Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 12
27 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 17 March 2000

Markus Bonorianto

A court case between Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman and journalist Ivan Brezina bagan in Prague on last Friday. In June of the last year, Mr. Zeman accused Brezina of writing an article paid by the power utility ČEZ. In a similar vein, the Prime Minister had also accused former Foreign Minister Jozef Zieleniec of bribing journalists. Although both statements were later withdrawn, Brezina insists that the allegation damaged his professional career.

European Commissioner for Enlargement Gunther Verheugen said on Friday that the Czech Republic had achieved significant improvements and is on the right path to enter the European framework. The next annual progress report published by the EU, according to him, would contain further progresses in the future. Mr. Verheugen praised the co-operation between the governing Social Democratic (ČSSD) and Civic Democratic (ODS) parties.

Serb police released seven Czech soldiers serving for KFOR in Kosovo on Sunday 19 March, following their arrest some days earlier. The soldiers had unintentionally crossed the Serb-Kosovo border when they were caught in a snowstorm while on a patrol duty and were seized by the Serb authorities on a highway to Belgrade. There are around 150 Czech soldiers taking part in peacekeeping operations under British command in North-Eastern Kosovo.

In its latest report on racism and intolerance, published on Monday 20 March, the European Commission stated that although improvements had been made, the Czech Republic still suffers from racism and other forms of intolerance. The report acknowledged that the country had established a special department to deal with the affairs of the Romani minority group, taken steps to eliminate discrimination in employment and education but pointed out that racially-motivated violence and other discriminatory acts, mainly directed at Roma, still widely occurred, .

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Jan Kavan on Monday expressed his confidence that the Czech Republic would be admitted as a new member of the European Union in the first wave of expansion planned for 2003, alongside Hungary and Poland. He added that the next nine to 12 months would be critical with respect to the country's preparedness. Kavan expressed his firm belief that all necessary changes in legislation in accordance with EU requirements would be approved by Parliament by this June.

On Monday, foreign ministers from the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary had a meeting in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, to evaluate the first year of their membership in NATO. The three signed a declaration stating that European security depends on NATO. They also supported NATO enlargement eastward and called for closer co-operation between the Alliance and the EU. In their view, the experience of the past year had strengthened unity among member countries within NATO.

President Václav Havel was released from the Military Hospital in Prague on Monday, after undergoing a week-long treatment for his chronic bronchitis. The President, who had part of his lungs removed during cancer surgery four years ago, had been fulfilling his duties even during his stay in hospital.

The leadership of the Czech Intelligence Service is to be divided and will be put under direct control of the Prime Minister and two other ministers. Jan Klas, the chief of the Committee for Control of Secret Services said on Monday that the Prime Minister would lead the Civil Counter-Intelligence Service, the foreign minister would head the Civil Intelligence unit and the defence minister the Military Intelligence unit. This development was necessary on account of the dismissal of the minister without portfolio in charge of these units, Jaroslav Bašta.

The Bureau for the Investigation of Crimes of Communism launched an operation on Monday to uncover hidden evidence of the persecution of Jews by members of the Communist Secret Service in the 1970s and 1980s.

Prime Minister Miloš Zeman announced on Monday that all remaining state assets in companies were to be privatised, except schools, hospitals and prisons. The process would bring in around CZK 500 billion (USD 14.2 billion), twice as much estimated. The funds would most likely go toward infrastructure and housing. The privatisation, which includes Český Telecom and ČEZ, should be completed in the next two years.

On Tuesday, NATO Supreme Commander General Wesley Clark started his two-day official visit to the Czech Republic. He met Prime Minister Miloš Zeman to discuss the current situation in Kosovo and NATO expansion. He praised the work of Czech soldiers and supported the modernisation of the Czech Armed Forces as well as the enlargement of the Czech contingent in Kosovo. On his first trip to the country, General Clark also met heads of the Armed Forces and the speaker of Parliament. The Czech defence minister granted him the highest cross of merit for his achievements.

At a United Nations congress in Geneva on Tuesday, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan stated that the Czech Republic supports UN efforts to find a solution to the Chechnya conflict, although, according to Kavan, the solution should respect the sovereignty of the Russian Federation. Meanwhile, a group of 25 Chechen refugees continued their siege of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Prague. They claimed that their lives were in danger owing to threats from Russian-speaking refugees in the camp they had been stationed at in Central Bohemia.

In line with other European states, the Czech Republic decided to temporarily end the air embargo imposed on Yugoslavia. Government spokesman Libor Rouček said on Wednesday that restrictions on civilian flights would be lifted for a period of six months. However, the ban on selling crude oil as well as other business activities, investment and capital transactions would continue. JAT, the Yugoslavian national carrier, had earlier decided to resume flights between Prague and Belgrade, which will fly out every Thursday and Sunday. Czech carrier ČSA will follow shortly. The Council of Europe launched its air embargo and other sanctions in April 1999.

The Czech cabinet resumed debate on Wednesday on the future of the law on foreigners. Many states and organisations have expressed their frustration with the law's complicated requirements. One of the regulations requires foreigners to leave Czech territory to renew their Czech residence permit. Fears that the legislation would harm the flow of foreign investment in the country have also been expressed.

The Russian Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Nikolai Ryabov, expressed concern about the current state of Czech-Russian relations and said that the two countries were heading for a confrontation because of the continued absence of a Czech envoy to Moscow, who has not yet taken over from the outgoing envoy. He made the statements during a meeting with some Members of Parliament on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Czech Senator Michal Žantovský said on Wednesday that he did not expect any worsening of bilateral relations even after new visa regulations were imposed on Russians. He added that Russian intelligence agents had recently posed a serious security risk for the Czech Republic.

At its Wednesday session, the Czech cabinet postponed its decision on deciding the future of the old Jewish cemetery recently discovered in Prague's Old Town at the site where the Czech insurance company Česká Pojišťovna was to build a new building and garages. The Jewish Community in Prague had demanded the preservation of the cemetery and its declaration as a cultural memorial site. Approximately 60 rabbis from Western Europe were recently prohibited from entering the site during their attempt to bury remains in a ceremony.

Czech Police began investigating the possible publication of an unannotated Czech translation of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. The planned publication has provoked reactions from human rights groups, Jewish organisations as well as World War II veterans, most of whom have alleged that releasing the book without explanatory notes was in fact an illegal act. The German embassy also expressed its disapproval on Thursday to the publishing house. The publisher, who is counting on a print run of 6000, has maintained that he is presenting the book merely as a historical document. The State of Bavaria, which owns the copyright for Mein Kampf, has appealed to the German Foreign Ministry and is attempting to block the publication. [See accompanying article]

President Václav Havel and Prime Minister Miloš Zeman appointed Karel Březina as a new minister without portfolio on Thursday 23 March. At the age of 28, he is the youngest Minister in the country's history. Březina will have less authority than his predecessor Jaroslav Bašta, since he will not be assuming responsibility for the Security Services or the Clean Hands anti-corruption campaign, although he will oversee non-profit organisations, a committee on rights of the disabled and the anti-drug commission.

Markus Bonorianto, 24 March 2000

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