The President of the Moravian-Silesian Region, Ivo Vondrák, has been at the forefront of the successful transition of Ostrava and its surroundings from a region of mining and refineries to a center of science, technological development, and education of the future. His region is often used as an example of a successful transformation throughout the EU thanks to that.
Were the parliamentary election to have the same result in the rest of Czechia as it did in the Ostrava Region, ANO would be the clear winner and would now be picking its partners for the government. What are the differences between the Ostrava Region and the rest of the country?
I was very pleased with how the election turned out here in the region, and I would like to thank all the people for coming out to vote one more time. I believe that we have managed to prove how seriously we are taking the transformation of the region and keeping our promises. Under the ANO Movement's leadership, we have managed to unify political parties that are at odds in other parts of the country. I always say that many issues can be solved just by mutual understanding and common sense, and they get politicized needlessly. A good example is the finalization of the so-called Extended Rudná. An almost cursed part of the new highway between Ostrava and Opava has been stuck in a standstill for ten years, making the lives of tens of thousands of people difficult. Only when our regional coalition came along did we manage to get things out of deadlock through careful, joint negotiations. Another thing, I think, is that the citizens can clearly see that we – or at least myself certainly – are being consistent. We do not let the flighty public opinion sway us and we keep on doing what we truly believe in. The Covid-19 pandemic is a good example. I am sticking to my guns, no matter how much the fickle public opinion is influenced through certain media outlets and hoaxes. I strongly believe that we must take certain measures, no matter how unpopular they are, because they save human lives. I am aware that the restrictions imposed on certain types of services and people's free movement are extremely inconvenient. But this virus is not something that we made up or had created, and we cannot stand idly by while healthcare gets restricted and people needlessly lose their lives. Businesses and entrepreneurs need to be compensated by the government, no doubt about it, but there is no other way if we want to avoid another school lockdown for example.
You were the leader of the faction in ANO that wanted to return to its original liberal values. How strong is this sentiment in the whole ANO Movement nowadays?
It is hard to tell right now. We are falling headlong into another wave of the pandemic, and seeing as we still need to hand over the government, there is no time for anything else. I do believe that we will return to this topic in the Movement. I feel that we must protect vulnerable citizens such as the elderly, but we must also make sure that having a job is worth it. We should not let it come to a certain part of the population being better off on welfare than if they were going to work. I do, however, object to claims that ANO is a populist party without a proper platform. Prior to the election, we introduced an elaborate document that clearly outlines our priorities for the coming years. We have profiled ourselves as a catch-all party, but I personally feel that we are missing some liberal right-leaning voters and we need to cater to them a bit more.
Your chairman, Andrej Babiš, is the main reason for ANO's low coalition potential on a national level. Can you imagine an ANO without Andrej Babiš at the helm? And would you be willing to take over?
Mr. Babiš is a strong personality, a strong leader with a distinct business record. He is the founder of the ANO 2011 Movement. He has done great things for our people, but, logically, people who stick out can be a polarizing factor. Nonetheless, ANO is a democratic movement, and I am certain that it will continue to function under the leadership of new personalities, of which we have many. Any further speculation is premature and immaterial. I would just like to point out that the way the media portray Mr. Babiš as the mastermind behind even the tiniest action that people in the Movement make is comical. Same as any other manager, he has to depend on his team in many aspects of his work, otherwise, he could never be the prime minister as well as the chairman of the Movement.
Not too long ago, Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the European Commission, visited Ostrava as the token city of post-coal transition. How far has Ostrava come in its transformation, and what is there left to do?
We have managed to identify strong, strategic projects that we are now working on. They are mostly about repurposing post-mining land for science and leisure activities, as well as new energy sources, digitalization, new cultural use of technological landmarks, innovative technical education, and more. Thanks to methodical political work, we have managed to arrange funding, and now teams of experts are working on setting up the projects themselves. Only some of them are regional, but we believe that there is a chance for projects proposed by other entities as well. We are trying to support universities in their new research plans, for instance.
Mines, refineries, heavy industry, this describes other places than just Ostrava. In terms of the transition, which part of the Region do you think will require the most work right now?
The entire region is important, we do our best to support every district, but we use different means in different places. The Just Transition Fund, which I assume you are hinting at, is expecting a lot of funding to go to the Karvinná district. We are very hopeful about an upcoming greenhouse project called EDEN that should cater to scientists and tourists alike. It takes inspiration from an already functioning model in England. There is another ambitious project planned in Třinec, the CirkArena – a research center for circular economy, the Ostrava university is planning a research center that will do a lot of environmental work. We have a total of 13 notable strategic projects like these. Now the ball is in the court of the project instigators, they have to do thorough planning and convince the Ministry that it is their project that deserves the funding.
Your region is sometimes called the industrial heart of Czechia, and Czechia sometimes the industrial heart of Europe. Should it stay that way, or should we strive to change into something different as part of the green transition?
We are proud of our tradition and I think it should stay that way. Just look at what happens when people come to the Lower Vítkovice district, they are in awe of what can be done with industrial landmarks. Those places are alive, full of people, there are festivals, events for families and people of all ages. But of course, we are transforming, and we need new economical solutions and innovations to boot. The times of Black Ostrava are long gone, and I feel that people are realizing it now. Whenever somebody comes here for the first time, they are genuinely surprised by how green Ostrava actually is. And we are surrounded by beautiful mountains, nature is literally at our fingertips. But let us get back to your question. We have to focus on innovation and industries or businesses with added value. That is why I am working on expanding the Moravian-Silesian Innovation Center, which provides an environment where innovations and entrepreneurial endeavors can flourish. Another organization we try to support as much as possible is the MSID, which introduces our region during meetings with potential investors.
Ivo Vondrák (born April 15, 1959, in Ostrava) is a professor and engineer, as of 2016, also a representative and president of the Moravian-Silesian Region, and as of 2017, an MP.
He graduated in mechanical engineering from the VSB – Technical University Ostrava, he worked in software engineering. He added to his education in 1988 by attending the postgraduate program of Modeling and Simulation in Engineering at the University of Transport and Communications in Žilina, Slovakia. In 1998, he was appointed as Professor of Information Technology in Engineering.
In 1990, at the VSB-TUO, Vondrák founded the Department of Computer Science, which he led until 2002. From 2003-2010, he was the dean of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He also worked as a lecturer and expert in Austria and the USA.
In 2016, Vondrák was elected as a representative of the Moravian-Silesian Region, and later the president of the same on November 10, 2016 (he defended this position in 2020). In 2017, he joined the ANO 2011 Movement and became an MP the very same year. He was re-elected this year.
The Ostrava Region shares a border with the area surrounding Katowice. Could it be, that most of the air pollution is coming from Poland nowadays? And is Poland too slow in its own green transition? “It is slow, and we are paying the price,” confirms Ivo Novák. “During the last election term, there was a proposal to make the air pollution restrictions on Polish businesses less stringent, which did not pass. I objected to it very strongly during negotiations in the Chamber of Deputies and explained what kind of an impact this deal would have on our region. The restrictions remained in place, which my having spoken out about – as well as my position on – this issue have helped happen. Our options in this regard are very limited, practically nill. We are trying to work with the Duchy of Silesia, but it will not happen overnight.”