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Czech Republic

History & Background

Geography: The Czech Republic (Ceska Republika) is a constitutional parliamentary democracy established in 1993 when the Czech and Slovak Federation ("Czechoslovakia") peacefully separated into two independent states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The country sits in Central Europe to the southeast of Germany. Measuring 78,866 square kilometers—slightly smaller than the U.S. state of South Carolina—the landlocked Czech Republic is bordered by Germany to the northwest and west, Poland to the northeast, Slovakia to the southeast, and Austria to the south. With cool summers and cold, cloudy, humid winters, the Czech Republic has an average summer temperature of 20 degrees Celsius and an average winter temperature of 5 degrees Celsius. Bohemia, the western part of the Czech Republic, has a terrain of plains, hills, and plateaus bordered by low-lying mountains; Moravia, the eastern part of the country, has a very hilly landscape. The point of highest elevation in the Czech Republic is Mt. Snezka, measuring 1,602 meters above sea level; the lowest point is at Hoensko on the Elbe River (Labe), where the elevation is just 117 meters. Forty-one percent of the land in the country is arable, about 2 percent is planted with permanent crops, about one-third of the country is covered with forests and woodlands, and the remaining area includes significant pastureland.

Cultural Background & History: With a population of about 10.3 million in the year 2000, the Czech Republic is composed of diverse peoples from the lands of Central Europe and elsewhere. In March 1991 estimates of the ethnic background of the country's population yielded the following: 81.2 percent Czech, 13.2 percent Moravian, 3.1 percent Slovak, and less than 1 percent each of the Roma, Polish, German, Silesian, Hungarian, and other minorities. Since these estimates the size and proportion of ethnic groups has changed to some extent, with some Slovaks choosing to relocate to Slovakia after the 1993 split and a number of Roma ("Gypsies") leaving the country due to widespread segregation, discrimination, and racist actions directed against them. In the year 2000 about 200,000 to 250,000 Roma were living in the Czech Republic, some 10,000 having left the country between 1997 and 2000. Concerning the religious affiliation of the Czech Republic's population in the 1990s, the estimated breakdown of the population was about 39.8 percent atheist, 39.2 percent Roman Catholic, 4.6 percent Protestant, 3.0 percent Orthodox, and 13.4 percent other.

The Czech Republic emerged as an independent state only in 1993, but the Czech people and most of the ethnic minority groups composing the country's current population have lived in the territory now known as the Czech Republic for centuries. Strategically poised as an historical gateway for traders and military campaigners crossing Europe and Asia, the Czech Republic dates its earliest recorded history with the arrival of the Celts around the fourth century B.C., nearly two and a half millennia ago. The country's Latin name, Boiohaemum, or Bohemia, came from the name the Celtic Boii tribe gave the area. The Celts were later pushed out by Germanic tribes, the Marcomanni and Quidi.

In the late-fifth and early-sixth centuries, the Slavs arrived in what is now Moravia and Slovakia during a time known as the "Migration of Peoples." Slavonic tribes were united in the first half of the seventh century under "Samo's kingdom" of Slavs, who successfully protected themselves from advances by the Avar empire of the Hungarian lowlands and partly defended themselves from attacks by the Franks from the west. In 863 Byzantine Christian missionaries came to the region, by then known as the Great Moravian Empire. It was attacked and destroyed by the Magyars from 903 to 907.

The Roman Catholic Church, becoming more influential in Europe, spread into the region over the next few centuries. However, the growing Czech state, centered in Bohemia and governed by the native Premyslid Dynasty from the ninth century until 1306, preserved its sovereignty while developing feudal ties to the Holy Roman Empire. In 1212 the Bohemian sovereign, Premysl Otakar I, received the Golden Bull of Sicily, a decree announcing Bohemia's status as a kingdom and the Bohemian princes as hereditary kings. One of the Holy Roman Empire's most important states, Bohemia was governed by the Luxembourg Dynasty from 1310 until 1437 and reached the zenith of its power under Charles IV, who reigned from 1346 to 1378.

Prompted by political, economic, and religious crises in the late-fourteenth and early-fifteenth centuries, a religious movement known as the Hussite reform movement emerged, inspired by Master Jan Hus, a preacher later executed in 1415 for his allegedly heretical preaching. From 1420 until 1431 the Roman Emperor Sigismund, heir to the Bohemian crown, attempted to subdue the religious reformers by force. The Hussite revolution ended in 1434 with the victory of religious moderates and an agreement between Hussite Bohemia and Catholic Europe in 1436 known as the "Compacts of Basle," which paved the way for the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century by establishing the validity of an alternative form of Christian practice.

