Central European Countries Cite Obstacles to Economic Integration Western Trade Barriers Hinder Transition from a Communist System to a Market Democracy, They Say

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IN Central Europe's search for stability, most of the attention is focused on defense issues and potential membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But some Central European leaders suggest that regional security depends more on economic progress than military protection.

"We cannot discuss stability in this region without discussing development in this region," Czech Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec told the Monitor in an interview. When it comes to economic cooperation, many officials of the Visegrad states - comprised of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland - are critical of the West, especially the European Union (EU), for not doing enough to foster regional economic development.

During the twilight of the cold war, former United States President Ronald Reagan made an impassioned plea for Communist leaders to tear down the Berlin Wall, the most glaring symbol of European division. The wall fell in late 1989, but, many Central European officials say, major obstacles to continental integration remain. They cite Western trade barriers as one of the biggest hindrances to Central Europe's successful transition from the communist system to a market democracy.

Despite Visegrad complaints, EU nations - which are struggling to overcome a stubborn recession - have remained highly protective of their markets. The response of the Visegrad states to EU protectionism varies.

Officials in the Czech Republic, with its relatively strong economy, are more muted in their criticism. "We don't want special programs or aid," Mr. Zieleniec says. "For us it's important to have the feeling that doors are open, and that we have our fate in our own hands."

Slovakia - perhaps the Visegrad state experiencing the most difficulty in retooling its economy - is more outspoken on EU trade practices. "We realize full economic integration is not possible in the near future," Slovak Foreign Minister Jozef Moravcik told journalists in Bonn last month. "But it is particularly important for us to expand cooperation and gain access to various markets that are now severely restricted, especially in areas where we can compete."

One such area is steel, says Miroslav Somol, the Czech Republic's deputy minister of trade and industry. According to Mr. Somol, the Czech Republic and the EU implemented a deal in March 1992 that lifted restrictions on steel trade. But several months later, after Czech producers started making inroads into Western markets, EU officials reestablished trade barriers.

"Once we reach a certain success in our exports, we are stopped, or at least limited," Mr. Somol says, adding that "we {the Czech Republic} fully appreciate the position of the EU."

The position he refers to is one of high unemployment, complicated by the pressing need to restructure several key industrial sectors to regain competitiveness. …


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