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Transitional Success: USSR to EU

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The Czech Republic

Transitional Success:

USSR to EU

Public finance policy issues during the political

economic transition from centrally planned socialist

economics to free market democratic capitalism.

V550 Dr. Mikesell

November 20, 1996

Rick Ferguson [email protected]

Eric Martin [email protected]

Dmitri Maslitchenko [email protected]

Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Political Summary: Restructuring for Transition

III. Transition to Market Economy: 1990 – 1991

IV. Problems of Transitional Monetary Policy and the Financial Sector:
An Overview

V. Macro Economic Stability: 1993 – present

VI. Monetary Policy: 1993

VII. Intergovernmental Financial Relations

VIII. Budgetary Overview: 1993 – present

IX. Tax Reform

X. Current Political Economic Considerations: 1996

XI. The EU and NATO

XII. Conclusions

XIII. References

Introduction

In 1989, after nearly 40 years of Soviet control, Czechoslovakia once
again became an independent nation, the Czech and Slovak Federalist
Republic. This transition from Soviet socialism to democracy culminated
throughout Central and Eastern Europe with the literal collapse of the
Berlin Wall in East Germany, the heroic Gdansk Shipyard Strikes in
Poland. The student and worker protests in Prague and Budapest were no
less important.

The Czechoslovakian revolution took place peacefully and over a much
longer period of time than events in other former Soviet Union or Warsaw
Pact nations. Hints of major reform in Czechoslovakia began as early as
1968. Czechoslovakian officials, under Soviet power, moved incrementally
to begin the long road towards decentralization and independent
Czechoslovakian rule. Their increasingly effective efforts became known
as the Prague Spring, a time of growth, change and development.

Success was, of course, neither immediate nor easy to achieve. The Cold
War reached a pinnacle in the Eighties and the winds of change began to
blow in Central and Eastern Europe. The CEE nations endured many
hardships. Soviet oppression, though waning by this time, became largely
unbearable. Change in Czechoslovakia came from the ground up; dissidents
quietly began to return to popular power. The revolution gained momentum
by 1989. ‘Revolutionists’ began to demand sweeping economic and
political reform. They were backed by well organized and very timely
strikes and protests. After a two hour general strike on November 27,
1989, proving the immediate and widespread power and cohesion of the
revolution, the Soviet controlled authorities finally agreed to
negotiate.

Through the negotiation process and threat of further massive general
strikes, former dissidents assumed officially sanctioned ‘concessional’
positions. Within months, they gained near complete (and very real)
control of the Federal Assembly. On December 29, 1989, Mr. Havel, a very
famous and popular Czech dissident, became President of Czechoslovakia
(renamed the Czech and Slovak Federalist Republic).

This initial political victory represents only half of the nation’s
success. Within the first three years of self rule, harsh economic (and
subsequent political) realities forced the nation to divide once again.
The nation as a whole was unable to accommodate the vast discrepancies
between the western Czech and eastern Slovak regions. Massive economic
reforms brought this to the popular agenda as Slovakia suffered greatly
while their Czech counterparts seemed to benefit from reform.

The government in Prague wished to move swiftly to further reform
efforts. Slovakia hindered Czech success and in turn suffered greatly by
this Czech-led reform. Slovakia simply could not move as rapidly toward
a market economy due to the economic configuration left to them by years
of Soviet planned economics.

Political Overview: Restructuring for Transition

In 1992, Vladimir Meciar, a very strong nationalist was elected prime
minister of the Slovak Republic, while Vaclav Klaus, a moderate
federalist, was elected in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, these two
leaders were unable to agree on common economic and political strategies
to govern the CSFR. Klaus’s reform plans, now legendary, were simply
inappropriate for the fledgling Slovak regions. Slovakians felt
alienated from the government reform in Prague. Within a short time it
was very clear that the Czech regions could not completely support their
Slovak countrymen through the transition. The two leaders agreed to
divide the Czech and Slovak Federalist Republic (CSFR) into the Czech
and Slovak Republics on January 1, 1993.

Federal assets and liabilities were split between the two nations in a
two to one ratio. The Czech Republic received the larger portions
reflecting both size and population. Again, the split was achieved
peacefully, without massive debate. The two countries agreed to form a
customs union. They implemented identical foreign policies with respect
to third countries, and forbid tariffs or ‘bans’ between themselves.
They also formed a temporary monetary union, which collapsed within
months as both countries unexpectedly experienced a massive drain on
foreign reserves during this time. To more fully understand the current
developments in the Czech Republic, one must examine the historical
economic decisions made before the break-up in 1993 as outlined below.

