|Sunday, 25 February 2018|
RFE/RL Newsline, Vol. 5, No. 202, 01-10-24
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
Vol. 5, No. 202, 24 October 2001
[A] TRANSCAUCASUS AND CENTRAL ASIA
[B] SOUTHEASTERN EUROPE
[C] END NOTE
[A] TRANSCAUCASUS AND CENTRAL ASIA
 ARMENIAN, GEORGIAN PRESIDENTS SIGN FRIENDSHIP TREATYOn the first day of his two-day official visit to Yerevan, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian signed a treaty on friendship, cooperation, and mutual security that determines guidelines for bilateral relations for the next 10-15 years, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 23 October. Under its terms, the two sides pledge specifically not to enter any alliance that the other considers hostile. The two presidents told journalists after their talks that they focused on unresolved conflicts, including the recent fighting in Abkhazia, and on the need to expand trade and economic cooperation. Shevardnadze again pledged that once the Abkhaz conflict is resolved rail traffic from Russia via Georgia to Armenia will be restored (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 August 2001). Also on 23 October, Georgian and Armenian energy sector officials signed an agreement on the repayment of Georgia's debts for electricity received from Armenia in 1998-1999, Noyan Tapan reported. LF
 ARMENIAN POLITICAL PARTIES APPEAL TO EUROPEAN PARLIAMENTFive Armenian political parties and two nonpartisan groups that between them account for the majority of seats in the 131-deputy parliament addressed an appeal on 23 October to the European Parliament not to drop from is annual assessment of Turkey's progress toward EU membership any reference to the need for Turkey to acknowledge the 1915 killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Unlike last year's, the draft resolution for 2001 at present makes no mention of the genocide. Instead, it welcomes the creation of the unofficial Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (see "RFE/RL Newsline, " 11 July 2001). The Armenian parties argued that the commission does not represent the views of the majority of Armenians and its existence does not justify the European Parliament's failure to continue to pressure Turkey over genocide recognition. LF
 ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT LOWERS MAXIMUM POLICE CUSTODYDeputies approved on 23 October in the second and final reading a proposal by the Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) Party to lower from 96 to 72 hours the maximum time a person may be held in police custody without charges having been brought against him, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Orinats Yerkir leader Artur Baghdasarian called the move "an important step toward the protection of human rights."
 RUSSIAN INTERIOR MINISTER CALLS ON AZERBAIJAN TO EXPEL CHECHEN MILITANTSBoris Gryzlov traveled to Baku on 23 October for talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ramil Usubov and with President Heidar Aliev, Turan and AP reported. Meeting with Aliev, Gryzlov argued that, as the two countries have agreed to cooperate in fighting terrorism, it is incumbent on Baku to extradite to Russia all refugees from Chechnya who, Gryzlov continued, should be screened before reentering Russia to identify any "terrorists." Aliev for his part highlighted the need for cooperation to intercept and arrest sturgeon poachers in the Caspian. Gryzlov discussed with Usubov ways to crack down on drug trafficking from Afghanistan via CIS states and to increase security in border regions to prevent the uncontrolled migration within the CIS of refugees from Afghanistan. LF
 FORMER AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT DENIES PLOTTING COUP D'ETATIn a statement released in Baku on 23 October, former President Ayaz Mutalibov, who since his ouster in May 1992 has lived in exile in Moscow, denied claims by Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry that his supporters planned to overthrow the present Azerbaijani leadership in May 2001, Turan reported. Two days earlier, Adalat Askeroglu, the editor in chief of the newspaper "Elin Sozu" ("Vox populi"), which supports Mutalibov, was assaulted and stabbed on the premises of the Azerbaijan Publishing House which houses the editorial offices of numerous print publications, Turan reported. LF
 GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT VOTES FOR BUDGET SEQUESTERGeorgian parliament deputies voted on 23 October by 124 votes in favor with 28 against to cut budget spending in 2001 by 164.6 million laris ($79.1 million), or 15 percent, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. On 19 October, deputies voted to postpone debate on the planned cuts until President Shevardnadze identified and dismissed those responsible for the budget shortfall, but at a meeting on 20 October, Shevardnadze persuaded them to resume debate on the planned cuts and pledged to take action within two weeks against those ministers responsible (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 October 2001). LF
 GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT, NGO DENOUNCE PLANNED INCREASE IN TBILISI ELECTRICITY TARIFFSParliament deputies on 24 October criticized the announcement the previous day that electricity tariffs in Tbilisi will be raised from 9.8 to 12 tetris per kilowatt-hour as of 1 November, while tariffs for some other regions of the country will be lowered, Caucasus Press reported. In addition, AES-Telasi, the U.S. company that runs the Tbilisi power network, will introduce a standard monthly charge of 2 laris ($0.91). An NGO representing residents of the Tbilisi district of Vake plans to stage street protests against the planned increases. LF
 POLL DEMONSTRATES GEORGIANS' LOW SPENDING POWERAccording to a poll conducted by the Strategic Research Center and summarized by "Alia" on 23 October, 42 percent of Georgians questioned spend less than 2 laris per day. That group was made up predominantly of teachers and students. Almost half those polled spend less than 50 laris per month and 33 percent 50-100 laris per month, while only 1.5 percent of the sample spends more than 1,000 laris per month. The minimal monthly living wage is estimated at 110-120 laris. LF
 ABKHAZ OFFICIALS CLAIM KODORI GORGE 'QUIET'Abkhazia's First Deputy Defense Minister Givi Agrba told Russian journalists on 23 October that the Kodori gorge is "quiet," but that a few scattered small groups of fighters who entered the gorge two weeks ago are still at large in Ochamchira and Gulripsh Raions south of the gorge, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. Agrba also claimed that Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev, who has been named as the commander of the Chechen contingent, eluded Abkhaz troops and crossed back into Georgia through the upper reaches of the Kodori gorge and is currently in Tbilisi, according to Interfax. LF
 KAZAKHSTAN QUALIFIES INTEREST IN BAKU-CEYHAN PIPELINEKazakhstan's ambassador to Azerbaijan, Rashid Ibraev, told journalists in Baku on 24 October that the Kazakh leadership has commissioned a feasibility study to determine the benefits and drawbacks of exporting oil via the planned Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, but cannot at this stage make a commitment to export a specific quantity of crude by that route because the precise quantities of oil in the Kashagan field are not known, Turan reported. He noted that in 2005, Kazakhstan will need to export 50 million tons and in 2010 100 million, whereas the existing Tengiz-Novorossiisk pipeline has an annual throughput capacity of only 60 million tons. Ibraev said that 10 million tons could be exported by tanker across the Caspian to Baku and then through the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, but that if the volume of oil extracted increases further, then a decision will have to be made on whether to extend the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline to the Kazakh oil terminus of Aqtau. Doing so, he pointed out, would be problematic if the legal status of the Caspian remains unresolved. Ibraev said the Kazakh leadership is still considering alternative oil export pipeline routs via Iran and China. LF
 KYRGYZ FARMERS PROTEST LOW COTTON PRICESSome 150 farmers in the village of Membekov in Kyrgyzstan's southern Djalalabad Oblast blocked the main Bishkek-Osh highway for seven hours on 22 October to protest the government's failure to honor its pledge to buy cotton at 20 soms (about $0.4) per kilo, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Four protesters were arrested and a further 17 fined for disturbing public order. Cotton prices on world markets are currently very low, and farmers are unable to sell their crop even for half that sum. First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev reported to parliament on 23 October that this year's cotton harvest amounts to 89,000 tons. LF
 TURKMEN PRESIDENT SEEKS UN BACKING FOR GAS EXPORT PIPELINE VIA AFGHANISTANMeeting on 22 October in Ashgabat with UN Deputy Secretary-General Kenzo Oshima, Saparmurat Niyazov solicited that organization's support for a gas export pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan, Turan and AP reported. Niyazov said such a pipeline "could help restore normal life" in Afghanistan. Earlier plans in the late 1990s to route a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan were thwarted by the civil war in Afghanistan. LF
