Wave of misery loosed by fall of Wall

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The Independent Online
THE END of Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc has resulted in more poverty, more truancy, more deaths, fewer births and marriages - and a dramatic surge in crime.

That is the depressing picture that emerges from the first comprehensive survey of social trends in the region over the past five years. The report, produced by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), says that conditions in the former Communist bloc are worse than those in Latin America in the 'lost decade' of the 1980s or in the West during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Unicef warns, moreover, that if such trends continue, they could lead to 'instability and social conflict', endangering the entire process of reform - as is, to a large extent, already being seen in Russia. 'The situation in many former Communist countries is critical and is in sharp contrast to the expectations of three to four years ago,' said Richard Jolly, Unicef's deputy executive director, in Geneva, where the report was launched this week. 'Certainly people then knew there was a rocky road ahead. But nobody envisaged that the rocks would be so large.'

In addition to Russia and Ukraine, the report focused on living conditions in Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Among its most dramatic findings was a steep rise in death rates over the past four years: by 9 per cent in Romania, 12 per cent in Bulgaria and a staggering 32 per cent in Russia, the equivalent of more than 500,000 extra deaths per year by 1993.

Along with a general surge in crime, violent deaths from accidents, poisoning and murder were sharply up, with Russia again providing the most dramatic example: a 60 per cent increase in murders in the first six months of last year alone. In Poland, the number of suicides rose by one third between 1989 and 1992, while in Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary the number of marriages slumped by between 35 per cent and 40 per cent in the same period, leading to a similarly dramatic fall in birth rates.

While nearly all the countries surveyed have suffered large declines in Gross Domestic Product over the period, the scale of the resulting poverty has varied. Russia again led the field, with more than 70 per cent said to be on or below the poverty line at its worst. In Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, the figure has been closer to 40 per cent, while in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, it has been kept to below 20 per cent.

The authors of the report attribute much of the blame for the scale of the problems on the 'shock therapy' treatment through which the countries have sought, to varying degrees, to transform their Communist economies into capitalist ones overnight. The sudden removal of price and trade controls involved in the treatment have led to soaring inflation (in Poland it reached 650 per cent at one point), raging unemployment and a sharp decline in disposable incomes, illustrated further by the much higher proportion of earnings now spent on basic foodstuffs throughout the region.

To prevent or minimise the scale of further human misery, particularly the suffering of children, the report calls for basic social safety nets to be kept in place or restored, with help from the West where needed. It also urges international aid to be aimed specifically at preventing the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis that have already started to reappear, and to check the growing problem of malnutrition.