Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 10
13 March 2000

Czech NewsC E N T R A L   E U R O P E A N   N E W S:
News Review for the Czech Republic
All the important news from the Czech Republic
since 4 March 2000

Markus Bonorianto and Beata Struhárová

Inhabitants of the north-eastern part of Bohemia had to be rescued from their homes after the water level of local rivers rose dramatically. The flood not only damaged houses but also roads, railways and fields. So far, two people have been reported killed in the floods. A state of emergency has remained in affect.

The Chamber of Deputies has finally approved the state budget for the year 2000. The deficit budget will have a state income of CZK (Czech Crowns) 592 billion and expenses of CZK 627 billion. This was the government's third budget proposal. The previous two had been rejected, and the opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS) agreed to support the latest version only if Prime Minister Miloš Zeman agreed to a major cabinet reshuffle. Economics analysts advised the government to now concentrate on drafting the next year's budget while planning fiscal reforms for the long term. The new budget will replace the provisional one, which has been in affect since the beginning of the year.

A ceremony was held at Prague Castle on Friday (10 March) to mark the first anniversary of the Czech Republic's admission into NATO. The Czech Republic, alongside Poland and Hungary, was admitted into the Alliance on 12 March 1999, only a few days before NATO began its air-campaign on Yugoslavia.

The Chamber of Deputies has approved a law that will terminate the monopoly of the main telecommunications provider, Český Telecom, at the end of 2002. This means the monopoly will end six months earlier than the government's original proposal. The issue was criticised by the EU, which said that the accession chapter on telecommunications legislation might have to be reopened if the monopoly was extended to the date originally proposed by the Czech government. The law now has to pass through the Senate.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a four-day official visit to the Czech Republic. The Czech-born US diplomatic leader took part in celebrations commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the birth of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the founding father of the State of Czechoslovakia. At one such event at Masaryk University in Brno, Albright was pelted with eggs - that allegedly missed their target - by two young men who, according to the Brno police spokesman, claimed affiliation with the anarachist movement. They threw the eggs in protest against American imperialism and both youths were taken into custody for questioning.

During her visit, Albright also met with Czech statesmen to discuss the export of ventilation equipment by Czech firm ZVVZ Milevsko to Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran and the ownership dispute over Czech private television station TV Nova, which involves American businessman Ronald Lauder.

In a meeting with Madeleine Albright, Czech President Václav Havel said that the Czech Republic would halt the export of components to the Bushehr plant in Iran. He promised that his country would not provide Iran with any components that could be used to increase Iran's ability to produce nuclear arsenals. Albright replied that she supports the increase in the country's defence budget and asked for greater Czech involvement in policing the situation in Kosovo. She praised the Czech Republic's efforts and participation upon its first anniversary of NATO membership.

The Chamber of Deputies then later passed a law banning the supply of the equipment to the Bushehr plant. The Senate has yet to approve the bill, which sets a fine of up to CZK 20 million (USD 563,000) on those violating its provisions.

In response to the US Secretary of State's call for increased Czech involvement in the policing of Kosovo and following talks between Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan and his British counterpart, Robin Cook, the previous week, Czech government officials announced that the Czech Republic will send fourteen more police officers to Kosovo. The country already has six officers serving in the area.

The Chamber of Deputies has approved a law that will aid workers who have not received their salaries. The law was approved by a large majority and will enable workers to obtain compensation from the government within three months. The conditions for receiving compensation are that their employer's bankruptcy must already have been declared and that they are entitled to receive one-and-a-half times the national average salary. The law will now have to be debated in the Senate.

The Czech Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs reported on Wednesday (8 March) that the unemployment rate fell in February by 0.1 per cent to a new level of 9.7 per cent from 9.8 per cent in January. The Czech Statistical Bureau claimed the country's annual inflation rate increased from 3.4 per cent to 3.7 per cent in the same period. The Czech National Bank welcomed these figures. Meanwhile, from abroad, the Economist Intelligence Unit predicted an average growth for the Czech economy of 3.3 per cent over the next five years (2001 to 2005). The developments seem positive, but there are still some doubts whether they would hold over a longer time period.

The British government launched a 12-month campaign called "Opportunity Czech Republic" to enhance its investment in the area. The Czech Republic is among 12 countries in the world whose markets are to be targetted by Briatin's special promotional campaign. British exports made up four percent of total Czech imports in 1998 and Czech exports to the UK saw faster growth than imports from that country. Approximately 300 British firms are currently operating on the Czech market.

The Palestinian minister for planning and international co-operation, Nabil Sas, visited Prague on Thursday (9 March). His main aim was to deepen the bilateral contacts between the two countries. He held discussions with Czech finance and foreign ministers about the continuation of Czech assistance in developing Palestine and the strengthening of trade relationships.

The Deputy Pemier responsible for legislation, Pavel Rychetský, admitted that the new Czech law on foreigners does contain problems. In a TV debate on Sunday (5 March), he mentioned the complicated procedures requiring multiple documents which are now necessary to enter the country and said that the new law will need to be amended. However, he also stated that the law should be able to tackle the problems concerning illegal workers and organised crime in the country. Many countries, including European Union member states, as well as foreign investors and foreign residents have criticised the law, which came into affect on 1 January 2000.

Prime Minister Miloš Zeman also criticised the new law on foreigners and said that it was flawed and might have to be changed. He made the statement during a meeting at the American Chamber of Commerce. The law, according to Zeman, had had an undesirable and unexpected impact and side affects, although he did not give details of what changes should be made.

Minister of Culture Pavel Dostál will ask the Cabinet to declare the site of a 13th-century Jewish cemetery a cultural landmark, which would block the planned construction of a parking lot by local insurance company Česká Pojišťovna. The move follows mounting pressure from Jewish communities around the world to preserve the remains of the cemetery site. Buildings have been constructed for centuries over the site, believed to have been the oldest Jewish cemetery in Bohemia. After the most recent building was torn down, bones were uncovered last year during deeper digging for a carpark. Dostál has proposed paying over USD 20 million in compensation to Česká Pojišťovna if it foregoes the project entirely. It is still not clear if the other cabinet ministers will back the plan.

The law on regions and municipalities was passed in the Chamber of Deputies. Under the new law, the new regional assemblies will elect and dismiss the region's governor and council, approve the regional budget, issue bonds and submit bills to the Chamber of Deputies. The regional assembly will also be able to issue regional by-laws and subsidise municipalities, civic associations and other associations in the region.

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation will likely open a branch office in the Czech Republic. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright mentioned this idea during her recent visit to the Czech Republic and American Ambassador to the Czech Republic John Shattuck confirmed it. The main task of the office would be to assist the Czech police in the fight against money laundering and organised crime.

Prime Minister Miloš Zeman confirmed the departure of Internal Minister Václav Grulich, Minister without Portfolio Jaroslav Bašta, Minister of Transport Antonín Peltram and Minister for Local Development Jaromir Císař. They are to be dismissed gradually. The reason for their dismissal, according to Zeman, was to speed up government work in some areas, namely the "Clean Hands" programme, state housing policies and within Czech Railways.

The head of the Foreign Ministry's department on EU relations, Petr Ježek, said that the Czech Republic will be ready to participate in the EU rapid reaction force at the start of 2003. He added that this could take place after his country completed the necessary talks and joined the EU in 2003. Union leaders had agreed in December to form an independent rapid reaction force of around 60,000 soldiers, which would be able to react to emergency cases and would lessen the continent's huge dependence on the United States.

Markus Bonorianto and Beata Struhárová, 10 March 2000

News Sources:

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