Transition to Market Economy Overview: 1990-1991

CSFR economic reformers went to work immediately following the collapse
of Soviet rule. The reform package included near complete liberalization
of prices, a complete reversal of former exchange and trade systems and
an impressive preparation for massive and rapid privatization. These
efforts were supported by financial policies including a “pegged”
exchange rate, currency devaluations, and restrictive fiscal, monetary
and wage policies.

Monetary Policy

Although monetary policy is discussed in a separate section, it needs to
be briefly addressed here to understand the conditions in which the
transition occurred. Monetary policy in the initial stages of transition
ensured that inflation remained in control throughout currency
devaluations and price liberalizations. The CSFR devalued its currency
by 20 percent in 1991 after several smaller devaluations before hand.
Taken as a whole, these devaluations reduced the value of the currency
by half within six months. Generally, monetary policy remained tight
throughout the entire period.

Fiscal Policy

Undoubtably, the goals of the CSFR economic reformers were to
drastically reduce government spending. The former centrally-planned,
output-driven economic policies were no longer effective for the new
capitalist democracy. Restructuring government expenditures was a key
component of reform. The main changes, aside from massive privatization
discussed below, forced reduced subsidies wherever possible. Every
sector of society, with the exception of health, welfare and education,
saw an abrupt end to government subsidies. In 1991 alone, for example,
officials reduced government spending by 12 percent to reach 47 percent
of GDP. This trend continued throughout the transition. Massive
government spending, a hallmark of socialism, ended virtually overnight.

Areas where government spending remained high would remain so throughout
the reform process. Health and welfare for poor, elderly, unemployed and
children is a very difficult situation in any government, especially one
in transition. Reformers focused primarily on industry and energy in the
initial stages, leaving the areas of greater uncertainty to be dealt
with in a more stable political environment.

Price Liberalization

As an almost immediate measure, subsidies to foodstuffs and energy were
reduced by nearly 50 percent. Retail prices for most household items
increased by nearly 25 percent literally overnight. By the end of 1991,
the Czech government controlled only 6 percent of prices in the country
as compared with 85 percent in early 1990. Only basic necessities, oil,
and agricultural products remained under state control. To offset some
of these shocks, wages increased, though only slightly and not nearly
enough to meet the increased cost of living. Politically powerful trade
unions prevented the passage of even more drastic reform measures. Plans
in 1991 to increase the price of electricity, heating oil and coal by
nearly 400 percent and rent by 300 percent were delayed until 1992 and
1993.

Foreign Trade and Investment

After an initial currency devaluation of nearly 50 percent, the
government adopted an adjusted exchange rate connected to a “basket” of
convertible hard currencies. Internal convertibility of hard currencies
was established in 1991. These two measures combined to foster trade and
investment. Initially, the CSFR set a 20 percent surcharge on imports
coupled with a 5 percent tariff. These obstacles soon ended as major
provisions were passed to more actively encourage trade and investment.
Initial steps toward private property rights and the dissemination of
publicly owned lands further enhanced the investment environment.

Privatization

Privatization is by far the most critical and complicated development
the CSFR had to address. Speed was critical. The ‘default mechanism’
ensured that current managers and persons of powers would assume control
and create their own joint venture agreements with foreign entities.

State firms that were nearly completely vertically integrated needed to
be desegregated by form and function. And the process had to be done
well, for flailing industries would simply increase state expenditures.
Failures did not decrease expenditures in compliance with the
transitional reform strategy. The CSFR privatization plan was threefold.
Small-scale privatization was the easiest. Retail stores, restaurants
and small service or industrial workshops were sold to the highest
bidders in weekly public auctions. Where no CSFR buyers were found, a
second round of auctions allowed foreigners to bid.

Property restitution was more difficult. The government needed to
equitably redistribute land that had been taken nearly 40 years earlier.
This is a difficult and involved issue. CSFR citizens are allowed to
claim land taken from them, though the burden of proof is on them. Where
no proof exists, special arrangements can be made for state assistance.
In areas of conflict, the issue will be brought to the courts. A large
part of the country was not in private hands before Soviet rule. Some of
this land can be used as an offering to parties where disputes over
ownership exist. Also, lands that have been improved (shops,
developments, houses, etc.) are sold at specially determined rates to
the former property owners. Prices and possible alternative compensation
for those owners who do not wish to purchase these ‘improvements’ are
again settled by a special court arrangement.

Large-scale privatization progressed swiftly. Some state-owned firms
were sold outright to private interests while others remained under
indirect state control until buyers were found, legal or economic
concerns settled, or parliamentary debate resolved.

