Czechs face new price hikes in 2002

The Czechs are bracing for what has been described as a "decisive year" politically and economically. 2002 will bring general elections, the election of a new President to take over from Vaclav Havel in 2003 and the closing of the privatization process as the country prepares to join the EU. But for most people the immediate concern is a series of price hikes which will affect their everyday lives. Daniela Lazarova has more:

From now on Czechs will have to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for electricity, gas and phone bills. The price of electricity is to grow by up to 16 %, depending on the locality, and the price of gas by an average of 5%. Many blue collar families are feeling the pinch and those living in rural areas have already made plans to revert to coal burning furnaces in order to save on gas heating bills. Aware of the danger of increased air pollution, parliament is currently debating a new law to ban the burning of coal, especially brown coal, where gas is available and enable local authorities to impose fines on anyone caught burning waste. The liberalization of the energy market is to take place in several steps, but for several more years only the largest customers will be able to select their supplier of electricity. Households and smaller clients will be the last to have the choice - in 2006.

In the meantime, phone bills are something that clients have greater control of and in view of fierce competition from mobile operators Czech Telecom has sugared its January 1st price hike with a number of savings. While the monthly subscription fee for a fixed line has gone up rather sharply from 175 to 299 crowns, Telecom's clients get 90 crowns worth of calling time for free and pay lower prices for long-distance and international calls.

Travelling by train has also become more expensive as Czech Railways has moved to distinguish between regular and occasional travelers. For regular travelers the price hike means forking out several hundred crowns more for a monthly pass, occasional travelers must expect to pay 60% more for their ticket. And when they've come to terms with that, people will have to brace for a 5 to 7% rent increase in June.

Although many Czechs are inclined to grumble, especially at the pub where the prices of beer are expected to go up by 7% in February, economists say that the liberalization process is being conducted with as much consideration as possible, and the vast majority of Czechs should have no problem handling the extra burden on their budgets. I spoke to a few Czechs in the streets of Prague to find out how they feel about it -

"I can handle it - if my rent doesn't go up that is."

"We can handle it. We have to. You make do on what you have. But those rascals at the top should stop raising their own wages in solidarity."

"We have to handle it. We'll just save on other things -little luxuries that you can do without"

" I will have to cut back on everything. I've already got the heating down to a minimum. "

"There's really no alternative -we must grit our teeth and bear it. On the other hand, if you look around you at how Prague has changed from the shabby city it was ten years ago -it makes the effort worthwhile. Things are bound to get better eventually -we just have to keep going."