Published on March 11, 2019

Slovakia: Public excluded from government call for projects to tranform Upper Nitra

A fair transformation does not mean that projects of big companies are preferred. It is important to secure the participation of smaller entrepreneurs and stakeholders, writes LENKA ILČÍKOVÁ in Euractiv Slovakia.

In Upper Nitra, a plan has been developed to prepare the region for the post-coal period. The Transformation Action Plan is to be approved by the Slovak Government in April 2019. The number of jobs threatened by the termination of mining activities is subject to discussions and estimates are showing various results. The most recent study carried out by the Slovak Academy of Sciences states that the age structure of mines employees is relatively favourable for creating a system of early retirement. It will be vitally important for the region to fill the action plan with concrete projects aimed at creating new job opportunities, especially job opportunities with higher added value.

At present, however, there is nothing to demonstrate that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic plans to address the ‘wider public’ with the aim of supporting their interest in creating new projects. At each meeting, local working groups call for involving a wider group of actors in designing and implementating the action plan. Even after a year of joint work, basic requirements such as the publication of the decision on the participatory creation of the action plan and the preparation of a communication strategy towards the public, have not been fulfilled.

In connection with the approaching deadline for drafting the Action Plan for the Transformation of Upper Nitra, the Office for Investment and Informatization of the Deputy Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic announced a call for indicative project intentions. The form of its promotion is insufficient – information has been sent by e-mail only. It has not been announced on their website nor in any media.

Involvement of small and medium-sized enterprises

The study by the Slovak Academy of Sciences confirms that the main challenge is to involve small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the transformation process, and states: “SMEs are not sufficiently represented in the database of already submitted projects. A qualitative survey suggests that it is a group of actors that is most difficult to reach and engage.”

The Priatelia Zeme-CEPA Association organizes meetings with representatives of local authorities, local entrepreneurs and active citizens, during which they present concrete examples of good practice, discuss with locals ideas for the development of the region as well as the criteria that should be met by supported projects. However, such sporadic meetings cannot replace the systematic work that the government and the region should be doing with communities in the districts of Prievidza and Partizánske.

Currently in Slovakia, only 20% of the available EU funds are used at national level. There are two concerns in the region. Firstly, that the use of future EU funds for the region will not exceed the national level, and secondly that the funds will be allocated in a non-transparent way without clear criteria – attempting to present a high use of funds as proof of a successful transformation (rather than focus on quality of projects).

We are transforming a region, not a company

Fair transformation also means that during the process of moving away from coal, projects of large companies will not be preferred. Instead, smaller businesses and actors will be allowed to participate in the transformation of the region with support similar to that given to large companies. The transformation of a mining region should be based primarily on the needs and possibilities of local people. Granting a big subsidy to a few actors might be more effective when it comes to the paperwork, but helping more people with smaller amounts of money is definitely more useful for the region.

The Action Plan and all related documents and activities should take into account the criteria for prioritizing projects that have been discussed with locals in order to ensure a fair transformation of Upper Nitra. Most often, locals call for environmental improvements and projects that have a positive social impact. The Priatelia Zeme-CEPA Association has already discussed some of the criteria with locals.

Environmental burdens go hand in hand with health problems. The most recent official data on pollution from coal-fired power plants in 2016 confirm that coal mining companies bear much of the responsibility for the health impacts. In the context of the shift away from coal, coal-mining companies should not be subsidized from public funds without having a clear reduction programme and clear commitments to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions.

Who is responsible for the transformation?

It is a pity that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister does not view systematic work with the communities in the region as one of the important elements of the transformation.

The authorities in charge do not give clear answers to the following questions:

-When will municipalities, as well as small and medium-sized businesses, get such financial support as is given to the private mining companies?

-What should the long-term support for further creation and improvement of projects look like?

-What should local working groups do after the approval of the action plan?

The institutionalization of transformation is not on the agenda of the day. Nervousness on the part of local people is growing.

The current practice of creating an action plan should not be an example for its implementation. After a year of work, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has not even published the statute, the rules of procedure and the official reports from the meetings. The members of the working groups do not receive information, invitations and background materials on time, smaller working groups are created which not everyone is sufficiently informed about. Entities that have sent their project intentions in response to the accelerated call for projects in March-April 2018 have not yet officially received any feedback.

In the recent process of preparation of the action plan it has always been declared that projects prepared by the private mining company Hornonitrianske bane Prievidza (HBP) are not a priority and their contribution, necessity and innovational aspect will be assessed in a similar mode as for potential projects prepared by other entities. Most surprisingly, in December 2018, HBP’s projects were the only ones to appear in the draft material on ending the coal plant subsidies that was drawn up by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic together with the Ministry of Economy and subsequently approved by the Slovak Government.

Is the reluctance against the initiation of a wider public debate only an inconspicuous form of support for the private mining company?

This text is a translation into English of a text originally published in Slovak on Euractiv Slovakia.