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Wednesday, 3 May, 2000, 01:17 GMT 02:17 UK
Eastern European population to plummet
Maternity ward
The decline in the birth rate mirrors the collapse of Communism
Population levels are likely to drop by a third in former Communist countries by 2050 because of a dramatic fall in the birth rate.

The United Nations Commission for Europe, which produced the figures, says the main reasons are economic - less money means fewer children.

With the region still in economic and social crisis, the countries of eastern Europe have the lowest fertility rates in the world.

The commission says only a dramatic recovery can reverse the trend, which has marked the transition economies since the fall of Communism.

The collapse of Communism

The UN report says the fall in the birth rate in Eastern Europe mirrored the collapse of communism and continued throughout the 1990s.

Even if there is a small improvement in the birth rate, by 2050 we are likely to see populations cut by a third

UN population specialist Miroslav Macura

In former East Germany, the birth rate dipped to 0.83 children per woman in 1993.

The latest figures show women in Eastern Europe have on average 1.3 children. This compares with nearly 1.6 in Western Europe.

The problem is worst in Latvia and Bulgaria, where in 1998, birth rates were 1.09 and 1.11 respectively.

"When a population experiences 2.1 children per woman, it simply replaces itself. If you go down below the magic number then ... you see a decline, as well as progressive population ageing," Miroslav Macura, chief of the UN's populations activities unit said.

Reversing the trend

Even a financial recovery in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, has not reversed a slowdown in the birth rate.

The UN says lifestyle changes, such as having children later and greater numbers of women going into further education, have also had an impact.

The report proposes that governments respond by introducing financial and tax benefits to those with children.

"Although expensive, these policies can be successful and are not incompatible with a market economy - but they do require lots of political will," according to the report.

However, the UN is pessimistic about the possibilities of reversing the trend.

"Even if there is a small improvement in the birth rate, by 2050 we are likely to see populations cut by a third," Mr Macura said.

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