On Friday, 14 April 2000, the Lower House of Parliament passed a government draft law on the rights of the fourteen newly established self-governing regions to acquire and manage their own properties. Under the law, the regions now have the power to manage secondary schools, vocational high schools and basic art schools, which were previously under the control of central government.
Roads, national scientific libraries as well as some galleries and museums will also be under local control. Furthermore, the Labour and Social Affairs Ministry and Health Ministry will grant every region six new institutes. However, the bill still needs the Senate's approval and President's signature before it becomes law.
After the close of the UN's Crime Prevention and Prosecution of Criminals Conference in Vienna on 10 April 2000, Czech Deputy Interior Minister Petr Ibl stated that the illegal trade in women for prostitution and corruption are the country's biggest problems. The Czech Republic was, according to him, "a target, source and transit country" for international criminal organisations. Ibl added, that out of the 75 known groups which operated out of the Czech Republic last year, 20 percent were purely domestic. The total membership of these ganags is estimated to be some 2000.
Last week, the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC confirmed that it had finally obtained the complete archives of the former Lety concentration camp in Southern Bohemia. The camp had been exulsively used to deal to deal with the former Czechoslovakia's Roma minoirty. The Helsinki Committee of the US Congress had made these documents publicly accessible for study purposes. The Museum obtained the last parts of the archive on microfilm in late March and early April.
The process of handing over these records began in 1994, when the US Helsinki Committee had learned about the site. The concentration camp was the only one wholly managed by Czech Nazi collaborators, and was designed as a transit point for members of the ethnic Roma minority before they were sent to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
The new head of Komerční banka, Radovan Vávra, said that the planned privatisation of the bank will take more time than orginally proposed. He added, that although the process would be solved in time, the quality of the process would be given greater emphasise than its speed. Vávra replaced Jan Kollert, who had resigned in February after the bank lost billions of Crowns in suspicious financial transactions with an Austrian firm.
Vávra stated that his priorities were to impliment changes in the bank's structure and organisation, improve internal communication and other aspects of its operation. The government will announce a public tender for the remaining state owned holdings in May. The winner will be unveiled by the end of year. Komerční banka is the biggest bank in Central and Eastern Europe and the country's only remaining publicly owned bank.
Defence Minister Vladimír Větchý started his three-day official visit of Sweden on Sunday, 16 April 2000. One of the main objectives of his visit was a tour of a Swedish air-force base complete with the Gripen fighter jets. However, he denied any speculation that the Czech government was in favour of purchasing the aircraft. He said that the main topic of conversation was military co- operation between the two countries.
On Monday, Větchý was treated to a display of the aircraft's capabilities. He was particularly interested in the training systems as well as the maintenance and operation costs of the fighter. The Czech Air Force has recently opened the biggest tender in its history to purchase a new generation of supersonic fighters. So far, the contenders are McDonnell Douglas/Boeing and Lockheed Martin from the United States, Dassault Aviation from France and Germany's DASA.
Around 44 percent of Czechs would vote in favour of joining the EU if a referendum were to be held, according to a poll conducted by IVVM polling institute. This figure has increased from from that of last year, but represents a fall in numbers compared to a similar poll held in 1997. The poll also revealed that people felt EU membership would give great benefits to the army, but could be harmful to farmers. However, most respondents felt that joining the EU would not bring any changes at all. 16 percent of respondents were against membership, and there was an increase in the number of those who were undecided on the matter.
The EU Commissioner for Eastward Enlargement, Gunter Verheugen, said on 17 April 2000, that Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia could be the first former eastern-bloc countries to join EU as early as 2003. Verheugen supported the ambitious plans of many applicants to join even before that date. The EU, he added, would welcome all four members of the Visegrád group becoming EU members at the same time. It is now up to Czech legislators to react to this statement. The country is currently lagging behind other applicants in reforming its legislation.
Meanwhile, the European Union's chief negotiator for Czech admission, Michael Leigh, said at a meeting with Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan in Prague that the European Communities' annual report on Czech progress would be much more positive than the two previous ones. Leigh also dismissed accusations that the EU had slowed down the enlargement process. He added that the Czech date for joining the EU in 2003 is optimistic, but not unrealistic. "The country is back on track," he said.
Leigh also discussed the liberalisation of the Czech telecommunications industry. The EC had previously threatened to re-open its chapter on telecommunication unless the Czechs managed to open up the market. Full liberalisation had been planned for June 2001. However, the EU has repeatedly forced the Czech Republic complete the process half a year early.
The speaker of the Canadian House of Commons, Gilbert Parent, said that the row between the Czech Republic and Canada over visa requirements (visas for Czechs visiting Canada were introduced by Canada in 1997) would be solved very soon, but, gave no further details. Parent met with his counterpart Václav Klaus on Monday. Klaus expressed his opposition to plans for the Czech Republic to introduce "reciprocal measurements" for Canadian visitors as suggested last week. The Canadian government decided to impose visa restrictions on Czechs after a number of Czech Romanies tried to seek political asylum there.
