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May 16, 2022



Commentary: "Zero tolerance" is back in North Bohemia, a "sure bet" for the Czech local elections

16.5.2018 12:30
The Janov housing estate in the Czech town of Litvínov, March 2018. (PHOTO:  ROMEA TV)
The Janov housing estate in the Czech town of Litvínov, March 2018. (PHOTO: ROMEA TV)

What image comes to mind when you hear the term "socially excluded locality"? Most people in the Czech Republic will imagine the Chanov housing estate in Most or the Janov housing estate in Litvínov, both towns in North Bohemia.

Because most people in the country don't live in North Bohemia, they usually compare the ideas of these housing estates to an abandoned building or to some worse neighborhood in their own environment - and then they tell themselves that where they live isn't so bad after all. The towns of Litvínov and Most are not happy about this reputation, but on the other hand they are able to profit from the unhappy renown of their "trashed" housing estates.

Does this seem blasphemous to you? No local politician will agree with the above statement - but you can judge for yourselves.

Coal, ice hockey and socially excluded localities

The Chanov housing estate has already experienced a great deal. During the 1970s, the forced relocation of Romani families from the demolished neighborhood of Old Most (irrespective of the fact that their extended family ties were being disrupted and irrespective of their interpersonal disputes or wishes) to live spread out over 12 floors of an apartment building into top-quality units with hot running water and central heating was a shock for them in all respects after their eviction from their own homes, which were slated for demolition.

The "Socialist re-education" of these people and the subsequent spontaneous developments of the 1990s also impacted the Chanov housing estate. In the legal sense, we must emphasize here that it is the owner of any property who is responsible for maintaining it.

In the case of Chanov, it was owned by the state for the first 20 years of its existence and then by the town of Most for the next 30 years. To blame the tenants of these properties for the fact that they have not been maintained is a cheap tactic, but it is one that has definitely taken hold.

Despite all of this, today it is possible to say that the town of Most, with the aid of EU and state subsidies, has been managing, roughly since the beginning of the millenium, to try to make Chanov inhabitable once again. Yes, it has cost many "selfies" of politicians with local children, several errors in guessing who in the Romani community is a leader and who is more a loan shark, and yes, the buildings where water could clearly be seen gushing from pipes that had been cut through had to be razed to the ground.

Unfortunately, today most of the apartment units at Chanov still have not had their hot running water service completely restored, and apart from a suspicious stall selling goods down by the main road, there is a lack of basic infrastructure on the estate. Its biggest problem, however, is its geographical exclusion.

The idea that the families from Chanov might move into the center of Most is horrifying to the residents of Most who call themselves "decent" and to local politicians. It is far more advantageous to them to cultivate Chanov as a sort of reservation that can be visited by filmmakers, Romani activists and politicians where a great deal of social work is being done, both for the adults and for the children (mainly so they will not move away from the estate, one must add).

The town of Most itself is not some sort of El Dorado. There are about 13 800 people who are at risk of social exclusion (out of a total of 60 000 people, i.e., 23 %) there who have been implanted into other numbered blocks of prefabricated apartment buildings (where the units are sublet to them by condominium shareholders who have long been living elsewhere, or by real estate agencies) as well as living in residential hotels or other temporary accommodation - only 1 000 of them live at Chanov proper.

In Litvínov the politicians have gone even further. The Janov housing estate there is much bigger than Chanov.

In 2008 there were 8 000 tenants living at Janov (out of 30 000 residents in Litvínov as a whole), and currently there are just 5 200 (out of 27 000 as a whole, or 19 % of the current population). The development there has been similar to that of Chanov.

People who had been living in villages that were demolished in order to mine coal on the land beneath them were also moved into new prefabricated apartment buildings. Those who are nostalgic recall how luxurious the accommodation seemed back them, but realists know that today it would be difficult to enjoy the balcony views of the nearby chemical factories.

At Janov there is a pre-school, a school and shops, but, just like at Chanov, tenants can only get to the center of town by taking public transportation or by hiking on foot. The approach taken by the Litvínov politicians toward Janov after the 1989 regime changes is the diametric opposite of the approach taken by local politicians from Most.

After the turn of the millenium, none of the local politicians responsible for Janov ever even pretended that they wanted to protect this corner of the world. In 2005 Janov was ultimately sold by the city (the last 612 apartment units in it were sold) to get rid of this "burden" along with other units being sold in Litvínov to a private company which, together with the mega-condominium company Krušnohor, have turned it into something like a dump for families evicted from more lucrative apartment units and towns who now must suffer the impacts of insufficient maintenance by the owners and the administrators of the housing stock.