Social Policy

The strong tradition of labor unions and their political strength proved
crucial to social security reforms throughout CEE. The CSFR was no
exception. Labor unions were instrumental in keeping CSFR unemployment
at very low levels and social safety net benefits quite high.
Essentially the state guaranteed incomes at a minimal level to meet the
‘cost of living’ for the unemployed or the under-employed. Pensioners
and parents of children received benefits adequately covering bare
essentials. Further benefits for health care were distributed at the
local level as the health system still remained under state control.

Problems of Transitional Monetary Policy and the Financial Sector

Since the introduction of reforms, monetary policy played a key role in
the economic stability of the Czech Republic throughout the transition.
Inflation remained surprisingly low (though relatively high in 1989 and
1990), exchange rates were relatively stable (after initial
fluctuations), and external reserves stayed strong throughout the period
(spurred by unusual and unexpected outside interest in the Czech
Republic as the first reformer to prove its success).

What is perhaps most impressive are the obstacles Czech officials
overcame in developing an effective monetary policy. First, the entire
CMEA trading block was virtually dismantled. Reform and transition would
be difficult even with stable trading partners. In the CMEA, all of the
countries were experimenting with and adjusting prices, exchange rates
and policies. It was very difficult to set monetary conditions
correctly, in real or absolute terms.

Second, within just a few short years, the CSFR itself broke apart for
economic and political reasons. This was largely unexpected and proved
difficult in the policy making arena. As the break-up drew near,
officials had a difficult time determining which policies should be
enacted based upon which of many scenarios might occur in the CSFR.

Third, after finally establishing the terms of the CSFR split and
negotiating a seemingly effective customs and monetary union between the
two new countries, the monetary union failed miserably. Within a few
months, the union caused significant drains on much needed foreign
reserves in both countries and had to be abandoned.

Finally, the Czech tax system had to be completely overhauled.
Additionally, the banking system needed massive reform. Large spreads in
interest rates were common and overall the banks were simply reluctant
to lend on any long term basis, a major impediment to domestic
investment and growth.

All of these massive changes occurred within just a few years.
Throughout these developments, monetary policy remained extremely tight.
At the onset of the reform period, it was at its tightest, with a minor
break late in 1991, once the political economic dust had settled.
Otherwise, the next monetary reprieve didn’t occur until the second half
of 1993. By 1994, broad money grew at 30 percent compared with growth
of 15 percent a year earlier. More important than doubling growth
figures is that the economy was able to withstand this growth by 1994!

Interest rates were high throughout the period, and continue to remain
high by most western standards (over 9 percent). Interest rates were not
directly controlled but were subject to central bank reserve
requirements and discount rate announcements. Liquidity was further
controlled through regular auctions of treasury bills.

Bank reform focused primarily on establishing the legal framework for
transactions between the central bank and newly established commercial
banks. Weaknesses still remain in reporting and accounting and the
reluctancy for banks to lend. Several commercial banks have had to come
back under government control to prevent major economic problems.

Macro Economic Stability 1992 – present

By 1992, the CSFR began to show significant signs of success. Though
they were in fact more disadvantaged than many other countries in the
CEE, they fared well. Their export market consisted almost entirely of
former members of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) who
were in the same transitional position as the CSFR, impeding efficient
trade. Fortunately, inflation on the whole in the CSFR remained
remarkably low when compared to the rest of the CMEA, as did external
debt. Inflation did jump just before the CSFR breakup into the Czech and
Slovak Republics. Experts suggest this occurred in part due to the fear
of instability during the breakup and in part due to an anticipated VAT.
As expected, in 1993 (in the Czech Republic), inflation rose again after
introduction of the VAT.

In 1993, free from its less advantaged Slovak counterpart, the Czech
Republic better targeted its economic recovery plan. The plan
encompassed three main elements:

1) A balanced state budget that encompassed sweeping tax reform;

2) A tight monetary policy to reduce the inflation caused by VAT and
other lesser effects (which also improved its external position for
trade and investment); and

3) Moderate wage increases (adjusted to inflation) and a stable
exchange rate.

This reform policy was backed by an IMF “stand by” arrangement as a
precautionary measure. The IMF would assist if the Czech Republic needed
financial assistance. This happened once early in 1993 and Czech
officials repaid the loan before it came due (much to the delight of the
IMF).

Unemployment remained remarkably low in the Czech Republic at 3 percent
in 1993, while Poland’s figures (another major success story in CEE)
still remain in double digits. Low, virtually non-existent unemployment
certainly contributes to greater political and popular acceptance of the
above fiscal and monetary policies.

Many attribute a major setback in the Polish “Shock Therapy” reform
efforts to the political demands of the labor unions. The Polish
President, Lech Walesa, understood the need to keep wages low to
implement the reform. But he feared for his political power and caved in
to labor pressures by granting wage increases. By doing so he nearly
destroyed the entire economic reform process. He claimed that had he
not, the entire political reform process would have crumbled.

Czech officials didn’t face this obstacle as unemployment throughout the
transition remained low. The political reform process was slightly
segregated from the economic reform process. The small Czech population
(roughly 10 million) was easier to organize than Poland’s 40 million.
Regional differences were less and political factions less pronounced.
Regardless, by 1993, the Czech Republic had a very cohesive popular
political support base which facilitated the economic reforms.

By 1994, foreign trade increased substantially, with much of the growth
occurring between EU member nations. Tourism in Prague, now a “must see”
on any European vacation, contributed to increased trade to maintain a
strong balance of payments and a surplus in the current account. Though
FDI by 1994 had decreased (after very high initial investments in 1992
and 1993), the

capital account maintained high inputs due to the rise in borrowing of
Czech firms (which proved even better for Czech long term economic
success).

GDP began to rise slightly after a period of decline from 1991-1993 of
nearly 20 percent. Privatization entered its second round in 1994 for
enterprises being privatized through voucher programs. The first wave of
privatization is considered a remarkable success (a model to be used
farther east). As this first wave ended in 1993, the Prague stock
exchange began trading and the banking system went though increased and
improved reforms. The Czech Republic was a leader in the CEE in trade
and investment. Economic reform efforts, coupled with the above
mentioned political support, put the Czechs at the forefront of CEE
success.

Industry

Industrial output by 1993 declined by nearly 21 percent compared with
1991 figures. This can partially be explained by increases in the
service sector, as investment soared in service sectors and dropped
dramatically in the industrial sector. Also, the industrial sector was
the most inefficient sector in the former centrally planned economy and
much of those inefficiencies were corrected with the introduction of
market reform. Most industries produced less as consumption dropped. And
they did so more efficiently as output based economic plans were no
longer used.

It is significant to note that the Czech Republic does not have an
industrial policy. They feel the state does not have enough information
or resources and thus it is most efficient to allow the private sector
complete control. Government could assist with exemptions and
subventions, but the market should determine winners and losers.

However, the Czech government continued, through 1994, to bail out
state-owned enterprises, mostly due to their economic (employment) and
political leverage. In essence, this hurts struggling smaller, private,
firms that are unable to compete with giants, let alone subsidized
giants. These large industrial subsidies are all but gone in most
industries today, however they still exist for politically sensitive or
economically vital industries. In some cases the government reluctantly
returned to subsidies as not all of the initial privatization efforts
proved successful. Some large enterprises were not effectively
dismantled and the resulting giant enterprises were simply too large and
inefficient for the new market economy. It took several years, in some
cases, to learn this lesson.

Prices

Consumer price inflation by 1993, after the initial shocks of the VAT,
stabilized at 18 percent. Experts estimate the VAT added 7 percent to
inflation during 1993 and an additional 2 percent can be attributed to
government administered price regulations. Price regulations remained
mostly in the utilities sector. Adjustments from 1994-1995 increased
prices in several key areas including gas, oil, transportation, medicine
and telecommunication tariffs.

Wages

Wage restraints through a “tax based income policy” was an important
feature of the CSFR. Wage restraints ended in 1993, but had to be
brought back by the end of the year by the Czech government. The
rational behind bringing the restraints back was that market forces were
not yet adequate to control wage increases. Wage increases had to remain
close to increases in consumer prices to avoid inflationary
difficulties. Therefore, as late as 1995, up to 100 percent tax rates
were applied to wage increases over allowable limits, effectively
keeping wages at desired rates.

Monetary Policy: 1993

By 1993, Czech monetary policy began to stabilize in conjunction with
political and economic indications of success. The basic aims of
monetary policy at this point were simply to maintain internal and
external currency stability. Officials kept the Czech crown pegged to
stable European currencies and prevented inflation from rising above 10
percent. In a somewhat disguised blessing, foreign capital flowed into
the Czech Republic at high rates in 1994 causing officials to raise
reserve requirements from 9 to 12 percent to insure inflationary
stability. The banking system, though still flawed, was able to
withstand the pressures. The economy certainly welcomed the increased
capital.

By 1993 and even more so by 1994, monetary policy was less of a
political tool in the reform process. Stability in many respects had
been achieved. The nature of further reform and continued stability
relied almost entirely upon fiscal decision-making. To fully understand
and appreciate the political economics of reform from 1993 onward, both
fiscal and monetary, an examination of the Czech budget is helpful.
Defining the role of the state in the new market oriented economy is
critical. Two main issues must be examined, the resources and
informational capabilities of the state. Both are limited and both are
not independently effective. The budget and the political issues
surrounding its passage are important in understanding the Czech
approach to stability now that much of the transition has been rather
successfully completed.

Intergovernmental Financial Relations

Before the budget analysis, a brief overview of intergovernmental
financial relations may be helpful. The Department of Finance makes
budgetary estimates for the Ministry of Economy. They regulate spending
and essentially decide which organizations and institutions receive the
much sought after government subsidies. They are also responsible for
government accounting, financial management and regulation of wages. The
Department of Finance is classified under the Ministry’s “Administration
and Finance” section.

The Foreign Economic Relations Department, the European Affairs
Department and the Economic and Social Policy Department are all
included under the Ministry’s “Economic Policy.” They all report to the
Ministry and are essentially charged with the difficult task of
improving and encouraging economic development both home and abroad. The
Ministry also supports a wide variety of business development
departments; Small Business, Business Promotions, Tourism, etc. Though
their interactions, cooperation and communication are limited, they all
follow somewhat coordinated general policy initiatives of the Ministry.

The 1993 Budget

The following budget summary is based on the 1993 budget because that
was the first budget elaborated as the independent Czech Republic.
Before the transition, Czech had one of the more state dominated
economies in the CEE. The state controlled almost all economic activity
with government expenditures reaching as high as 65 percent of GDP in
1989.

The 1993 budget focused on a more developed private sector. The budget
is fundamentally influenced by tax reform which will be discussed in the
following chapter.

Revenues

The 1993 budget is based on three main revenues: the value added and
excise taxes (36.9 percent), income tax from legal entities (25 percent)
and social insurance (28.5 percent). The new tax system (and total
restructuring of public finance to benefit local budgets) reshaped the
revenue system and forced budget developers to complete more in-depth
estimates of revenue flows. They were forced to make more accurate
revenue predictions.

Total revenues in 1993 reached 419 billion crowns (26 Kc per $1USD), of
which 343 billion went to the state, 41 billion to local districts and
35 billion to health insurance. Revenue growth was 13.4 percent and
local budgets rose 35.2 percent in 1993

Expenditures

A large part of the expenditures for the Republic encompassed transfers
to the people. The largest programs are pensions, family allowances and
sickness insurance. Social transfers were increased in 1993 to create
reserves for expected increases in unemployment. Expenditures on
branches of government like health care, for example, increased by 50
percent in 1993, simply responding to demand. A move to create the
National Health Fund was instituted out of a revamped payroll tax and
transfers from the central budget to care for the non-working public.
The health fund reduced local spending on health care thereby reducing
local transfers. Expenditures on education and culture also increased by
a third over 1992 levels. These additional expenditures were partially
offset by a new wage tax targeting employers and a combination of the
following:

1) Savings in compensatory income support and sickness benefits by a new
means tested model;

2) A freeze on subsidies to agriculture, transportation and mining; and

3) Large cutbacks in real investment, including a public housing plan
begun in 1992.

Transfers from federal accounts to the Czech government totaled 90
billion crowns, one fifth connected with expiring credits granted abroad
and debts owed by the former Czechoslovakian and CSFR government. Debt
service is a major component of the 1993 budget. The debt reached 115
billion crowns by 1993. 40 billion crowns were transferred liabilities
of the Czechoslovakian Commercial Bank from operations of the so-called
‘central foreign currency resources’. Total expenditures on debt service
reached 23 billion crowns in 1993. Due to its size and proportion of the
entire budget, some of those payments were deferred. Eight billion
crowns, the total Czech share of the 1992 debt, was financed through
state bonds and money from the national property fund. Old debt
principals were deferred for a year until 1994.

Tax Reform

The main elements of the systems prior to 1993 included taxes on
enterprise surpluses, payroll and turnover. Wage or income taxes existed
but were largely insignificant. The main function of the taxes were to
transfer enterprise surpluses to the state budget and to sustain the
administratively determined price structures. Tax incentives played no
role in the economic system.

Sweeping tax reforms dominated the budget for the 1993 year. They
included new indirect, direct and property taxes and modification to the
payroll tax including a shift in the tax burden from corporate incomes
to wage incomes. From 1992 to 1994, relative to GDP, the share of wage
based taxes rose while the share of corporate income tax fell and
indirect taxes remained unchanged.

These new direct taxes eliminated earlier distinctions for taxation of
businesses based on forms of ownership and employment status. The new
system of VAT and excise taxes expanded the coverage of indirect taxes
to services. It also mitigated the falling implicit rate in the earlier
turnover tax and condensed the range of standard tax rates.

The reforms promoted investment by lowering the cost of capital to
businesses. This reform featured a significant reduction in the
statutory rate of taxation, standardization and acceleration of allowed
depreciation and a 10 percent credit on investment in selected equipment
which reduced the dispersion in effective taxes on investment
activities. This is how the cost of capital was lowered. The tax allowed
the rate of taxation on enterprise profits to drop from 55 to 45
percent.

A personal income tax was also introduced to replace the previous
network (maze?) of taxes on wages of large enterprises, the incomes of
artists and authors, and the various forms of income derived from the
emerging private sector. The new tax had all wage and self employed
income taxes on a progressive scale with marginal rates from 15 to 47
percent, standard deductions and additional deductions allowed for
social insurance contributions, children, transportation to work, etc.
Interest, dividends and capital gains were subjected to 15 to 25
percent, encouraging investment only slightly. Social security and
health taxes on wages of 36 percent from the employer and 13.5 percent
employee replaced the old payroll tax of differential rates. Net taxes
on gifts, inheritance and motor vehicles were implemented and the import
surcharge was eliminated. Although the system went through amazing
changes as outlined above, much of these changes were to no avail.

Tax evasion and avoidance

The problem with this system is that these any tax structures are still
relatively easy to get around if one is willing to operate in the
shadows. In the first quarter of 1994, the (23% rate) VAT yield was 30
percent below initial expectations. The corporate and VAT combined
barely yield 80 percent of original estimations (one suspects that
estimate is high…). Overall, Czech shadow economic activity, though
low, is still significant. Estimate suggest anywhere between 15 and 25
percent of the economy works in the shadows.

Police claim it is almost impossible to investigate and prosecute tax
violations. The criminal codes do not allow for them to effectively
investigate such activities, and no other effective mechanisms yet
exist. Change in codes and regulations are too complex and far too
frequent. The Ministry of Finance claims that between 1993 and 1994
there was a change in the tax codes at least every 4 days. An example is
the modification in 1994 of the corporate income tax from 45 percent to
42 percent, a reduction in the highest marginal personal income tax
rates from 47 to 44, and an increase in allowable expenses. These simple
changes required major modification in software and procedure for the
Ministry’s clerks to keep up with the changes. The Ministry coordinates
12,000 employees in hundreds of local offices that constantly need to
register and update databases with the latest tax changes.

Due to all the confusion, police estimate they can only catch roughly 10
percent of tax related crimes. A 1994 law adds to the difficulties by
allowing businesses to keep their records secret. Employees can be sworn
to secrecy regarding certain administrative procedures in firms, like
tax issues. The criminal code states that banks can only be forced to
reveal tax information after initial evidence from a formal
investigation. With no information to go on, investigations rarely reach
formal status. Additionally, a great deal of business transactions are
still conducted on cash basis due to the ease and tradition. This opens
very easy avenues for tax evasion and avoidance as cash is barely
trackable.

Many of these tax reforms will become obsolete as the Czech Republic
bids for EU membership. Czech will have to compete with EU tax codes,
one example entails small breweries. Parliament passed a law on EU
guidelines that allows a larger consumption tax on alcoholic beverages
to be granted only to small, independent breweries. Breweries producing
less than 200,000 hectoliters per year will be eligible for consumer tax
cuts of up to 50 percent. The law sets a progressive rate up to the
minimum margin limit.

Though it may seem straight forward, experts are unsure whether this
brings the tax code closer to EU standards or drives them farther away.
Are they protecting small business, providing tax shelters to favored
companies, or preparing for entrance into the EU? Currently no one
knows. The tax reform process is slow. Though much has been accomplished
on the books, no one is really sure what the final outcomes will be. One
suspects, as with many recent development in the Czech Republic, change
will gravitate toward EU standards wherever possible. As the potential
for EU membership draws near, one can expect many of these seemingly
confusing tax issues to be clarified immediately as the Czech Republic
attempts to do business with one of the most developed and powerful
economic forces in the world.

Current Political Economic Considerations: 1996

Perhaps the most exciting chapter of the Czech political and economic
transition is still to come. In November 1995, the Czech Republic signed
a membership agreement with the Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development. The Czech Republic is the first CEE country to enter
the ‘rich boys club.’ The Czechs furthered their status by recently
declaring that they were now considering themselves a ‘developed’
economy. Though perhaps a bit premature and self-serving, OECD
membership certainly entitles them to make such a claim. Many more
economic issues still need to be addressed however, before transition
can truly be considered complete.

The Czech Republic should reach growth levels of 7 percent this year.
That growth needs to be achieved for the next ten years to simply double
their income, and even then they will remain far behind their western
neighbors. Current GDP in the Czech Republic is only about $3500, which
according to the World Bank, ranks them near Malaysia. Fortunately,
unemployment is practically non-existent at about 3.2 percent, the
lowest rate in all of Europe. And the Czech trade deficit runs about 5-7
percent of GDP. Some experts suggest that rapid appreciation of the
crown in recent times is to blame.

Furthermore, wages are a problem. Though they remain low, they are
rising very quickly even with governmental controls. To stay competitive
Czech business must increase productivity. This tends to be very
difficult without cheaper capital. Though tax designs are in place to
‘cheapen’ capital, it is not immediate nor as effective as necessary.
Finally, average savings rates throughout the CEE are about 18 percent,
which is just half of the very successful East Asian Tigers (and two to
three times that of developed economies). Czech needs to decide how fast
and how much more they will grow in the near future. Regardless of some
of these more negative indicators, Czech has made a significant
transition. The numbers above simply indicate that their journey is not
yet complete.

OECD membership is just a small step toward the Czech’s ultimate goal of
EU membership. The Czech Republic is revamping their policies in order
to comply wherever possible to EU regulations, guidelines and policies
in order to facilitate their membership bid. Some of these changes
include a decrease in the number of income tax brackets, decreases in
the VAT from 22 percent to below 20, and the end to all tariffs with EU
countries by 1997 (excluding “sensitive products”). These changes are
helpful to the Czech economy but slightly premature. Experts claim they
are done solely to impress the EU application reviewers.

The EU and NATO

EU membership is inextricably tied to NATO membership. It is important
to understand the similarities and differences between these two
organizations, especially as they concern the Czech Republic and the
continuation or completion of the transition. The transition is both
economic and political and therefore should be examined in terms of both
EU and NATO powers. The EU and NATO are arguably the most advance powers
economically and politically in the world. NATO includes the US, while
the EU, of course does not. It is interesting, then, that many claim EU
membership is virtually predicated on NATO membership. This creates an
interesting foreign policy situation for the Czechs. It is not
contradictory, but perhaps a bit dispersed in terms of goals and
objectives.

Originally, NATO was created as a response to the communist threat.
Recent discussions between NATO and Russia suggest this threat no longer
exists. So what is NATO’s role today? For the time being, NATO has a
very powerful, though perhaps indirect role in the continuation of EU
expansion. EU membership would bring long term economic and political
stability to the CEE (a NATO objective as well). NATO must continue to
work in association with the EU to bring stability throughout the region
to insure that the “communist threat” is indeed diffused indefinitely.
It is not out of the question that massive economic and political
upheaval in the FSU could result in some nationalist power rising up and
posing a serious threat to European interests. It is in this sense that
NATO and EU have a very common, and perhaps final goal.

Recently while in Detroit campaigning, President Clinton set a date for
NATO expansion. He did not specifically mention which countries he was
referring to, however, he did say that ‘their’ inclusion into NATO is
expected by 1999 (by ‘their’ most experts assume, Poland, Czech and
Hungary). If the Czech Republic becomes a NATO member by the year 2000,
EU membership could come as early as 2003 or 2004.

Therefore, politically, the Czech Republic needs to satisfy the goals of
both EU and NATO. Economically, they need to address the EU a bit more
thoroughly then the US as the EU will be their main trading partner, but
the US will remain a powerful ally, investor and trade partner. Although
membership in either of these prestigious world powers would be
remarkable for a country just a decade after socialist rule, the Czechs
need to proceed carefully.

In joining the EU, the Czech Republic will face a somewhat unpleasant
reality. After years of being the political and economic leader of the
transitional Warsaw Pact countries, they would be immediately subverted
to the lowest status in EU member countries, lower than Portugal. Though
this would enable them to receive EU assistance, both technical and
financial, it would also require them to adapt possibly painful domestic
policies involving increased environmental standards, increased costs
and drastically high competition in terms of quality and markets. It
would also find them having to compete with Hungary and perhaps the most
important country from the EU perspective, Poland. If Czech is forced to
split benefits and favors with Poland and its huge 40 million person
markets, they will indeed have their work cut out for them. Another
major problem are the EU legal requirements for issues like consumer
protection.

The benefits to EU membership, of course are many. The Czech Republic
currently meets four of the five requirements for EU membership under
the recent Maastricht Treaty. The Czechs reached EU membership levels
for currency stability, interest rates, debt as a percentage of GDP and
public expenditures as a GDP percentage. They still fall short on the
inflation determinant. 1996 inflation is still at 9.1 percent. This
would have to be lowered to 3.8 percent to conform to EU standards, a
daunting task. The country will continue to reduce taxes wherever
possible to stimulate the economy, but this is increasingly difficult as
the Czechs are now in a relatively comfortable position where increased
reductions in taxes would seriously hurt social benefits.

The EU is currently in the process of implementing their monetary union.
Though this is a fantastic goal for the Czech Republic, they are not yet
in a position to completely abandon their own monetary policy and rely
entirely on fiscal policy. Even though they could not be permitted to
join the EMU upon their EU membership (it has much stricter requirements
than general membership), it would be strange for the Czech Republic to
enter the EU knowing that they are a far cry from EMU membership. This
is not to say it is inadvisable. The Czechs must join the EU at almost
any cost. It is simply a concern worthy of mention. As the EU expands,
the core states will be able to continue a favored status or elite power
center, revolving around EMU involvement and not simply EU membership.
This could be an important strategic leveraging issue for the core
states (and a major point of contention for the Czech Republic as a new
member).

There are many concerns and areas for excitement both politically and
economically for the Czech Republic. They are in a very good position to
come out far ahead of anyone’s expectations. Perhaps even their own. EU
and NATO membership will both be achieved within the next 5-10 years, no
matter what difficulties are faced along the way.

Conclusions

In just seven years, the Czech Republic transformed itself from a
socialist, Soviet-controlled industrial-based economy to an increasingly
service oriented OECD member and number one contender for the next wave
of EU and NATO expansion in the region.

The Czech Republic’s success can be largely attributed to its small size
and population and its relative ethnic and religious homogeneity. More
important, however, is the Czech determination and persistence in
meeting the challenges of transition. The transition that began in 1989
entailed a great many hardships. Not all of the CEE countries made it
through the transition so successfully. The Czechs succeeded because
they were able to stick to their plan when most other countries were
forced to abandon for political reasons and popular discontent.

When the reform package became difficult, the Czechs didn’t revolt, they
didn’t strike and they didn’t complain. They showed remarkable foresight
in taking early steps to revamp their tax system and banks, keep
inflation and unemployment and wage increases low, and keep their
currency at stable levels. These were not all easily accomplished. They
survived the difficult times and came out on top of the CEE as the only
country to make it through the transition virtually unscathed. This
smooth transition earned their revolt the nickname, “the Velvet
Revolution.”

The Czech Republic is now poised to embark upon a greater challenge,
that of becoming one of the world’s power core with EU and NATO
membership. It will entail further difficulties, but compared with the
accomplishments of the past and their ability to overcome Soviet
oppression and transition from central planning, there is little doubt
that the Czech Republic will succeed in their final step toward complete
transition from the USSR to the EU.

References

Economist. Country Profile: Czech Republic. The Economist, London. 1996.

Economist. Saving Graces. The Economist November 9, 1996.

Freiden Jeffrey. International Political Economy 3rd Edition. St.
Martins Press, NY. 1995, Section IV.

Heady, Christopher. Tax Reform and Economic Transition in the Czech
Republic. Fiscal Studies, Feb. 1994.

Heady, Christopher. Tax and Benefit Reform in the Czech and Slovak
Republics. Center for Economics and Policy Research, Discussion Paper
Series No. 1151. March 1995.

Klaus, Vaclav. The Ten Commandments of Systemic Reform. Occasional Paper
43, Group of Thirty, Washington, DC, 1993.

Munk, Eva. Trouble Brews Over Tax Break. The Prague Post, January 18,
1995.

Munk, Eva. 25 Year Old Sports Car Picking Up Speed. The Prague Post,
January 18, 1995.

OECD Economic Surveys. Czech Republic. OECD, Paris, 1996.

State Budgets and the 1993 Fiscal Policy. CTK Business News. May 4,
1993.

Svejnar, Jan. The Czech Republic and Economic Transition in Eastern
Europe. CERGE-EI, Prague, Academic Press, NY, 1995.

Untitled. CTK National News Wire. December 11, 1992.

Web Sites: http://www.cerg.cuni.cz

http://www.aifs.org/czoo.htm

http://alta vista.digital.com – simple query cz repub, transitional
economies

http://www.lbs.lon.ac.uk/school/wpaps

http://www.ssc.upenn.edu/east/spring95/janusz

http://www.hiid.harvard.edu/pub

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