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East/Central Europe: Gap Between Rich And Poor Growing

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 15 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations Undersecretary General Ives Berthelot is expressing concern about a deepening sense of economic and social division in Europe.

In an interview with RFE/RL in Prague, Berthelot -- who is executive secretary of the U.N.'s Economic Commission for Europe -- said these increasing disparities take several different forms.

One is the growing gap in wealth between European nations. Since the start of the transition era 10 yeas ago, the gap between the richest and poorest nations has steadily widened, both in east-west terms and among the transition countries themselves.

Berthelot says that a major reason for this is the differing pace of reform in the individual transition nations:

"Basically, it is a question of the speed with which institutions have been put in place and how well the laws and rules enforced effectively. It is clear that the institutional reforms have been relatively significant in most of the transition countries, but that in some, the enforcement of the rules and laws has been very unequal."

He notes that, for instance, in the case of the Czech Republic, there was a timely process of mass privatization, but that process did not in fact lead to restructuring in the country's big industrial enterprises.

A second factor leading to a sense of increased division in Europe, according to Berthelot, is the pace at which the Central and East European nations are moving toward membership in the European Union.

Among the 10 eastern candidates, the EU has chosen to open negotiations with only five -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, and Slovenia. This has caused a sense of impatience and sometimes smoldering resentment among the remaining five -- Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania and Latvia. Earlier this year Bulgaria accused the EU of not doing enough to help.

Berthelot said a third factor for division in Europe -- which has come back more into focus with the collapse of communism -- are the different religious communities. There are Muslims and Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Protestants. This religious divide is sometimes magnified by the fact that the lines sometimes correspond to the lines of economic division. Berthelot says:

"I am very concerned by the deepening of this dividing line in Europe. It is an important role for the pan-European institutions, like the Economic Commission for Europe, but also for the OSCE (Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe) and the Council of Europe, to ensure that we properly address the concerns of those countries which may have the feeling that they are left aside, or which objectively are in a more difficult situation."

The Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) -- which was established in 1947 -- is helping the transition nations in a number of unspectacular but important ways. For instance, it provides technical assistance in setting up border crossings, in the interconnection of electrical grids, on the provision of gas piping, and on suitable legislation for fostering free market mechanisms, such as those relating to small and medium-size businesses. The ECE also offers training for the personnel involved in these technical improvements.

To help specifically the Balkan nations, the ECE operates a program called the South East Europe Cooperation Initiative. All former Yugoslav republics are included in this initiative, except for the present Yugoslav Federation itself.

However, Berthelot hopes strongly that situation will change. He says that once the present confrontation is suitably resolved, he hopes Yugoslavia will be included in the benefits of the South East Europe Initiative. He also says he hopes the ECE itself will be given more resources to expand its activities in the region.