The world's biggest computer processor company, Intel, has been considering investing in the Czech Republic this week. The possibility had been discussed at a meeting between Czech Foreign Minister, Jan Kavan, and Intel's top representatives in California. The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleš Pospíšil, said that Intel was considering investments in several European countries, although its interest in Czech Republic was particularly high.
A group of Intel representatives will visit the country to evaluate possibilities. The company plans to invest USD 6 billion in new assembly lines this year alone. If successful, attracting the company to the Czech Republic would be another huge boost to the economy. The Republic has recently been successful in making companies such as Philips and Matsushita invest in the country.
On Tuesday, after months of delay, the Chamber of Deputies has passed a draft amendment to the law increasing the minimum wage by 40 percent.. The law would raise the wage categories from 12 to 16 and thus would require an increase in wage expenditure by about CZK 9.45 billion from the state budget. An employee with a salary of CZK 3000 will now receive CZK 5300.
The Chamber also passed an amendment to the Labour Code that strengthens employees' positions and keep the Czech law on track with EU legislation. The new amendment would extend basic vacation rights from three to four weeks, urge employers to discuss mass dismissals with employees' representatives and set maximum overtime, which would be limited to 400 hours annually. Severance pay equal to a two month salary would be preserved, although it can be increased with collective agreement. The amendment will be effective as from 1 January 2001.
The UN Human Rights Commission approved a joint Czech-Polish resolution condemning violations of human rights in Cuba. Out of 53 members of the Commission, 21 supported, 18 were against and 14 abstained. The resolution express concerns over the continuing oppression of the political opposition and arrests of dissidents in Cuba. It referred to the continued violation of human rights and basic freedoms, such as freedom of speech, assembly and association, in the country.
More than 100,000 Cubans demonstrated on Tuesday in front of the Czech embassy in Havana against the Czech-Polish resolution. The demonstrators accused the Czech government of being a traitor and a lackey of the United States. The demonstration took place after a Cuban government initiative. Later in a televised discussion, Cuban officials and state journalists also accused Czech diplomats of fomenting subversive activities, plotting and encouraging internal counter-revolution in the country in order to de-stabilise the government of President Fidel Castro.
In the debate, in which President Castro himself took part, the Cuban Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, said that Czech diplomats and employees were "mercenaries and couriers of the United States." The Czech Foreign Ministry has denied this accusation. The Czech Republic, on the other hand, had been trying to improve the diplomatic relations so both countries would be able to send ambassadors, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Thursday. Diplomatic relations between both countries has been on the charge d'affair level since 1993.
The Chairman of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), Miroslav Grebeníček, and Secretary General of the non-parliamentary far-left Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), Miroslav Štěpán, have sharply criticised the UN resolution denouncing human right violations in Cuba. In a joint statement on Wednesday, both men insisted that the resolution was made under US pressure and not in the interests of human rights observance in Cuba itself.
On Tuesday the Budapest-based European Romani rights Centre (ERRC) filed a suit at the European Court of Human Rights against permanent racial segregation and discrimination. Romani children have long been regarded as mentally handicapped in the Czech Republic and thousands of Romani children are often placed in special schools as a result. The complaint was filed on behalf of 18 Romani children from the northern Moravian City of Ostrava. The case was turned down six months ago in a Czech court.
Meanwhile, the Czech government's Human Rights Commissioner Petr Uhl said on Wednesday that the situation of the Roma minority in the country has not improved. Attacks by racist and far-right groups have continued as well as discrimination in the job market. The unemployment rate in the Roma community is believed to be as high as 80 percent, largely caused by lack of education and motivation.
Miners in the North-Bohemian brown coal shaft of Dul Kohinoor have decided to continue with their three week old occupation strike 365 metres below the surface. They demanded that their uneconomical mine be sold to private owners and that the management board be dismissed. Previous negotiations between the mother company Mostecká Úhelná Společnost (MÚS) with potential investor SHD-Peel had come to an agreement. However, MÚS later demanded the miners to give up the strike before continuing talks with SHD-Peel.
The miners rejected this demand, and so far, no solution has been reached. The miners started the strike for fear of loosing their jobs. Mining had been the hardest hit industry in the Republic and regions with a high concentration of mines have suffered high unemployment rates.
Deputy Chairman of the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) Petr Lachnit, was appointed the new Ministry of Regional Development by President Václav Havel on Wednesday, replacing Jaromír Císař. The change is part of government re-shuffle, which is the reult of a deal between the Social Democrats and Civic Democrats (ODS) in exchange for the ODS' support for the state budget. The remaining post of Transportation Minister was still vacant on Thursday. Premier Miloš Zeman also dismissed criticisms from Northern Moravia that the region does not have any representatives in the government.
Markus Bonorianto, 21 April 2000
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