 U.S. TO ASSIST UZBEKISTAN IN DESTROYING BIOLOGICAL WEAPONSUnder an agreement initialed in Tashkent on 22 October, the U.S. will help Uzbekistan destroy stockpiles of Soviet-era biological weapons on Vozrozhdenie Island in the Aral Sea, Reuters and AP reported the following day. The site is believed to contain quantities of anthrax spores, according to "The New York Times" on 23 October. In 1999, the U.S. provided Tashkent with funding for a two-year program to close down the former Soviet chemical weapons plant at Nukus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 May 1999). LF
[B] SOUTHEASTERN EUROPE
 HAGUE FREES THREE BOSNIAN CROATS ON APPEALOn 23 October in The Hague, the UN Appeals Chamber overturned the war crimes tribunal's sentences on three Bosnian Croats in conjunction with the 1993 attack on and massacres in Ahmici, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. The appeals court ruled that the cases against brothers Zoran and Mirjan Kupreskic and their cousin Vlatko Kupreskic had been poorly prepared and the evidence inadequate. Their trials in 2000, in which they were sentenced to between six and 10 years imprisonment, amounted to a "miscarriage of justice." The appeals court also reduced the prison sentence of Bosnian Croat police commander Vladimir Santic from 25 to 18 years for good behavior. Graham Blewitt, who is deputy prosecutor for the tribunal, told the BBC on 24 October that the ruling on the Kupreskices was unexpected and that it will be difficult for the victims of Ahmici to understand it. He added, however, that the ruling shows that The Hague's judicial process is fair. He said that the decision marks "another day in the life" of the tribunal, whose work has never been easy. Blewitt added that more recent cases have been better prepared than the Ahmici ones were. PM
 BOSNIAN CROAT GENERAL DENIES AHMICI LINKFollowing the appeal court's ruling on 23 October, the three freed men returned to Croatia, Reuters reported. They said that the court's decision was a pleasant surprise and their only regret on leaving The Hague so quickly was that they had no time to say good-bye to fellow prisoner General Tihofil Blaskic, who commanded Croatian forces in central Bosnia in 1993. Blaskic's attorney, Ante Nobilo, told RFE/RL's South Slavic Service in Zagreb that he will prove that the decision to attack Ahmici was taken at a secret meeting at which Blaskic was not present. The court has sentenced the general to 45 years in prison for his role in the massacre. PM
 HAGUE PROSECUTOR CALLS ON MONTENEGRO TO COOPERATEWestern news agencies noted on 23 October that Hague prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has suffered two setbacks in recent days, namely the appeals court's ruling and the continued refusal of the Yugoslav authorities to cooperate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 October 2001). She met in Podgorica with Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who wants the tribunal to allow General Pavle Strugar to return to Montenegro from The Hague until his trial takes place, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 October 2001). Djukanovic also pledged to cooperate with the tribunal. But Del Ponte's spokeswoman, Florence Hartmann, said Montenegro needs to back up its words with deeds. She noted that the tribunal needs access to documents and witnesses and called on Podgorica to arrest indicted war criminals on Montenegrin territory. Djukanovic promised long ago to arrest any such individuals. PM
 PLURALITY IN MONTENEGRO FOR INDEPENDENCEOn 23 October, Hina published the results of a recent poll in Montenegro on a proposed referendum on independence for that republic. Some 47.7 percent of the respondents favor independence, 37.9 percent oppose it, 5 percent are undecided, and 9.4 percent say they will abstain from the referendum. Some 62.4 percent of the respondents said Serbian citizens should also vote on the future of relations between the two republics. Independence and the referendum are the most important issues in Montenegrin politics but attract little attention in Serbia, where questions of poverty and crime are more important. PM
 STILL NO SERBIAN DECISION ON KOSOVA VOTEThe Belgrade authorities will not make a recommendation to Kosova's Serbian minority on their participation in the 17 November Kosova elections until after a meeting on 25 October between Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Kosova's UN administrator, Hans Haekkerup, AP reported from Belgrade on 23 October. Top Serbian and Yugoslav officials said in a joint statement that much remains to be done to improve security for Serbs in the province. Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic said that Serbs are afraid and that few who fled Kosova since 1999 have returned. Many Kosovar Albanians are deeply resentful of local Serbs, many of whom were long a bedrock of support for former President Slobodan Milosevic and assisted Serbian forces in their 1998-1999 crackdown in the province. PM
