Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 8
28 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 19 February 2000

Beata Struhárová with Markus Bonarianto

Prime Minister Miloš Zeman and his delegation visited France for two days this week. France will take over the EU presidency in July. Zeman met the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, and President Jacques Chirac, who told him that they support Czech admission to the EU in 2003 and both believe the process of reforming the EU can proceed without hindering enlargement.

Zeman also gave a speech at the French Foreign Trade Centre, during which he called for greater French investment in the Czech Republic. Zeman said that he would welcome the participation of French banks in the privatisation of the Czech banking sector. One of the bankers present pointed out the paradox between Czech government efforts to attract investment and the new restrictive Czech laws on foreigners, which impose strict conditions on entrance to the country and residency applications and came into effect earlier this year. Zeman said the new laws are part of the requirements for membership in the EU and his government will work at clarifying some of the more controversial sections.

During his visit, Miloš Zeman also sharply criticised the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, Jörg Haider. In his speech at the French Institute of International Relations, he described Haider as a "danger for the whole of Europe." According to Zeman, the European Union has much more to offer than merely an economic union. In his view, the EU has many more dimensions, and Haider does not have any place within these values.

The government drew up a draft law banning supplies to the Iranian nuclear plant in Bushehr, after directors of the ZVVZ Milevsko company announced last week that they are not obliged to follow a governmental decree. The Cabinet's proposal to the Chamber of Deputies to declare a state of legislative emergency in order to speed the legislative process of the law in Parliament was heard as well. The government justified this action by citing state security interests and an attempt to prevent serious economic repercussions for the Czech Republic, if the deal were to go through. The new law is meant to block a controversial deal to export ventilation parts to the Iranian power plant. The law mentions possible sanctions, if the ZVVZ Milevsko company does not comply with the law, but does not mention the promised government compensation to cover approximately 75 per cent of the CZK (Czech Korunas) 200 million contract. The government has been under considerable international pressure recently to block exports to the Iranian power plant which is seen as a potential military threat. US officials have threatened to impose sanctions unless exports to the Bushehr plant are stopped.

Deputy Chairman of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Ivan Langer warned Prime Minister Zeman that, unless he delivered on the promise of a cabinet reshuffle before the next budget debate, the majority of ODS members of Parliament would not back the budget. Zeman dismissed the threat as ODS's blackmail. This is the latest development in the ongoing political battle over the state budget and cabinet changes which are widely expected to bring five new ministers into the Social Democratic Cabinet. The ODS made its support of the budget conditional on ministerial changes and has been growing increasingly impatient with the delay. The third draft of the state budget is to go into its second reading after 1 March.

Uncertainty still hangs above the question of who will replace the outgoing ministers in Miloš Zeman's Cabinet. Deputy Chairman of the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), Stanislav Gross, who has been offered by the Prime Minister the post of Minister of the Interior, refused to give any comments. So far, the changes in some government posts announced by Zeman approximately two weeks ago are still clouded by speculation.

President Václav Havel held a meeting with Interior Minister Václav Grulich to find out how false information claiming that police were to charge officials of the Czech National Bank (ČNB) was recently leaked. He was interested to know whether the investigator who made the announcement in connection with the liquidation of Agrobanka had been properly charged. Havel suggested that the leak was motivated by financial interests intended to discredit the ČNB and said it would be dangerous if such motivations were able to influence police, media and politicians.

The spokesman of the Czech Statistical Bureau, Jaroslav Macháně, announced that the Czech foreign trade deficit reached CZK 9.1 billion (USD 260 million) in January 2000. The figures showed an increase of almost CZK 6.9 billion (USD 197 million) from January 1999. Fuel was responsible for CZK 7.2 billion (USD 205.7 million) of the deficit. Imports increased by 39.5 percent and exports by 29.5 percent during this same period.

The European Union Commissioner for Enlargement, Günter Verheugen, told the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament that Czech preparations for membership in the EU have improved significantly since last October's critical progress report from the European Commission. Verheugen said he was pleased with Prague's recent efforts - notably the Czech government's ambitious legislative program - but that there was still much work to be done. He also noted that while it seems strange to politicians in the West that the Czech opposition is keeping the government in power, the power-sharing agreement between the country's two largest parties is having positive effects on the harmonization of Czech laws with EU legislation. He was referring to the so-called oposition agreement signed between the ruling Social Democratic party (ČSSD) and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), under which the ODS tolerates the ČSSD government, in exchange for certain concessions and key positions - such as Chairman of Parliament.

The leader of the Christian Democratic Party (KDU-ČSL), Jan Kasal, denied criticism that he was showing support for the extreme right-wing elements of Austria's new government by meeting with representative's of the new ruling coalition, which contains Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party. He insisted that during his visit to Austria last week he met with the politicians of the Freedom Party and People's Party to discuss issues of the Czech Repulic's entry into the European Union and the Beneš Decrees. Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman regarded this visit as "worse than a crime; it was a stupidity" and feared that it would harm the country's integration into European structures.

President Havel pardoned Stanislav Pobuda, 19, who was sentenced to four years in prison for selling 18 marijuana cigarettes to his friends. The decision came after Pobuda had already spent seven months in custody. He was immediately released and no other investigations will be pursued or charges pressed.

Police charged a 23-year-old man for giving the Nazi salute at a recent skinhead demonstration in support of Jörg Haider's right-wing Freedom Party. The charges - "supporting and promoting movements which violate the basic rights and freedoms of the individual" - carry a sentence of up to five years in prison. More than 100 skinheads participated in the rally on Prague's Wenceslas Square last Saturday organized by the extremist organization, the National Alliance. Prague police were criticized by some Czech politicians after Saturday's demonstration for standing idly by, while some of the skinhead participants gave the Nazi salute.

In an event labeled "anti-únor" (anti-February), around 400 supporters of the "Thank you, now leave" movement gathered at Prague's Wenceslas Square on Friday to desecrate rather than commemorate the 52nd anniversary of the 1948 Communist takeover. Right-wing extremists also held an unauthorised demonstration on the square.

The High Court in Prague sentenced Michal Danisovic and Bedrich Houbel, two former officers of the Communist police (SNB), to conditional sentences of three years for abusing their powers as public officials when they ordered a police action against anti-Communist demonstrators shortly before the fall of the Communist regime in November 1989. The High Court has thus changed a ruling handed down by a regional court last year, which sentenced Danisovic to three years in prison and put Houbal on probation for four years.

Two experts from the Council of Europe visiting the Czech Republic praised the city of Ustí nad Labem for having taken positive steps in resolving problems between the Roma minority and the majority population in the town. Ustí nad Labem gained international focus last year after a wall was built in the city's Matiční Street to partly separate a block of flats inhabited mostly by Romani residents from the private houses of non-Romani residents, who complained of excess garbage and noise coming from their neighbours' side. The government later decided to pay the city CZK 70 million, in order to compensate for the removal of the wall and the relocation of the non-Romani residents.

The government announced a public tender to sell its 51 per cent share in the Czech wireless communications operator České radiokomunikace to a single investor. This overturns the government's earlier decision to offer its foreign partner, TeleDanmark, an increased share in the company. Besides the Danish company, German telecommunications giant DeutscheTelecom has also expressed interest in purchasing the state's majority stake in the company.

Beata Struhárová with Markus Bonarianto, 25 February 2000

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