Keen to secure their careers or uncertain of their future in a still-poor region, Eastern Europe's women are reluctant to have babies, in stark contrast to communist times when high birthrates were a rare success of the system.
In 2006, the majority of the European Union's 10 ex-communist states saw a total fertility rate of just 1.3 -- referring to the hypothetical number of children per woman of childbearing age.
AdvertisementPrior to the demise of communism, states in the region enjoyed a fertility rate close or equal to 2.1, required to stabilise the population of a country without immigration.
The plunge in births was caused above all by the brutal transition from the command to the market economy after the collapse of the communist bloc in 1989-1991.
"At the beginning of the 1990s it was (a period of) economic hardship, low income and a rapidly changing environment," Lithuanian demographer Vlada Stankuniene told AFP.
Overnight, citizens had to learn to fend for themselves. The lack of freedom in communist times had been compensated by various forms of state aid.
"The state took care of everything -- housing, employment, education, social services," Stankuniene said.
Institutions like day-care centres were often the first victims of radical cuts in the role of the state. The Czech Republic saw a 94-percent drop in the number of such facilities over 15 years, according to the Association of Czech Women.
The new system also changed ways of thinking.
"We see new values, more individualism, the need for self-expression, striving for a professional career. All this delayed the creation of families and the birth of children," Stankuniene says. "The market, not the state, started to dictate the conditions for the family."
As communism collapsed, the average age of women having their first child in eastern Europe was 23.
But last year Polish women, for example, were waiting until they were 25.6 years old on average to have their first baby.
But for Irena Kotowska, a professor of demography at Poland's Warsaw School of Economics, ex-communist states have just been late to follow a trend that began in the 1960s in Scandinavia before spreading to western and southern Europe.
Governments in the region have begun offering financial incentives to combat diving birthrates.
Under a 2006 law, Romanian families receive a 50-euro (79-dollar) baby bonus for each newborn plus a 65-euro monthly allowance per toddler up to 2 years of age.
Each Slovakian firstborn receives 340 euros, while subsequent babies are granted 140 euros.
In 2006 Poland introduced a 290-euro baby bonus, while as of last year taxpayers can deduct 335 euros per child from their yearly income tax.
In an original move Bulgaria decided last week to reimburse student loans for university graduates if they have at least two children within five years of earning their degrees.
Stankuniene said she believes these measures will prove insufficient.
"If the accent is put on financial aid, we can't expect a rise in the birthrate," she said.
"What can change the situation is the creation of more part-time or work-from-home jobs and child-care facilities, especially for children under five," she insisted.
For Kotowska, even this is not enough. She believes men in the region must begin taking equal responsibility for housework and childcare before women accept having an average two children again.
By way of a model, Kotowska points to Sweden and Finland which currently boast the highest birthrates in the 27-nation EU.
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