 OSCE UPBEAT ON KOSOVA ELECTIONSDaan Everts, who heads the OSCE's mission in Kosova, told Deutsche Welle's Albanian Service on 23 October that he is generally pleased with the way preparations for the elections are coming along, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported from Cologne. Everts called on Kosovar Serbs to take part in the ballot, saying that their failure to do so could adversely affect the international community's view of them and of Serbia. PM
 NATO SAYS KOSOVAR KILLING WAS RESULT OF FAMILY FEUDGeneral Marcel Valentin of KFOR said in Prishtina on 24 October that the recent killing of a Kosovar journalist was the result of a "long-standing family feud," AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 October 2001). UN police spokesman Barry Fletcher said, however, that police are still investigating the motive behind the drive-by shooting. PM
 MACEDONIANS SAY BOMB BLAST SHOWS REBELS STILL ACTIVEMacedonian police spokesman Vasko Sutarov told AP in Skopje on 23 October that the recent bombing in Tearce shows that the ethnic Albanian guerrillas are "still around and active" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 October 2001). Government spokesman Gjorgji Trendafilov argued that the explosion is the rebels' message to police that they "are not welcome there." NATO spokesman Craig Ratcliff said: "We are aware that there are people out there who encourage violence. We hope they will not have any impact." There have been no subsequent reports of incidents. PM
 MACEDONIAN WORKERS SEEK GOVERNMENT BAILOUTMore than 10,000 workers blocked roads in Skopje and other cities on 23 October to demand a $150 minimum monthly wage and a government bailout for insolvent state industries, dpa reported. Macedonia, like Serbia, retains much of its communist-era state-run sector and benefits greatly from the gray economy and from remittances from its citizens working abroad. PM
 SERBIA LAUNCHES CAMPAIGN FOR THE EURONational Bank Governor Mladjan Dinkic opened a campaign in Belgrade on 23 October to familiarize Serbs with the rules and procedures governing the introduction of the euro in early 2002, Deutsche Welle's Serbian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 July 2001). Dinkic estimates that there are at least 5 billion German marks (about $2.3 million) "in Serbian mattresses" awaiting conversion to the new currency. The mark has served for decades as the most trusted currency throughout the former Yugoslavia. PM
 SERBIA BEGINS INVESTIGATIONS OF CRIMES AGAINST MUSLIMSInterior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic said in Belgrade on 23 October that the authorities have begun investigations into two separate incidents involving the disappearances of ethnic Muslims during the Bosnian war, Reuters reported. In once incident in 1992, a Serbian paramilitary unit took 17 Muslims off a bus in the Priboj district in southern Serbia. In the second incident, in 1993, 20 Muslims were forced off a train near Strpci in eastern Bosnia near the Serbian border. PM
 FIRST MULTIETHNIC POLICE GROUP STARTS WORK IN SOUTHERN SERBIAThe first group of 97 police of various nationalities ended their training on 17 October and has begun work in Presevo, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. Some 63 members of the class are ethnic Albanians. PM
 CROATIAN MINISTER TAKES RESPONSIBILITY FOR DEATHSThe cabinet of Prime Minister Ivica Racan accepted the resignation of Health Minister Ana Stavljenic-Rukavina on 23 October in conjunction with the recent deaths of 21 patients after treatment on faulty U.S.-made dialysis machines, Reuters reported. The U.S. company, rather than Croatian officials, is generally considered responsible for the defects, but the cabinet said that the minister's resignation is a necessary "moral act." The cabinet also called for the head of the Rebro clinic and one other top health official to resign. PM
 ROMANIAN PREMIER MAKES 'INTERESTING PROPOSAL' TO UDMR ON STATUS LAWAdrian Nastase proposed on 23 October that party cards attesting to membership in the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) be used in Hungary as ID cards attesting to membership of the Hungarian minority in Romania. UDMR Chairman Bela Marko said the proposal is "interesting" and that experts from his party will examine it before deciding whether to forward it to the Hungarian authorities. Nastase also proposed that the stipulation in the Romanian-Hungarian accord allowing for 8,000 Romanian citizens to work in Hungary be replaced by one allowing any Romanian national to do so if he or she finds work there. If this is accepted, the premier said, the Status Law will no longer be discriminatory. The UDMR and the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) delegations also examined ways to overcome divergencies over the use of Hungarian textbooks in Transylvanian schools. They agreed that the content of the textbooks must be approved by the Romanian authorities and Nastase said Bucharest will not object to the textbooks being printing in Hungary, if Budapest wishes to thus aid schools teaching in the Hungarian language. The PSD agreed to a demand by the UDMR to increase the tax revenue share of local governments by 1 percent. No agreement could be reached on the UDMR's demand for a Hungarian-language university financed from the state budget. MS
