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Czechs 'losing internet race'

Backward-looking politicians risk losing an historic opportunity to enable the Czech Republic to take an economic leap forward and invest in a knowledge society, a leading academic and former dissident has warned.

Jiri Pehe, a former adviser to president Vaclav Havel and now director of the New York University in Prague, says lack of political vision means the Czechs could lose out in the race to become part of the global internet economy.

"The government is - and has been for the past ten years - pouring billions of (Czech) crowns into old heavy industries in an attempt to revive or rescue them," Professor Pehe, a member of civic discussion forums Lipa and Impuls 99, says. "It's a waste of money, which should be put into higher education, subsidising top institutes and promoting computer and internet literacy and usage. That would do much more for the future of this country."

The Czech economic and political leadership remains dominated by figures schooled in the solutions of the past who believe that uneconomic and failing heavy industries must be supported to prevent mass unemployment, Professor Pehe argues. But industries created by order of Moscow and designed to feed the Soviet and Warsaw Pact military industrial complex no longer have a place in the Czech, or in many respects the world, economy.

"We may still have a chance to skip an era following the collapse of the communist regime and, like some Asian countries, move straight to a post-industrial society," he says.

Professor Pehe says the extent of ignorance about the information age can be gauged by the comments of political leaders.

"When (opposition leader) Vaclav Klaus and (prime minister) Milos Zeman debated on television, both made fun of this emphasis on computers and both admitted that they did not use them in their work - demonstrating that they themselves are dinosaurs."

Professor Pehe's vision that the Czechs must invest heavily in expanding their university system, improving the technological infrastructure and computer literacy, was thrashed out recently in Brno at a weekend retreat of Lipa, a discussion group of academics, business leaders, economists, civil servants and politicians.

The topic is already appearing on the political agenda: shortly after articles on the theme appeared in the Czech press, Mr Zeman began talking about the need to build a knowledge society.

Professor Pehe and other university leaders are aware that cost is a barrier to the development of internet and home computer usage in the Czech Republic. Innovative measures by the authorities, such as providing computer credit vouchers to students, could help. But a change in mentality is necessary if the Czechs are to move forward.

Jiri Zlatuska, rector of Masaryk University, Brno, agrees that government short-sightedness could seriously damage the country's future prospects. The founder of the first - and so far only - infomatics department at a Czech university, Professor Zlatuska compares the amount of money the government puts into unemployment benefits or ailing companies with its apparent unwillingness to invest in education.

"In Brno the Zetor tractor factory has received government subsidies sufficient to pay for every family in the city to have a computer and internet connection,"Professor Zlatuska said.

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