In the second half of the fifteenth century Bohemia grew increasingly politically unsettled. With the emergence of George of Podebrady, a Czech noble whose diplomatic skills enabled the European sovereigns to form a peaceful confederation and who was elected King of Bohemia in 1458, the Czech nation and culture exerted significant influence on European cultural and political life. From 1471 until 1526 Bohemia was ruled by the Jagellon Dynasty. By 1526 the Habsburgs had taken the throne of Bohemia, reintroduced Roman Catholicism to the region, and formed a multinational empire that included the Crownlands of Bohemia. The Habsburg Dynasty would last for nearly three centuries, until the end of the First World War in 1918.

Despite the long reign of the Habsburgs, a Czech national revival movement gradually emerged over time. Beginning with an attempt to revive the Czech language and culture, the movement gradually gained strength in the nineteenth century and looked toward the political freedom of the Czechs. The movement gained momentum during Europe's revolutionary year of 1848, when much of Europe was in political turmoil as capitalism dramatically reshaped social and economic relations and the protests of workers unwilling to tolerate their miserable conditions echoed around the industrial world. By the end of the nineteenth century, Bohemia, quick to industrialize, had become the most economically developed country of the Habsburg Dynasty.

During the First World War, Czech politics became more radical under the leadership of T.G. Masaryk and E. Genes, each of them later becoming president of the Czechoslovak Republic, which was founded in 1918 after the defeat of Austria-Hungary in World War I. As an independent state, the Czechoslovak Republic became one of the ten most highly developed countries in the world. For 20 years the country prospered, until Hitler's invasion in March 1939, the German occupation, the Holocaust, and the Second World War. The Jews of Czechoslovakia, once among the most active intellectuals, political figures, business people, and supporters of the arts in Bohemia, were essentially erased from the country during Hitler's murderous rampage. In October 1941, just two and a half years after the March 1939 Nazi take-over of Czechoslovakia, the Jews of Czechoslovakia numbered about 80,000. By April 1945, after the genocide that specifically targeted Jews, Roma, and other minority peoples, fewer than 8,000 Jews remained.

After the Second World War, Czechoslovakia came under the Soviet sphere of influence, and the brief period of "limited democracy" the country enjoyed after the war ended in February 1948 with a Communist takeover. Private property was confiscated and nationalized, and human rights were widely abused, particularly with the Soviet Army's invasion in 1968 and the reassertion of Soviet control following a brief respite known as the "Prague Spring." During the 1980s, with decaying economic conditions in the Soviet Union and the weakening of Soviet power, advocates of democracy and human rights in Czechoslovakia and other Soviet satellite countries directed their efforts towards the political and economic transformation of their countries. The efforts of the peoples of the Czech and Slovak Federation culminated in their freeing themselves from Communist rule in 1989, followed soon after by the smooth creation of two independent countries on 1 January 1993: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. After gaining independence, the Czech Republic moved rapidly to liberalize its centralized economy and to decentralize its public bureaucracy.

Social Conditions: Approximately 75 percent of the Czech Republic's population of 10.3 million in 1999 lived in urban areas, the largest of which is Prague (Praha), the capital city, which alone had a population of 1.2 million inhabitants by the year 2000. With an average population density of 133 persons per square kilometer, the Czech Republic had a rural population density of just 84 persons per square kilometer in 1998. During the 1990s the country's population decreased slightly, and by 1999 the population growth rate was zero percent. In 1990 about 10,330,000 people lived in the Czech Republic; by 1997 the population had declined to about 10,304,000. About 31.3 percent of the population in 1997 was of school age (between 3 and 24 years old). The total fertility rate in the Czech Republic in 1999 was one—that is, a woman bearing children for her entire child-bearing years at the current fertility rate would produce only one child. Approximately 16 percent of the population in the year 2000 was 14 years old or younger while 70 percent was between 15 and 64 years of age and about 14 percent of the population was 65 or older. The Czech Republic had an infant-mortality rate of 4.6 per 1000 live births in 1999 and an under 5 years child-mortality rate of 5 per 1000 that year. The life expectancy at birth of the population in the year 2000 was about 74.5 years (71.0 for men and 78.2 for women). In 1995 the adult literacy rate was estimated to be about 95 percent. Specific literacy rates for adult men and women were not available as of early 2001, but the adult population was said to be almost completely literate in 1999.