 ROMANIAN COMPANY RECEIVES HUNDREDS OF 'SUSPICIOUS LETTERS' FROM CZECH REPUBLICA Romanian-Israeli company in Bacau has received some 300 letters postmarked from the Czech Republic that are considered "suspicious" of possibly containing anthrax bacilli, Romanian television reported. After opening 20 such letters and witnessing that they all include the same offer for marketing a product advertised on the Internet, and that the letters had the same handwriting, the company decided to send the letters to the Cantacuzino Bucharest institute where all materials suspected of containing anthrax bacilli are being examined. The institute said on 23 October that thus far no trace has been found of anthrax in any of the 30 examined letters. MS
 MOLDOVAN PRIESTS APPEAL TO ROMANIAN PRESIDENTThree Moldovan priests belonging to the Bessarabian Metropolitan Church on 23 October appealed to Romanian President Ion Iliescu and Premier Nastase, as well as to the Romanian Embassy in Chisinau, saying the Moldovan authorities are "waging an interconfessional war." The three priests were recently forbidden by the Moscow-subordinated Moldovan Metropolitan Church to officiate in their parishes. They wrote that the present leadership in Chisinau is "openly encouraging phobia against Romania" and that the Bessarabian Church is being attacked "by the communist leadership at all levels, on all fronts." The priests wrote that in view of this situation, "the time has come to abandon...compromise in relations with the current leadership in Chisinau." MS
 MOLDOVAN OFFICIAL SAYS COUNTRYMEN MUST STUDY OWN, NOT ROMANIAN HISTORYVictor Stepaniuc, the leader of the Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) parliamentary group, said in an interview on 23 October with the "Banking and Finance Profit" magazine that Moldovan schools must teach the "History of Moldova" and not that of "Romanians," Infotag reported. Stepaniuc said Moldova "has no future" as long as its citizens "do not know its past," and that the current "History of Romanian" course taught in Moldovan schools is "a subversive act against Moldovan ethnic consciousness." He added that "We are the only independent European country that has no official history of its own and that brings up patriots for a neighboring country -- Romania." Stepaniuc also said he does not rule out that Russian may become a second official language in Moldova, He said in European countries there are "two to three official languages where ethnic minorities make up over 10 percent, " and that in Moldova "35 percent of the population belongs to an ethnic minority." MS
 MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT DISSATISFIED WITH CABINET PERFORMANCEVladimir Voronin told a joint meeting of the presidential staff and the PCM parliamentary group on 23 October that he is "worried" about "negative tendencies in the cabinet's six-month performance," RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Voronin said he does not envisage dismissing the Vasile Tarlev cabinet, but each minister will have to answer for his or her performance. He said administrative efficiency must be improved, and emphasized that the main impediments are bureaucracy, corruption, and the incompetence of some officials. He also said the government must improve communication with both his office and with the parliament. MS
 MOLDOVAN DEPUTY SPEAKER REJECTS GAGAUZ-YERI FEDERALIZATION PROPOSALSVadim Mishin, the deputy speaker of the Moldovan parliament, on 23 October rejected the demands of the Gagauz-Yeri Popular Assembly for the federalization of Moldova, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Mishin said the assembly envisages "two independent states in Moldova, which is unacceptable." He said after a meeting of a special parliamentary commission that examines Moldovan legislation and its compatibility with the autonomous region's special status that he favors enlarging the prerogatives of the Gagauz-Yeri autonomy structures. MS
 BULGARIAN CABINET PRESENTS 2002-2005 PROGRAMDeputy Premier Nikolai Vasiliev on 22 October presented to journalists the cabinet's program for the period 2002-2005, BTA and Reuters reported. The program envisages a 5-7 percent economic growth and cutting the number of unemployed by 150,000. It also envisages a zero budget deficit by 2005, compared to the 1 percent of GDP deficit estimated for 2001. Vasiliev said the government expects to attract between $1 billion and $1.2 billion in foreign investments over the next four years. He said the program is based on a new taxation policy, "aggressive incentives" for exports, and reaching new markets. MS
