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Czech Spa Turned Into Little Russia

June 23, 1998

KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic (AP) _ Tucked along a river in a Bohemian forest, this picturesque spa has for centuries been a favorite haunt of Europe’s elite, from kings to counts and composers.

But today’s visitors could be forgiven for thinking they’ve stumbled on a ``New Russian″ theme park.

Pale Siberians stroll past stately colonnades and Victorian buildings bearing signs in Cyrillic. Kiosks sell same-day Russian newspapers and tins of Black Sea caviar. An accordionist serenades passersby with ``Moscow Nights.″ Russian pop singers are flown in for regular gigs.

Stripped of their Soviet bloc clout nearly a decade ago, the Russians are back _ flush with cash.

Russian investors have snapped up most of Karlovy Vary’s main hotels and spas, spending tens of millions of dollars on the choicest Czech real estate outside Prague, a two-hour drive east. Thanks to their influence, the tiny airport this year established its first two regular commercial flights _ both to Moscow, by two separate airlines.

The idyllic resort scene and clip-clopping of horse-drawn tourist carts beside the Tepla River mask an undercurrent of tension. Russian money is good for business, but stirs unease among local Czechs marked with the psychological scars of decades of Soviet domination.

Exacerbating the nervousness is a fear that Russian crime syndicates may be the mystery investors, through middlemen _ a widely shared assumption that neither federal police nor town authorities bother to deny. A Czech Interior Ministry spokesman, Jiri Hajek, calls it ``a justified suspicion.″

The Russian elite actually have been regular visitors for centuries, along with other monied Europeans.

They came for the hot spring water that contains 40 chemicals believed to alleviate digestive system diseases and metabolic disorders.

Czar Peter the Great took ``the treatment″ and kept up his shooting skills in the surrounding woods; his canvas practice targets are lovingly preserved in the local museum. Revered Russian writers also left their mark _ plaques honor Tolstoy, Gogol and Turgenev, and today’s visitors can down vodka at the Hotel Pushkin. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin came. So did Kremlin insiders in the Brezhnev era.

Now it’s the post-Soviet business elite and other ``New Russians.″

Russians are easily the most numerous nationality in Karlovy Vary _ a third of 60,000 visitors last year and likely much more in 1998 _ even though Germany is just 15 miles away.

``It’s the tradition, it’s the beauty, but the main thing is the water,″ insists Andrei Janson, a Muscovite who with his wife discovered Karlovy Vary four years ago. ``We drink the hot water three times a day.″

The Russians still feel more at home here than in other countries, with no visa required, plenty of Russian speakers and low prices on everything from steak to shoes.

``Russians buy everything,″ says Irena Krajska, who works at a boutique. ``It only has to have the Gianni Versace label _ this is very important for them.″

Mayor Josef Pavel, who has seen Karlovy Vary rescued from the brink of dilapidation thanks to Russian and Western money, pauses when asked about the possible role of Russian gangsters in local real estate.

``Maybe the top crime people from Russia come here, I don’t know,″ he says. ``We have no problem in the city with Russian mafia.″

Police say many of the 100 companies registered here under Russian names appear to be gang fronts used to ``legalize″ untaxed income. The good news: The gangs consider Karlovy Vary a ``peace zone,″ says the national police spokesman, Hajek.

Quiet zone or not, the Russians are too much of a good thing for some.

Trying to limit Russian guests for fear of alienating ``old money″ clientele, the city’s only five-star hotel, the Grand Hotel Pupp, doesn’t advertise in Russia.

``These Russian investments are good for Karlovy Vary. Without a lot of this Russian money in the last two years, a lot of buildings would have collapsed,″ says Roman Vacho, the hotel’s managing director.

But, he adds, ``there is nothing worse than when our guests come down to breakfast in suits and ties and have to meet the Russians in their sports outfits.″

Other Czechs complain the Russians dodge taxes and drive rents higher by paying exorbitant amounts. Or simply that they’re Russian _ a bias Russians encounter due to Soviet sins or gangster stereotypes.

``For the time being, they’re good for the economy,″ says Ivan Babej, a photographer. ``But 10 or 20 years from now, who knows what Karlovy Vary will become?″

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