the [Czech] Republic. That means, I think, we are in last place. Now, they find that there is high unemployment here, but it's not a high-skilled work force because most of the unemployed can't offer anything to employers, who aren't rushing in here anyway. I would say that Most is battling for its future."

Helasic's opinions are shared by many people questioned on the street in Most. One 26-year-old man says he'd leave Most if he could, but with three kids to support, that's not so easy to do. Like others, he says work is hard to find, and the work that does exist is often divided among friends. No friends with contacts, he says, means no jobs.

Others say that as soon as they get the chance, they will leave Most. Few among the young see many prospects here.

Many have turned to drugs. Lubomir Slapka runs the K-Centrum drug prevention clinic out of a former schoolhouse. He says drug use has become more widespread in Most.

"What is critical is that there is no money for so-called hard drugs, heroin, pervitin [a Czech-made amphetamine]. So, girls and boys, youths or toxic drug users are turning to [sniffing] paint, which very quickly devastates the brain."

Slapka and local police officials say the increase in drug use is fueling a growth in crime in Most.

Ludmila Svetlakova, a Most police spokeswoman, says car theft is especially worrying, with nearly 800 cases reported last year. She also said crime is rife at the Chanov housing project. Chanov is an amalgam of dilapidated high-rise buildings that mainly house Roma. The Roma have been especially hard hit by the tough times in Most. Many Romany men once worked in the mines around Most. Today, with many of the mines closed, they are out of work.

Svetlakova says rising unemployment, drug use, and a poorly educated populace all point toward a significant rise in crime since the fall of communism, though she can't prove it statistically.

"I started working here after the revolution. I'm not able to tell you. If you had phoned to tell me you were coming, I could have got some older statistics together to assess whether there has been a marked rise in crime since the end of communism. But one could assume there has been because all the criminal factors exist."

But the city is trying to better its lot. Mexican investors have been lured to Most with plans to set up a car-parts plant that could provide up to 1,200 jobs.

City leaders have even more ambitious plans, including building what officials call an "educational amusement park" to lure tourists. Most is even mulling a project to flood one of its mine pits with water to create a lake for boating and water sports.

While the city is big on ideas, it is low on money to finance them. Doubters point to the city's lack of a major airport or a decent highway connection to Germany, practicalities that could dampen plans to turn Most into a tourist destination.

Nevertheless, editor Helasic of the "Denik Mostecka" is cautiously optimistic. "Everything depends on the people of Most," he says. "If they want to make this a better place to live, and are willing to work, then things will be OK."

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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.