THE LONG road back to health may lead through Tibor Kušický's chardonnay vineyard.
photo: Tom Nicholson
You can't blame them, for this mining centre 200 kilometers east of Bratislava constantly reminds its residents of what they have lost, what they still lack.
First on the list is money. With unemployment in the Veľký Krtíš district at 31.7 per cent in October 2002, the third-highest among Slovakia's 79 districts, Krtíš residents can afford only the essentials of life. Trying to break a Sk1,000 ($25) bank note can take until afternoon before shops and restaurants take in enough receipts to make change.
The next most obvious absence is of people on the streets, particularly after sundown. It's not that they're all at the movies - the town cinema rarely attracts the 15-customer minimum to screen a film, although it still valiantly prints a monthly schedule.
But perhaps the most oppressive lack is that of hope - hope of a job, hope of respite, hope even of recognition of Krtíš's plight.
As larger towns such as Košice and Bratislava prepare to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Slovak independence on New Year's Eve, unemployed Marián Kučerka, 26, wonders at the gulf between Slovakia's haves and have-nots.
HOLDING ON: Brothers Marián (left) and Norbert.
photo: Tom Nicholson
Town's meaning lost
Veľký Krtíš, according to a 220-page town history printed five years ago, was built largely in the 1950s and 1960s to house the miners brought in to exploit the nearby Baňa Dolina brown-coal mine.
To add to the town's stature (mining was considered a 'preferred profession' under communism, meaning it was believed to embody communist work ethics), Veľký Krtíš was in 1968 declared the district seat, the title having been removed from the traditional settlement of Modrý Kameń five kilometres to the north.
Within three decades, however, the mine announced it would be closing in 2006 because the ore had become too expensive to mine, and because new environmental standards made the dirty bituminous coal an unattractive commodity.
With Baňa Dolina now on what it calls "social extraction", meaning a crew of 700 has been kept on at the state's expense to save a few jobs, Veľký Krtíš's decade of economic collapse is nearing completion.
First, in 1993, the Tesla electronics plant was closed because of restructuring in the sector. The factory employed 800 at its peak in 1987, mostly women.
Then the Liaz factory, making parts for Škoda cars, slashed employees from 900 in 1989 to 450 in 1996, and began leasing unused buildings to other firms. It entered bankruptcy in 2000.
The machinery firm Strojáreň cut jobs from 56 to 17, the Teamtex textile plant from a high of 650 in 1991 to 80 in 1993 before securing an Italian investor. The Movino wine company, employing about 50 people, this year saw the VÚB bank reclaim a loan, although the firm is not in bankruptcy.
Some political leaders have said the decline is a natural one, given that Krtíš was an unwise communist experiment in the first place.
"Veľký Krtíš presents a rather unusual problem in that it was basically a new town built during communism with no natural economic structure," says Ján Čarnogurský, Slovak prime minister from 1991 to 1992 and active for more than a decade in top Slovak politics (see interview, this page).
"When communism ended, and along with it the command economy, Veľký Krtíš found itself in a difficult situation. Near the town is Modrý Kameń, which has a rich history. If the communists had allowed Modrý Kameń to develop, it would probably be the district seat today, and the economic structure of Krtíš and its surroundings would be far more healthy."
Veľký Krtíš mayor Jozef Sauer, 60, elected on the ticket of the HZDS opposition party this month, believes the town should have received more help from politicians in bearing its communist-era burdens.
"As in many other regions, people's main concern here is unemployment," says Sauer, who for almost three decades worked in Baňa Dolina as the mine's chief engineer and then director. "The politicians and deputies this region has had have done very little to help the situation. No businesses will come here just for the hell of it, so we need some system of tax breaks and investment stimuli to attract them."
Sauer also sees his town's problems as tied up with those of the national economy over the past decade.
"The reasons we aren't further ahead are several. First is politics, then the means of privatisation chosen, in which we weren't going to sell property to foreign buyers, but to keep 'Slovakia for Slovaks'," he says. "In the few cases when professionally qualified people did purchase privatised property, things generally worked out, but there were far too many instances in which firms were simply tunnelled [stripped of assets] using Mafia tactics. Many businessmen didn't fulfil their tax responsibilities, or bribed members of parliament."
If these seem bold opinions for a HZDS-elected politician, given that the 1994-1998 HZDS-led government has been blamed for Slovakia's worst economic abuses, Sauer hastens to explain.
"I don't represent the HZDS. They came to me, and I ran as a candidate for them, but I'm not a member of the party."
