Interview with Jan Svoboda, Mayor of Cheb
The interview was conducted by Jakob Hurrle within the project “Interculture Map” of the Multicultural Centre Prague (INTI Programme of the European Commission).
What are, in your opinion, the strong points and the weak points of the city of Cheb?
One positive is that it is close to the border. However, closeness to the border is also it’s biggest weak point. Of course there are a lot of tourists who come to Cheb, and these tourists come for different purposes. If they come here to shop, to work, or to invest, than it is a good thing for the city. If they come as sex tourists or as customers of the Vietnamese market, where they buy bad products, products of bad origin, falsifications etcetera, than it is bad. This kind of tourism creates demand. Demand drives supply, so there is more and more production, more copyright violations and so on. That’s the bad side of being a border city.
A second weak point of the city is that it was selected by non-governmental organisations as a typical town of Czech prostitution. If you compare Cheb with other areas along the Austrian and German borders, than you realise that street prostitution is a comparably marginal issue in Cheb. I was in Chomutov and “envied” the selection offered to customers there. On the other side, if you look at those erotic saloons and brothels, then we are indeed a super-power, but this doesn’t affect in any way the life in the city. It is not a problem, but are aware that this is happening here.
Another strong point about Cheb is its history. It was once the third or even second biggest city in the Czech kingdom. However, we do not have a citizenry who have roots in this town. All come from somewhere else. Czech-speaking families came here only as late as 1918, and most of the people came later than 1945. There are no roots, because the roots were German. It is Egerland!
Another positive is the fact that our city is becoming an industrial town. There will be enough work, as industrial park will bring about 1500 – 2000 new employment opportunities. We are a border town and a lot of people work in Germany. That’s why we are not even sure whether we will be able to fill up these places with locals. Already at this point there are not that many unemployed in Cheb.
What is the current unemployment rate?
About 10 per cent. But I don’t think that unemployment is something that causes us many problems. There are people coming to this office who don’t know where to live, people who cannot pay their bills, people who have made a mistake, but it is very rare that someone would come who is in a difficult situation because he or she isn’t be able to find work. The majority of people who cannot find work are in one way or another problematic. I always claim that there are about four percent of people, who will never work. They simply don’t want to. The real number is probably much higher. And than you have to consider the effect of the communist past. Today the employers want effective workers. There are those who are unemployed, are ill, cannot go to work or are unreliable. However there is this group of people who are older than 50. It is a tragedy if the company where they used to work closes suddenly. The second group are those, who cannot work or do not want to work, those who are difficult to employ. The Labour Law makes their case even worse because it is hard to get rid of someone once he is hired. And the network of welfare is so well developed, that many people simply do not see much sense in getting up early every morning…
I would like to ask you about your view of the Vietnamese minority…
Yes, that is the weak side of Cheb (laughs). Some people say that every third inhabitant of Cheb is Vietnamese. That is probably an exaggeration; we do not have 10,000 or even 11,000 Vietnamese here in Cheb. But there are a lot of them. And they have, of course, their own style of life. They are very, very industrious and work all around the clock. They have ruined the prices here; ruined a number of Czech businesses, which sell similar products. After the revolution, there were about ten shoe-stores in Cheb, now there is maybe only one left. On the market there had been a “Přerov” cloth store. It is also now gone. We have here about a thousand different places, where the same kinds of products, which often of doubtful origin, are sold. Alcohol, cigarettes, shoes, CDs, clothes, for about ten percent of the usual price. It is simply impossible to compete with this kind of business. Just a month ago, “Tesco” opened a large retail store here. We will see if they will be satisfied. I thought that they would make most of their money with electronics and grocery, but the managers told me that their most important area of business is clothes. The target group of Tesco is, however, different than the one of the Vietnamese markets.
How do you perceive the structures within the Vietnamese community?
The Vietnamese have divided up their area of operations. There used to be one clan in Cheb, another one is Aš. Cheb has in fact two clans, because it is big enough, and than there are also some Vietnamese living here independently. Of course, the two clans do compete with each other. Up until now, there haven’t been any visible fights or violence, but this might well happen in the future.
There has been a lot of discussions in town about the future of “Dragoun”. What is going to happen with this huge Vietnamese market close to the city centre?