 BULGARIAN INTELLIGENCE SERVICE CHIEF DENIES CORRUPTION ALLEGATIONSNational Intelligence Service chief Major General Dimo Giaurov told journalist on 23 October that he has asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to begin investigating the daily "Republika," which he accuses of "slander." The daily wrote in two articles earlier this month that Giaurov and President Petar Stoyanov's brother Emil Stoyanov have misused National Intelligence Service funds that were channeled for constructing apartments for them instead of renovating buildings of the service in Bankya, BTA reported. Giaurov said the company that built the apartments has never worked for the service he heads and has nothing to do with that service. He said he is "a wealthy man, not ashamed of it," and that he financed the construction of the apartments from inherited properties and restituted property. He also said it was "mostly chance" that Emil Stoyanov purchased an apartment in the same building and that he "hardly knows" the president's brother. Giaurov also said it was "not by chance" that the allegations were printed in a newspaper known for its links with the former communist secret service. MS
 BULGARIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES CAMPAIGN ON THE NETThree of the six Bulgarian presidential candidates for the 11 November elections will campaign on the web, BTA reported on 23 October. President Stoyanov and his running mate Neli Kutskova on 22 October launched their site (http://www.petarstoyanov.com), which is different from Stoyanov's official site as president. A special column on the site features jokes about the incumbent president. Socialist Party candidate Georgi Parvanov and his vice presidential running mate Angel Marin also launched their site (http://www.bsp.bg). The candidates of the Civil Party, Bogomil Bonev and Stoyan Andreev, also announced they are preparing a site, but Union Bulgaria candidate Reneta Indjova and her running mate Krustyu Ilov said their campaign is modest and they have no funds for an Internet site. MS
[C] END NOTE
 FEWER BABIES SPELL TROUBLE FOR CZECH REPUBLIC'S FUTUREBy Jeremy Bransten
(This is the second in a series of articles relating to demographic trends in Central and Eastern Europe.)
In 1989, the average Czech woman had 1.8 children -- lower than what politicians would have liked, but higher than in many West European countries. By 1999, the fertility rate had dropped to an unprecedented 1.13 children, placing the Czech Republic at the very bottom of the global fertility scale.
Jitka Rychtarikova, the head of the Czech Academy of Science's Demographic Society, says it is important to examine the reasons behind the sudden fertility drop in Europe's post-communist states. In Western Europe, fertility rates began to drop in the 1960s as a result of large numbers of women beginning to join the workforce. But in the communist world, including the former Czechoslovakia, almost all women already held a job in addition to raising a family.
What has prompted post-communist couples to forgo or delay having children, Rychtarikova says, is a mixture of economic uncertainty and choice. Young Czechs suddenly face career, education, and travel options their parents could only dream of. At the same time, they know that having children, or at least more than one child, could severely curtail those options -- in terms of both freedom and family budget. Although the city of Prague has seen a boom in the post-communist years, the Czech economy overall has seen no growth since 1989.
In surveys, young Czech couples continue to overwhelmingly cite the desire to have an average of two children and say that they only want to delay planning a family. But Rychtarikova does not believe the low fertility rate will reverse itself anytime soon. "We speak about delaying, but we've been talking about delaying having children until a woman is older for a very long time," Rychtarikova said. "This discussion has been ongoing for almost 10 years. But we know that it is a fact that when childbirth is put off, fewer children end up being born. I think significantly fewer children will be born here, because it's a combination of this desire to delay and the economic situation."
There is another factor at work in the Czech Republic's drop in fertility rates -- one, which ordinarily might be considered good news, but in this instance deeply worries the experts. "The Czech Republic is the only post- communist country where the mortality rate has begun to decline significantly and mortality is declining in higher age categories," Rychtarikova said. "We are starting to see an increase in the number of older people and on the other hand, the number of newborns keeps shrinking."