Thanks to this story, Janov has also become a favorite "tourist attraction" for many national politicians. While Chanov has been in the hands of the public administration during the entire time of its existence, Janov, which has five times the population of Chanov, has long been in private hands, so the municipality itself is more in the role of a guide or an onlooker there.

The money earned from the sale of these properties at below market price was invested by the town into its renowned ice hockey team. So the final score is the "golden boys" - 1.  rest of the town - 0.

To the elections, to arms

The local elections are coming up and North Bohemian politicians are sharpening their weapons for combat. If none of them can invent something to fight for, the easiest path to take is that they will find somebody to fight against.

A "sure bet" for local politicians is the fight against "inadaptables" or at least against welfare abuse. Just like the current Czech Government, the local politicians have no need of a new program, or a new vision.

It's enough for the local politicians to listen to what it is their voters want to hear and they print up the posters. Voters want to hear about fast, radical solutions, bans and repression - in short, about "zero tolerance" against all who allegedly make the lives of "decent citizens" unpleasant.

For the last 30 years since the revolution, this approach has never worked, and the situation is, on the contrary, deteriorating. Who cares about that, though?

In both Litvínov and Most the subject of combating welfare abuse or those who bother others with disorder and noise is so popular that there are even several political groups with a shared program that counts on a lot of competition instead of addressing opposition opinions: "The current situation reminds us of the state around the year 2008, when the town ignored developments at Janov. Back then, as well, in their opinion it was impossible to do anything, everything was a problem. The result was that the Workers' Party organized marches there and unrest began. If the police submit a report in which the trend of rising violent crime is visible here, that will head in the same direction," says local councilor Daniel Volák (Civic Democratic Party - ODS).

The local ODS cell is striving to earn its place in the sun as a warrior against "inadaptables", a position that so far has been occupied by the local Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD). The fiction of "zero tolerance" as a solution takes material form during elections through a reinforcement of the harassment of the families so labeled in their apartments (an exercise officially called mapping or monitoring), and there is a growing feeling that the only point of such local police operations, supervised by local social workers and by the Labor Office, is to show the "decent" residents that the "inadaptables" are being harshly dealt with.

This is a perverse distinction to draw between the local residents and their behaviors. In Most, for example, this takes the form of an open threat to revoke residents' benefits: "For these people this approach is a very unpleasant surprise, because suddenly they see that officials and police officers don't just negotiate these matters from behind their desks, but that the appear on their very doorsteps. They are aware that, for example, the facts that they have reported, on the basis of which they are drawing welfare, are matters the authorities know how to verify in the field. Should lawbreaking be discovered, the benefits can be revoked for those receiving them. This is a clear signal to the inadaptables that the town will not tolerate lawbreaking and that they will have to be held accountable for such behavior," said Deputy Mayor Markéta Stará.

What about a solution?

A solution would assume that such famous "dead ends" would be condemned and that they would be known about in the first place. To politicians from the top on down who are at least somewhat rational, it must already now be clear that developing pressure on people living in social exclusion and demanding cuts to their benefits, which have already been skinned to the bone, will not produce a good effect, i.e., these people will just suddenly disappear or move elsewhere.

The politicians know this, but during the elections they don't care. There is nothing else to do, therefore, than to appeal to the professionalism of members of the public administration, local officials, and the members of the helping professions to finally, in towns like Litvínov and Most, be brave enough to sensitively explain to these politicians what the limitations of social policy and social work are.

The benefits can be redirected and the Labor Office is meant to redirect them such that they will not be abused. The municipalities can and must aid people at risk of homelessness to stay in their housing or to find other housing.

The region can and must plan to ask the state to finance social services with an emphasis on the prevention of people falling into social exclusion. All of the legislation is only as perfect as the legislators themselves and those who are meant to enforce it.

If any of these lost politicians are looking for an electoral program that hasn't been used yet, one subject that comes to mind would be creating a vision for those who are not well-off in North Bohemia. That means for all those who are not well-off.

Quiet housing in a clean environment? That's a good slogan too, so why not advocate for that along with specific program points for those who currently do not live in environments that are clean and quiet.

Good education for our children? Yes, because better-educated children will be less unemployed, and it is apparent that some children need more support in order to attain that aim.

Enough places in preschools? Fine, that will mainly be appreciated by single mothers who can't get jobs due to the state's neglect of family policy.

A dignified old age? Pensioners are also a "sure bet" during elections, so why not present a vision for them too?

Do politicians believe that high-capacity retirement homes are places where senior citizens actually want to spend the autumn of their lives? What about bolstering the development of caretaker services, recreational activities and lifelong learning?

In Litvínov and Most we have been waiting for politicians with this kind of bravery and vision - for the time being, in vain. Maybe some will appear in the October elections later this year.

Alena Zieglerová, Institute for Social Inclusion

Alena Zieglerová, Institute for Social Inclusion, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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