Since the tumult of 1989, the Czech Republic has become a stable, if rowdy democracy with a workable market economy. But there is still plenty of scope for nitpicking and upsets before the “big bang” in 2004.
Politics in these parts has come a long way and, in many ways, the Czechs are nearly home.
Along with Poland and Hungary, the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999. Trade has shifted strongly towards the west. Income levels have grown throughout the region and investment in everything from car plants to breweries has streamed in.
Tschechische Republik Flagge
The Czechs have capitalized on their technical skills to build knowledge-based industries and have attracted top-quality foreign investment as a result.
Skoda, a car maker, has tripled production since Volkswagen bought the company in 1991, when 70 percent of its cars were sold domestically. Now 80 percent are exported, to some 70 countries. Skoda has plants in Poland, Bosnia and India. Not bad for a Central European company.
Still, the Czech Republic may need as much as another 15 to 20 years to catch up with Western Europe. And all is not well. The losers -- farmers, factory workers and the unemployed young -- are angry. Pensioners struggle to get by on sums lower than the World Bank's poverty standard. What happened, they ask, to the much anticipated perks of capitalism and liberal democracy?
EU Membership issues divide Czechs
In the June election, the Czech communists, unreformed and unapologetic, carried several regions, including the wine-growing bit of the country along the border with Austria. Membership of the European Union was the central issue in the tightly contested election campaign.
The Thatcherite ex-prime minister Vaclav Klaus, leading the anti-EU camp, had sought to tap popular sentiment against eliminating the Benes Decree -- a set of postwar laws that expelled 3 million ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland.
Many Czechs fear scrapping the decree will lead to a storm of Germans eager to reclaim their old property and possessions potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
The populist ploy didn’t work and voters put the pro-EU Social Democrats in power. But the conservative Civic Democrats got 24.5 percent of the votes, which goes to show that there is a growing tide of euro-skepticism in the Republic, waiting to be exploited by political mavericks seeking to ride on an anti-EU ticket.
Though the Czech Republic’s hard-charging, export-driven economy seems primed for EU entry, the path will not be smooth. Thorny issues like the Sudentenland and disagreement with Austria over the Temelin nuclear power plant -- against Austrian calls for its closure -- remain significant obstacles.
The latest opinion polls suggest that just 50 percent of Czechs favor joining the EU, mostly because they fear, justifiably, "second-class" membership that accords them fewer rights than the current 15, including Germany and Austria.
The opening of the EU and NATO doors to the former Soviet satellite, however, is the climax of more than 10 years of hope and painful reform. Membership of Europe’s top club is in many ways overdue.