Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 7
21 February 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 12 February 2000

Beata Struharová

Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman travelled abroad this week. On Monday, in a joint article with British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the Financial Times expressing the leaders' opinion on Austria's new government, Zeman pronounced that there was no place in Europe for intolerance and xenophobia.

Zeman also visited Portugal, which currently holds the EU presidency. Both Zeman and President António Guterres welcomed Austria's statement that it would continue to support EU enlargement. According to Zeman, representatives of the Portuguese Parliament comprehend Czech efforts at quick admission to the EU and support parallel ratification of the EU's internal reforms and EU enlargement. He dismissed as "nonsense" Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider's demand that EU enlargement must be postponed until wages in the East reach EU levels. He added that Haider's calls for compensation for the German minority expelled from Czechoslovakia ignores a treaty signed by Austria in 1974, which pronounced that wartime compensation issues with Czechoslovakia were settled. Zeman also offered Portuguese investors tax concessions to invest in the Czech Republic.

Czech President Václav Havel called on the European Union to support the creation of civil society in Central and East European countries. In his speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, he called for the establishment of a European Constitution and a second chamber of the European Parliament.

Czech Finance Minister Pavel Mertlík visited London to take part in a conference organized by the British government aimed at boosting British investment in the Czech Republic. British share of foreign investment currently stands at around five percent. In his speech, Mertlík said the Czech government is determined to conclude the privatisation of the banking sector and has made European Union membership its main goal.

The program of the new Austrian government makes Czech EU membership conditional on the Czech Republic's annulment of the Beneš Decrees (which concern the post-war confiscation of property and expulsion of German nationals) and compensation of expelled Sudeten Germans (not Austrians per se, although some former Sudeten Germans later became Austrians). The Czech Foreign Ministry considers this demand unacceptable, because it does not distinguish between the millions of victims of Nazi aggression, in which many Austrians participated, and retribution or revenge, be it often inappropriate. Austria's other objection against Czech membership in the EU concerns the Temelín nuclear power plant, which stands close to Austria's borders. In one of his speeches, Haider said Austria would veto Czech EU membership if the Temelín plant begins operating.

However, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel said Austria would not link the Czech Republic's admission to the EU to the abolition of the 1945 Beneš decrees. But he added that Vienna will continue to raise the issue of compensation for the German-speaking minority expelled from Czechoslovakia. Chancellor Schüssel stressed that his new government program includes speedy compensation for victims of Nazi slave labour policies, which include Czech nationals. Austrian Vice-Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer said that, while compensation of forced labourers and a desire to achieve settlement for Austrians who lost their homes in Czechoslovakia after the Second World War are both mentioned in the new government program, there was no link between the two issues.

Czech Lower House Chairman and Civic Democratic Party (ODS) leader Václav Klaus proclaimed that he would not like to live in a Europe in which there were no borders between countries and in which these countries "dictated" to each other who should or should not be in a democratically elected government.

MP Jana Volfová of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) said that she would set up a shadow cabinet composed entirely of women. This came in response to remarks made by Prime Minister Zeman. Zeman told the press that reason why he will not include any women in ministerial posts in his newly reconstructed Cabinet is that the male contenders proved to be better than female contenders.

Bohumil Fišer, head of the Physiological Institute at Masaryk University in Brno, assumed his post as the new Health Minister on Monday. Another four ministerial changes are expected in the near future.

Rumours that the Coalition of Four - Freedom Union (US), Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) and Democratic Union (DEU) - had agreed early in the week to co-operate with the civic initiatives Impulse 99 and Thank You, Now Leave in the fall 2000 Senate elections were later denied.

According to recent public opinion polls, the Coalition of Four (US, KDU-ČSL, ODA, DEU) would win parliamentary elections with 29.1 percent of the popular vote. The Civic Democratic Party (ODS) remains the single most popular Czech political party and would receive 24.4 percent of votes if elections were held now. The Communist Party, which is - with 20.5 percent - second in the opinion polls, intends to pursue a policy which would see the Czech Republic leaving NATO and also rejects the current form of the European Union.

Vladimír Špidla, deputy premier and minister of labour and social affairs, said that by 31 December last year the Finance Ministry had provided up to Kč (Czech crowns) 400 million to municipalities for the provision of interest-free loans to citizens who had not received their wages for over two months. Some 53,000 workers were not paid wages on time last year.

The Czech government announced that it will bail out the largest state-owned bank, Komerční Banka. Chief Executive and Chairman of the bank's board Jan Kollert resigned from his post. The government is soon expected to provide billions of crowns to cover the bank's past losses.

Former General Director of Škoda Plzeň Lubomír Soudek is being prosecuted on suspicion of making illegal financial transactions during his term as director of the company. Soudek allegedly deprived Škoda Plzeň of at least Kč 113 million to the benefit of his own company, NERO. Soudek was dismissed from his post last February.

The plan for Romani integration submitted to the government by its Commissioner for Human Rights, Petr Uhl, was rejected and returned for changes. The proposal to establish an office for ethnic equality and Romani integration was allegedly rejected primarily on account of its high budget - projected to run between Kč 500 million and Kč 1 billion annually. The government also said it could not accept the organisational and conceptual shortcomings of the plan. The plan includes various entitlement programs, free education and re-qualification courses, cheap housing and assistance for Romani companies. Another project with similar aims, which is under patronage of the Czech and Slovak presidents Václav Havel and Rudolf Schuster, is being prepared in co-operation with the Slovak government. A preparatory course at the Central Police Academy in Brno for members of ethnic minorities interested in working as police officers is being attended by 21 members of the Roma community. The project was approved by the Interior Ministry and funded partly by the British Embassy, which donated GBP 20,000.

Stanislav Pobuda, 19, was sentenced to four years imprisonment for selling marijuana cigarettes to three friends, one of whom was under 15. The sentence has spurred a lively debate, in which particular attention has been paid to the fact that Czech law does not differentiate between hard drugs and soft drugs. Pobuda claims that he did not know he was violating the law and just sold some cigarettes to his friends. He has never been sentenced before. He was awaiting the appeal trial in detention when on Friday President Havel granted him presidential pardon. His request for the pardon and complaints of a violation of law on behalf of Pobuda were supported by both non-governmental organizations and private persons.

The Czech government decided unanimously to block a deal for the export of ventilation parts between the company ZVVZ Milevsko and the Bushire nuclear power station in Iran. The government promised that as compensation for the ban it will arrange that ZVVZ will get a stake in a state-held regional energy distributor, and the state will, in turn, acquire a controlling stake in ZVVZ.

The Czech government intends to redefine the position of the Czech National Bank (ČNB) in order to enable it to join the European System of Central Banks. The Cabinet approved an amendment to the law on ČNB concerning the bank's objectives. An amendment to the law on banks with a similar aim is in the works. Another amendment - this time to the Constitution - proposes changes to the election procedure of ČNB board members (one-third of it members are to be elected by the President, one-third by the lower house and one-third by the upper house of Parliament).

Czech pop singer Karel Gott unveiled a billboard at the Czech-German border crossing near Rozvadov inviting one and all to Expo 2000 in Hannover. Gott is to be the main personality at the Czech Republic's national day at the exhibition. Gott's participation in Expo had until recently been uncertain, as he felt harmed by what he considered to be a defamatory article in the press calling him a zombie and saying that he had refused to sing in Hannover.

Beata Struharová, 18 February 2000



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