Ghost vil­lages haunt Slo­vakia’s suc­cess

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY TERRY MO­RAN

Slo­vakia has been a star per­former in Cen­tral Europe with a boom in car man­u­fac­tur­ing driv­ing brisk eco­nomic growth, but ghost vil­lages haunt the coun­try­side as peo­ple leave in search of jobs.

A white church has watched over Harakovce since vil­lagers erected it in the cen­tury af­ter the Black Death swept across Europe.

This vil­lage nes­tled among rolling hills dot­ted with forests and fields in this pas­toral cor­ner of eastern Slo­vakia has sur­vived count­less wars, but is now los­ing the battle as city jobs drain it of its lifeblood.

To­day there are only six chil­dren among its 59 res­i­dents. Harakovce is far from unique.

Un­til re­cently, around 40 per­cent of Slo­vaks lived in vil­lages of less than 1,000 peo­ple but statis­tics show the num­ber is dwin­dling fast.

Near the Pol­ish bor­der in the east of the coun­try, the vil­lage of Havranec had 386 peo­ple in 1980 but to­day it is down to eight.

The same has hap­pened in count­less vil­lages across the coun­try of 5.4 mil­lion peo­ple, es­pe­cially in its poorer east.

Harakovce was even at risk of hav­ing no one stand for mayor, which pays a salary of 220 eu­ros (US$240) per month, just a quar­ter of the na­tional av­er­age.

Then 27-year-old so­cial worker Bozena Meliskova re­turned home af­ter work­ing nearly a decade in the Czech cap­i­tal Prague, when she couldn’t find a new job.

Meliskova is run­ning to re­place her mother who can’t stand for re­elec­tion as she found work in a neigh­bor­ing vil­lage.

“I want to help im­prove life in our vil­lage,” Meliskova told AFP. The ques­tion is how. Slo­vakia, a mem­ber of the EU and eu­ro­zone, has been very suc­cess­ful in lur­ing the likes of Ger­many’s Volk­swa­gen, France’s PSA Peu­geot Citroen and South Korea’s Kia to as­sem­ble cars, cre­at­ing thou­sands of jobs.

Its com­bi­na­tion of rel­a­tively low wages and taxes has also lured South Korea’s Sam­sung and the Tai­wanese group Fox­conn.

Th­ese jobs helped Slo­vak wages rise by 20 per­cent be­tween 2008 and 2012 de­spite the global eco­nomic and eu­ro­zone crises. Wages in the eu­ro­zone over­all rose by only 10 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Euro­stat data.

But those jobs, mostly con­cen­trated around the cap­i­tal Bratislava and Kosice, an eastern steel hub, have also helped lure peo­ple from the coun­try­side, as has free move­ment within the EU.

Since EU en­try in 2004, at least 120,000 mostly young Slo­vaks have taken ad­van­tage of the free­dom to work else­where in the bloc, mov­ing to the UK or nearby Aus­tria and the Czech Repub­lic in search of a bet­ter life.

“There are no jobs any­more in the coun­try­side. Young peo­ple leave for the city or go abroad and they never come back,” Marta Bu­j­nakova, spokes­woman for the As­so­ci­a­tion of Slo­vak Towns and Vil­lages, told AFP.

Moun­tains to Cruise Ships

Lit­tle in­vest­ment has trick­led into the coun­try­side and EU re- gional de­vel­op­ments funds also ap­pear to be miss­ing the mark.

While Slo­vakia’s econ­omy is ex­pected to ex­pand by a brisk 3.2 per­cent this year, job­less­ness re­mained stub­bornly high at 11.6 per­cent na­tion­wide in April.

While it hov­ers close to six per­cent in Bratislava, un­em­ploy­ment soars to 17 per­cent in ru­ral ar­eas.

It is a plight that has left a deep im­pres­sion on Mnisek nad Po­pradom, a vil­lage whose houses fan out up a moun­tain­side along­side the Pol­ish bor­der, that has been a fo­cal point of public at­ten­tion re­gard­ing the coun­try’s van­ish­ing vil­lages.

On pa­per, it has a pop­u­la­tion of 650 peo­ple, but ac­cord­ing to Mayor Peter Zemba, 90 per­cent of its res­i­dents work abroad.

Typ­i­cally, women go to Aus­tria as nurses and men find work on cruise ships and other jobs that keep them away from the vil­lage most of the year. Schools have been shut.

“We re­ally want to live and work here, to hold onto this life, but fi­nan­cial con­di­tions force us to move to other coun­tries for work and to send money back,” Zemba said.

Michal Stuska, spokesman for Slo­vakia’s la­bor and so­cial af­fairs min­istry, in­sists the state can­not be ac­cused of turn­ing a blind eye to ru­ral de­pop­u­la­tion.

Both do­mes­tic and EU funds have been spent on cor­rect­ing dis­par­i­ties be­tween Slo­vakia’s more ur­ban­ized and af­flu­ent west and its poorer, pre­dom­i­nantly ru­ral, east, he said.

AFP

The vil­lage Pil­hov is pic­tured in Slo­vakia on May 25. Vil­lages through­out Slo­vakia have sur­vived count­less wars but are now los­ing the battle for their lifeblood.

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