The mayor, who dislodged the controversial Dalibor Surkoš from the post after the candidate of the former communist SDĽ party had served two terms, has even advocated a local council of political unity, in which "all those who had such bright development ideas in the recent campaign" would put their heads together to help the town out of its present distress.
The gap widens
Balancing the lack of jobs, money and purpose in Krtíš is a surfeit of disgust for politicians, particularly at the national level, as well as for crooked businessmen, and the apathy the country's problems have bred.
Dr Norbert Kučerka, 29, the brother of Marián, is an intern at the local Krtíš hospital, which with about 200 workers is one of the town's major employers.
After years of mismanagement, he said, the hospital finally got a director who cut its debt from Sk30 million ($714,000) in 1998 to Sk3 million ($71,000) in 2001 - only to have the figure rise back to Sk16 million ($381,000) this year from further state-ordained funding changes.
He himself now faces an up to 50 per cent salary cut next year, as a government health-care reform promises to do away with automatic pay brackets and tie health workers' wages to performance, putting them at the mercy of individual hospital managers.
Even that would be acceptable, he said, if state health insurance companies actually paid doctors for the services they billed, rather than only a fraction as now happens.
"I just can't understand why in this state they allow insurance houses to pay doctors only part of what they owe," he says. "I agree the market should be opened to competition, but if you're going to do that you have to make sure those who produce are paid for their work."
Marián Kučerka, who recently quit as sales director of the wine company Movino, also complains of poor business decisions by his bosses, among them loans with high interests rates taken during the Mečiar government's rule.
He feels more frustrated, however, by the failure of Slovak political leaders to empathise with the "hunger valleys" of the south and far east.
"Central government politicians just can't put themselves in the mindset of the regions, they can't understand what it means to be unemployed without hope of finding a job," he says over a beer at a local pub.
Marián and Norbert are in far better shape than their parents, however, who live in a village in central Slovakia and are both without work. The brothers send money home every month, but fear their father may never find another job.
"He went back to university in his late 30s and graduated with an economics degree in 1993. He got himself a driving license to meet the requirements of a job. He started up three stores for a local grocery chain. I could see how proud it all made him, but one day they took it all away from him, and fired him because they said he didn't fit the company's image and didn't get along with the boss," remembers Norbert. "They made him come in every day for three months to work out his notice period, and didn't give him any work to do. He just sat there."
Norbert says his father, 48, now mopes around the house, too proud to take a labourer's job, too dispirited to try for another management position.
"It's the saddest story I know," he says. "It makes me angry that this country hasn't created normal job opportunities, that employers can still do whatever they want with employees."
But in Krtíš, where people are getting used to not working, some employers feel themselves victimised by a poor work ethic.
Tibor Kušický, 39, runs the local branch of the firm Natural - Alimentária, producing organic wine for a niche market that values chemical-free production, and is willing to pay for it. Kušický, who now employs nine people but is getting ready to start annual production of 150,000 bottles in 2003, says he has been frustrated by the difficulty of finding keen labour even in such a high-unemployment area.
"There's so much space here and room in the market to do business, compared to the West, where every square metre of ground is covered with factories, shops, stalls," he says.
"But people here unfortunately would rather not work and take home Sk5,000 [$120 a month in unemployment benefits], or work poorly and take home a low salary, than really get stuck in and do a job. We have had to let some people go for just that reason - they came to me and asked for more money, but never thought of doing more work first."
It's a description that fits Marián Krnač, 23, who has been unemployed for 18 months and lives at home with his mother. A former hospital porter, Krnač no longer actively looks for work, but strolls the town with a daily allowance from his parent.
"I'm lazy," he says. "I'm not willing to travel for work. I've never left Veľký Krtíš for more than two weeks at a time."
What will become of him? He doesn't know. "If I spoke a foreign language I would go abroad," he says. "I think a lot of young people will go after we enter the European Union. What would they do here?"
Will there be any reason to celebrate on December 31? Kušický is the only one who thinks so, but even he won't overdo it.
"We've got things to celebrate, sure, but the party shouldn't be too big. So much has gone wrong," he says.
Will the future bring better times? Mayor Sauer admits he is taking office at the toughest moment in the town's history, and seems as surprised as anyone to have beaten the incumbent Surkoš.
As he descends the stairs of the town hall, preparing to venture into the falling snow, an old man approaches him as if about to offer congratulations for his new appointment.
"My condolences," he says instead, his face for a second taking on a funeral solemnity, before bursting into laughter.
The First Decade
A10-part series on Slovakia's independence
23. Dec 2002 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson