PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia — This nation's budding capitalists began bidding Monday for shares in state-held industries, the first step in a unique, controversial mass privatization scheme that is aimed at transferring about $10-billion worth of state enterprises into private hands.
The "big bang" privatization plan devised by Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus began with a mood of calm optimism as citizens lined up at post offices to bid for shares in 1,495 enterprises that will be converted to private ownership in the first wave of the selloff.
"I don't expect to become a millionaire," said Eva Ruzikova, 48, a tram driver who bid for shares in three companies. "But even if I don't get rich, I think it will work."
Along with 8.5 million of her fellow citizens, Ruzikova bought, for about $35, a book of vouchers entitling her to bid for shares in as many as 10 enterprises. The purchase price is roughly an average week's pay here.
Each voucher booklet provides the holder with 1,000 points to bid with. In what amounts to an auction that will take at least five months to complete, a voucher holder could win a return of up to 30 times his original investment.
While prospects may seem great to some, there is also a chance, critics say, that investors could wind up holding worthless vouchers. With information on enterprises in short or dubious supply, most investors are guessing, going for well-known names or basing bids on the untested book value listed for companies up for sale.
And few individual investors have any way of knowing whether the restructuring proposals filed with the government represent sound plans for survival or merely bailouts for managers.
"Very frankly, we've had a big problem," said government spokeswoman Eva Klvacova. "Privatization plans may be submitted by the firms, by private individuals, by you, me, anyone. We were given about 11,000 plans for 2,500 firms to be privatized. It is very difficult to choose the best one, and the law does not give us any criteria or objectives."
Klaus and privatization chief Dusan Triska concede there are risks in their experiment. But they have argued--convincingly, for more than half of the population of 15 million--that their plan is the quickest way to unload state enterprises and push aside 40 years of Communist mismanagement.
Among the chief risks are that scores of companies will collapse as quickly as their state financing disappears and that a fledgling stock market, created with the newly issued voucher shares as a base, will rapidly implode.