It's a trend that down the road could have serious economic consequences, among them a shortage of skilled labor and a potential collapse of the state-funded pension plan -- which is already 20,000 million crowns ($500 million) in debt. "The proportion of people receiving state pensions will increase while the proportion of those paying into the system through taxes -- economically active workers -- will decrease," according to David Marek, an analyst for Prague-based Patria Finance.
At present, 2.33 Czech workers support one retiree drawing a state pension, a ratio that analysts call the "index of economic dependence." That rate, given current trends, is expected to drop to 1.66 workers per retiree by 2030. Whereas people over 65 years of age currently make up 14 percent of the Czech population, that figure is due to top 25 percent within 30 years.
While Western Europe can expect a similar problem, "the effect is likely to be worse because Czech public finances are in far worse shape than in countries of the European Union," Marek said. "There, these countries had to consolidate their finances in order to participate in the single monetary union and join the euro-zone. One of the necessary conditions was fiscal reform, so you could say they are better prepared for current demographic developments than the Czech Republic."
What policy options do Czech politicians have to remedy the situation? One approach, floated by Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, is to attempt to reverse the demographic trend through a package of child-friendly subsidies. As an incentive to parents to have more children, Spidla recently proposed setting aside 50,000 crowns ($1,300) in state money per newborn child. Upon reaching the age of 18, each recipient could spend the money, plus interest accrued, on education, housing, or other necessary expenses.
The plan has yet to pass through parliament and has been attacked by right- wing parties as an unaffordable luxury. Patria Finance's Marek is also skeptical, saying, "the idea behind this -- raising the birthrate and softening these negative demographic trends -- may be good, but I don't think this is the way to successfully resolve the problem. Since we need to reduce state budget expenses, as I mentioned, this measure would mean an additional expense of 4,000 to 5,000 million crowns a year [$105 million to $132 million]," he said. "This will mean taxes will have to be raised, so people's motivation to save and their ability to choose various savings vehicles will be lowered." According to Marek, tax relief would be a better solution.
Over the long term, Rychtarikova said the government should strive to level the economic playing field, so that having more than one child would not impair a woman's or a family's choices to such a degree. "I believe we have to draw a distinction between social welfare programs -- where you help economically disadvantaged families, people and groups -- and a family policy," Rychtarikova said. "This means trying to equalize conditions or reduce the differences between the living standards of families without children and those with children -- even though a family with children is never going to be able to reach the same level of financial comfort."
Marek suggests planning for the future by fundamentally reforming the state pension system, so it can cope with a new wave of retirees. "Relatively little has been done so far," he said. "The traditional pay-as- you-go system was supplemented with the possibility of additional pension funds, but it's only on a voluntary basis and it appears it will only play a small, supplementary role. More important would be to undertake a reform, that would trim state budget expenses by introducing a new pillar to the pension program. This would entail establishing obligatory private savings accounts for retirement."
Under the pay-as-you-go system, retirees are paid their pensions using tax contributions from current workers. Clearly, there will come a point when an ever-shrinking pool of workers is to sustain an ever-growing pool of pensioners. Under a private pension plan, workers would pay into a fund that invests in stocks and bonds and would accumulate interest.
Experts agree that private savings accounts will become a necessity to supplement state pensions, given current demographic trends. But even in Western Europe, governments have been reluctant to make the switch. Most people continue to expect the state to provide their full pension, and that holds doubly true in post-communist Europe, where recent bank failures and related scandals have undercut public trust in private financial institutions.
Increasing in-migration could be another way to help alleviate demographic pressures. Already, tens of thousands of workers from poorer East European countries have flocked to the Czech Republic to take up manual jobs locals do not want to fill.
But Marek doubts the Czechs will be able to emulate the Americans or the Germans and draw on a large pool of highly qualified foreign employees.
Never before in human history have countries had to face the massive peacetime shrinking and aging of their populations. For states such as the Czech Republic, the impact could be especially severe. Czech policymakers must now face the decision of whether to put a greater portion of the state's resources into reversing the trend -- or to plan for its inevitable impact.
Jeremy Bransten is an RFE/RL correspondent.
Reprinted with permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty