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EU Expansion Breeds Fears of Increased Poverty in Central Europe - 2003-11-29

As several former communist countries of Eastern Europe prepare to join the European Union, there is concern that poverty could increase in the region.

Delegates at two-day conference in Budapest urge Eastern European governments to make poverty reduction a priority, as the region enters the European Union.

Following the collapse of communism, many state social structures disappeared, and unemployment increased as market reforms were implemented.

Bela Kadar, a former trade minister and now a member of the Monetary Council of the Hungarian National Bank, says more than one million of Hungary's 10 million people are impoverished. He says that could lead to tensions, which could hamper Hungary's efforts to reach economic parity with European Union member countries.

"That's more than one tenth of the total population," he said. "It can generate political instability, social unrest, tensions, which are definitely not desirable in a catch-up economy."

Other Central and Eastern European nations are also struggling, especially in the Balkans, where people live on average monthly incomes of $180 or less.

Among those hardest hit in the former Yugoslavia is Serbia, where at least one in four people is without a job.

Serbia's chief councilor for poverty reduction, Jasmine Beba Kuka, says that after more than a decade of war and the overthrow of President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, expectations were high for economic recovery.

But as Serbia is preparing for early elections next month, she says, Serbians underestimated the legacy of the republic's recent history.

"You cannot expect that poverty will be reduced in a period of three years," said Jasmine Beba Kuka. "We first had to accept that we are poor. I mean we inherited a lot of [from] the previous regime."

Serbia, which forms a loose federation with tiny Montenegro, hopes to join the EU in the next decade.

Yet, the EU is already anticipating difficulties when it incorporates 10 mainly former Communist countries next year.

Conference Organizer Klaus Weigelt of the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation says a concerted effort is required to fight poverty in the region.

"Where you have targets, there is hope, and you can do something against poverty in your country and in the world," he said. "And there is a need for a country-wide unity of people, who are engaged in helping poor people and fighting against poverty."

He says European Union enlargement may help to reduce poverty.

But social workers have warned that EU expansion could lead to more poor people in Central and Eastern Europe, as income gaps increase, and many will not be able to keep up with the demands of a fast-paced market economy.