“Dragoun” used to be military barracks and the city currently rents it out to the Vietnamese. The city has now decided now to sell “Dragoun”. This concerns about 300 or 400 Vietnamese families. They don’t know what to do. Some people might join the competing clan, which runs a market of similar seize close to the German border in "Svatý kříž“. The difference is that the “Dragoun” market is much better known than "Svatý kříž“. Yet the “Dragoun” is municipal property, while Svatý kříž has Vietnamese owners. So they do not have to pay rent there and do not have other costs, and do not have to worry about whether the market will still be there in a year or not. In the case of Dragoun, the business will end in 2006. The new owner declared that he would under no circumstances continue using the area for the market.
Does the coming end of Dragoun lead to tensions?
I prepared here an article for you: „He didn’t survive the fall out of the window“ The representatives of the Vietnamese community claim that he killed himself because of the end of Dragoun. However, everything indicates that this individual had other problems. On October 18, the day when this man killed himself, nothing was decided yet.
The Vietnamese knew very well from the beginning that this lease would run out one day. One additional thing, the man who jumped out of the window has lived here for ten years. In these ten years, he could have earned 10 – 15 million Czech crowns. So he would have enough money to live, even after the market closes. However, he could not save this money because he had to give it to the boss of the Vietnamese market. This person introduces himself as “Honza” to be recognizable for us, but his real name is Ťang. As well as paying Ťang he also had to pay rent and the Czechs who took care of his children. In the end little remained. It is very unfair to say that it is the fault of the city that this man jumped out of the window. The poor guy worked the entire time for other people, people who extorted him to the extreme. I didn’t want to make an international scandal in front of the Vietnamese ambassador, who was accompanied by “Honza” during his visit, but I really felt like telling him that the problem is not the town, but the bosses within the Vietnamese community.
You said that many of the products sold on the market are of doubtful origin. How is the city dealing with this issue?
Why should the city fulfil the role of the state, when it is easier to ignore the selling large-scale sell of doubtful products? It is the territory of national laws and state organs. It is illegal to sell falsified goods, but even if they catch you nothing really happens to you, except that they take your goods away. No one looses his or her business license and no one forbids you to sell again. In the light of this situation, it would be almost funny if it were the city that had to attempt to control this situation.
And of course, the Vietnamese do not only harm us, they are also very useful for the city. They attract the Germans, who buy not only on the market but spend also some money in the city. We also profit in the way that we rent out the “Dragoun”. The Vietnamese pay us rent 30 millions CZK each year. There was this idea that if we already have a negative image and if we cannot rid ourselves from this market, than the city should at least benefit in some way from it. Because if we had fought them legally, it would have ended with a long court battle, during which the city would not have seen a crown. At the end of such a process, it would have been extremely hard to get the money. The state doesn’t support us, the courts are in the condition as they are… it’s bad; it should be possible to decide such a thing within one month.
One day they suddenly stopped paying us. So we sent them a formal announcement that the lease would be terminated. However, there was no way to hand over the lease to the legal representative, because this person was, at that time, somewhere in Vietnam. The court told us that we have nevertheless to hand over the announcement in person. Such a letter to Vietnam costs 1500 CZK. It came back, receiver unknown and the court didn’t want to intervene. They just made fun of us. It is our property, but we couldn’t get a hold of it.
People have reported that the controls of state organs have intensified recently. Do you share this impression?
Yes, there is more control. If forged goods remain so easily available, there is clearly a danger that the Czech Republic would have to payout enormous amounts in compensation. Another thing is that this stuff comes from the harbour in Hamburg, is loaded onto trucks and has to cross the border. So the customs officials wouldn’t have to go to the market, but could pick the stuff up on the way. I am convinced that there would be a way to fight with this, if there existed the will to do so. On the other hand, illegal production of cigarettes occurs here in Cheb, in the buildings of the “Dragoun”. And our laws are so incredible; there will always be wholes in it somewhere. We are so lazy that we forbid the selling of cigarettes, but allow the importing of tobacco.
How would you describe the cooperation between the city and the Tax Office or other bodies of the state administration?
We rather operate directly through the Office for the Self-Employed (živnostenský úřad), which is part of the city administration. They have the right to control the licenses. It is in fact really funny, because of the people who work there are of course already well-known. If the head of the office would want to make a joke, he would just have to decide one morning to walk past the Dragoun on his way to work. He only needs to enter the area for all the shops to close and for all the people to disappear.
How do you see the Vietnamese shops in the historical centre?
Of course, you should not conclude from what I said that everything is 100 per cent illegal. Not even on the markets are all the goods problematic. You could find things, which look at least on the first glance perfect. You can get for 180 CZK or 250 CZK a product without any trademark, and you will have the feeling that it is from Adidas. So people like to buy this stuff. Interestingly enough, you can buy shoes of the same quality, even cheaper, in some Czech shops. It is paradox to observe, that only few people go there, because they are ashamed to buy products from a shop with large signs advertising the “cheap products”.