Economic Status: For centuries the territory now known as the Czech Republic had a primarily agricultural economy based on forestry, livestock-rearing, and family farms. With the arrival of the industrial age in Europe, Czechoslovakia's economy shifted to a more industrial base, and the country became one of the most industrialized countries in Europe by the first decades of the twentieth century. In the 1930s private agricultural enterprise still contributed strongly to the national economy, but Czechoslovakia was a net importer of agricultural products. The Communist-dominated era lasted from 1948 to 1989, except for the short hiatus of the "Prague Spring" in 1968 when liberal Czech reformers temporarily succeeded at freeing up the country's economic and political life before the Soviets reasserted their control through a military invasion. Under the Communists the economy was centrally controlled and depended on the outputs of large, nationalized heavy industry and engineering firms. Nonetheless, under Communist control, Czechoslovakia's collectivized farms produced higher agricultural yields than did any of the other socialist countries. Agricultural yields in Czechoslovakia were lower, however, than in Western European countries where more modern agricultural methods were used.

In 1989 the Communists lost power in what has been termed the country's "Velvet Revolution." During the transition from Communism to democratic independence between 1989 and 1993, the country's agricultural sector continued to diminish in importance. Agriculture's contribution to the GDP declined from 6 to 4.7 percent between 1990 and 1994, and the percent of the civilian workforce employed in agriculture shrank from 10 to 6.9 percent during that period. The Czech Republic also witnessed a gradual shift in the agricultural sector during the 1990s from animal to crop production. By 1998 only 5.5 percent of the civil labor force was employed in agriculture or about 267,000 persons. Because many agricultural workers shifted to non-agricultural jobs during the transition period, the agricultural sector came to operate more efficiently and its productivity increased, exceeding that of over two-thirds of the European Union's 15 member states.

With the change from a state-controlled, centrally planned economy to a more-liberalized production and marketing regime, the Czech Republic in the 1990s dismantled its large-scale, state-owned industrial enterprises and enacted legislation enabling small and medium scale private industries and enterprises to flourish. This change came about rather gradually, however, with the privatization of national assets taking place at a slower pace than initially had been anticipated and the economic gains of the early 1990s slowing significantly by the middle of the decade. In 1997 the national currency was devalued in an attempt to halt significant economic setbacks, though the deliberate measures taken by the World Bank and the national government made these setbacks relatively temporary. During the 1990s foreign investors and firms entered the newly liberalized Czech marketplace and introduced significant investments into the industrial sector. Business people in the Czech Republic developed many joint venture and contractual agreements with foreign investors, mainly the EU partners—especially Austria and Germany. At the same time, rapid growth in the tourist industry contributed to a shift towards greater employment in the service sector where the number of persons employed increased from 39.4 percent to 53.5 percent of the active civil labor force between 1990 and 1997. In 1997 about 32 percent of the labor force was employed in industry, 8.7 percent in construction, 46.8 percent in service jobs (excluding communications), 6.9 percent in communications, and 5.6 percent in agriculture.

The GDP at market prices in U.S. dollars was about $53.1 billion in 1999, with about 5 percent of the GDP derived from agriculture, 42 percent from industry, and 53 percent from services. The national economy became relatively stagnant by the late 1990s, despite a promising start in the nation's transition to a liberalized economy at the beginning of the 1990s. Whereas the economic growth rate was 6 percent of the GDP in 1995, by 1999 the growth rate was a negative half percent of GDP; annual per-capita income in 1999 was only US$5,020, a drop of $250 from the 1997 figure of $5,270. Much of the economic decline was related to the currency crisis that precipitated in May 1997 and the government's inability to spur economic growth despite two austerity packages introduced in the spring of 1997. In the late 1990s persistent and excessive government controls on the newly privatized national economy continued to negatively impact the country's economic situation. In 1999 the net inflow of foreign direct investment was US$5.1 trillion but the debt value was US$22.5 trillion. Imported goods and services that year were equivalent to 65 percent of the GDP, exceeding the value of exported goods and services by 1 percent of the GDP.

A special government economic revitalization program was begun in 1999 that involved the restructuring of enterprises and the improvement of management styles, and at the close of the 1990s, the economy of the Czech Republic had begun a slow recovery. The unemployment rate in the Czech Republic in 1999 was roughly 9 percent with the highest unemployment rates seen among persons with only a primary school education (13.4 percent of the unemployed in 1997). This rate was significantly higher than the country's unemployment rate in the mid-1990s when the general economic situation was considerably rosier and many optimistic analysts of transitional economies looked to the Czech Republic as a role model for other former-Communist states undergoing the transition from state-controlled to liberal market economies. However, unemployment was lower than in a number of other European countries at the time.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceCzech Republic - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education