What will happen to those people who work now in Dragoun?
Some of them will leave the city, others will buy spaces here in Cheb, and a third group will go to Svatý kříž. Maybe a new market will emerge, it’s hard to say. But they have had enough time and still have enough time to prepare themselves. I am afraid of the Vietnamese and what to do with them. Our politicians decide upon laws and now we don’t know what to do with these people. There is an army of people who will not know how to feed themselves if the EU clamps down on these types of businesses. The Vietnamese really are a time bomb. On the other hand, they have very good and talented children. Of the twenty most talented students in the high school 10 – 15 are Vietnamese. It is not because they are a more intelligent nation than we are, but because they behave like football players abroad. If there are ten Germans and one Czech, the Czech will have to play better than the rest to succeed.
The children are very talented, intelligent, and have good results in school. They will not work on the markets if they decide to stay here. Many already received Czech citizenship. By the way a problem related to citizenship is the issue of fictitious marriages. They do it to receive permanent residence status. Usually, it is problematic for the women who offer or accept such a fictitious relationship. The Vietnamese seem to be not really aware that a marriage brings financial consequences and all kind of related risks. They seem to think that they can just give their wives 20 thousands crowns and then never see her again…
This brings us to another important topic. Does the city try to reach out to the Vietnamese, to, for example, inform them about risks like this?
They know about these issues, they aren’t stupid. But it is a bit like if I tell you today that you shouldn’t drive with open windows, since your back will hurt if you are fifty. Everyone knows this, but no one cares. You will not suffer for another 30 years, and when it hurts you will say: I have really been an idiot. The same applies when I warn a Vietnamese couple before a wedding. They tell me that things will work out somehow! But the poor guy doesn’t know that we might even go after him in Vietnam if he goes there and leaves behind his wife. Our laws do allow such things, similarly I could not say as mayor here that in America my veto would be enough to make a greencard useless...
Do you have any impression that the Vietnamese bosses are trying to influence the local politics?
No. I have not encountered anything like this. Of course, they are important people who can come here with the Vietnamese ambassador, or with the attaché. They are important, because they have money, so they know how to influence their environment. But they don’t try to meddle into local politics. Why should they? They could of course come here and try to bribe us, in the hope that we will not sell the Dragoun area. But that is such a visible and large decision, it cannot be influenced from outside. Several times they have tried to persuade me on this issue, they told me that the town gains a lot from the 30 million crowns. They also asked us to use our influence, so that the custom officers would inspect the market less frequently, otherwise they might not be able to come up with the rent. Luckily, we don’t have anything to do with the customs officials.
We talked about communication. Do you have other partners among the Vietnamese community than the bosses?
Well, in a way everything goes through the bosses. But I know people among the Vietnamese community, I have some friends including one very good one. I have known him for some time, from when I was a dentist in Luby. The whole family came here, and somehow we became friends. He comes to visit me often. Now I am afraid that people might think that we plan to make some business deals together, not that we just want to see each other as friends. It requires a bit of courage, because everyone immediately suspects that there is something going on. But the Vietnamese themselves have tried to create a better impression. The ambassador opened an exhibition here on Vietnamese culture. People attended the event from the community, mainly the business men, who also paid for the buffet. They want to create a certain positive image.
And than there are the contacts we have in everyday life, for instance the newspaper store across the street is owned by a Vietnamese family. When I go there, I talk a little; they are not foreigners anymore. My daughter attends high school and there are a number of Vietnamese children in her class. She doesn’t even realise that they are Vietnamese. They speak perfect Czech, so there is not even the language barrier. That’s how it is.
Do you think that the Vietnamese community will remain a part of this city?
If we continue to allow the Vietnamese to sell products in the way that they are, or if they come up with another way of making money, most Vietnamese will certainly remain here. If not, then 90 per cent might go somewhere else. But a certain group will remain, because they are at home here. We will become something like Holland or America, where a Chinese or Russian can have a duel feeling of identity. They play the national anthem and the flag goes up, and under the flag is a Russian who considers himself to be American. In the end a Czech can become a head of a State Department in America. I am not afraid of this. Only that now Holland, which used to be a paradise for all nationalities, has begun to become a place where racism blossoms, because of those murders. And it really used to be a paradise. It didn’t matter whether someone was yellow, blue, violet or black. People did not even think about it. It was a heavenly example of human tolerance.