The Czech Republic may apply visa requirements for Canadian citizens. Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan said on Friday 7 April that reciprocal measures would be taken in response to the decision made by the Canadian authorities not to lift visa requirements for Czechs. Canada imposed visa requirements for Czech citizens in 1997, after an influx of asylum applications from the Czech Romani minority. In his letter to the Czech Foreign Minister, Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axeworthy, who is to visit the Czech Republic in June, said that there had been an increase in the number of rejected visa application from Czechs. However, the Canadian policy would not be revised until 2002. A Czech Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that a decision would be made on this issue in several weeks.
President Václav Havel expressed concern about Prime Minister Miloš Zeman's continued criticism of two elite police units fighting corruption and organised crime. Havel said that it would be better to release more objective information about their abilities. These units were, according to Zeman, about as competent and reliable in their fields as taxi-drivers or plumbers. He had previously fired Evžen Sirek and Jan Kubice, both prominent police officials. This lead to deeper suspicion about the involvement of the Prime Minister's senior adviser, Miroslav Šlouf, who was a Party official under the Communist regime and has been the focus of recent media scrutiny.
Organisers of the Davis Cup quarter-final clash between the Czech Republic and the US made an unprecedented faux pas by playing the outdated Czechoslovak anthem before the first match. The old hymn is a combination of the separate Czech and Slovak anthems. The Czech captain filed an official complaint about the incident and expressed disappointment at the poor historical knowledge of the Americans. Jiří Novák, who beat Pete Sampras in the first match, said that the Americans would have the Russian anthem played in their honour instead of their own the next time they came to the Czech Republic.
The Czech Republic and Poland issued a joint resolution criticising the state of human rights in Cuba. The resolution, which was drawn up after consultation with UN representatives from the US, Europe and Latin America, was then passed on to the UN Commission for Human Rights. Czech Deputy Prime Minister Milan Palouš claimed that the proposal received unanimous support. Czech officials had dismissed a sharp warning voiced by Cuban leader Fidel Castro a few weeks ago to stop interfering with the country's internal affairs and claimed to have a moral obligation to countries still living under totalitarianism.
Recently appointed Interior Minister Stanislav Gross and the leader of the constitutional and legal parliamentary committee, Jitka Kupčová, were elected as new deputy leaders of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) by the party's executive committee. They thus replaced Petra Buzková and Zdeněk Škromach, both of whom resigned from their posts.
A new system of supplementary pension contributions was approved on Monday, enabling employers to sign up for pension funds to which both employers and employees contribute. The funds will act as a supplement to compulsory old-age pensions administrated by the state and will be independent despite being established by the companies.
The Karlový Vary region in west Bohemia has, more than anywhere else in the country, the highest concentration of mafia activities. Senator Jiří Vývadil (Social Democrat) announced on Monday that he would launch actions against extensive crime operations related to foreign mafia organisations in the region.
On Monday, Belgium officially expressed concern over the increasing number of asylum seekers from the Czech Republic. The Belgian Foreign Ministry told the Czech Ambassador Kateřína Lukešová that Prague should do something about the number of asylum seekers, which allegedly rose from 39 in January to 51 in March. Lukešová then informed the Belgian authorities of the Czech integration policy for Roma seeking asylum in Belgium, while pointing out that the country was attractive because its deadlines for processing asylum applications are very long and financial benefits generous. The Czech government, meanwhile, made an announcement that it would take immediate steps to limit further increases. However, it would not be sufficient just to prevent these people from going.
The head of the Western European Union (WEU) military staff, Jean Maria Viriot, visited Prague on Monday. He met the Czech Army Chief-of-Staff Jiří Šedivý to discuss the possible position of the Czech Army within the WEU forces. In March, the WEU decided to transform itself into a European Security and Defence Assembly. On Tuesday 11 April, In his meeting with Viriot, the Czech Defence Minister Vladimír Vetchý expressed the Czech Republic's desire to be involved in the building of a European military defence system. The two officials also talked about how to involve other NATO states that do not yet belong to the European Union, including Hungary, Poland, Norway, Iceland, and Turkey.
The unemployment rate fell to 9.5 per cent in March. The number of unemployed was just below half a million. The drop was a surprise to experts, as they had predicted an increase. Prague and surrounding regions had the lowest figure (3 per cent), while the industrialised north Bohemian and north Moravian regions suffered the most, reaching 20 per cent. However, analysts predicted the number will rise in the second half of the year.
According to the draft of the state information policy in the education sector approved by the government on Monday, all Czech schools will have access to the Internet by the end of 2001. The blueprint for the policy came in response to an EU agreement reached in Lisbon at the end of March. Education Minister Eduard Zeman said that the EU wants to catch up to the US's leading position in the Internet by focusing on information technology. He admitted that the Czech Republic would, in some aspects, lag about one year behind the most advanced countries, although the country would still follow the pace agreed upon in Lisbon.
Ralf Dreyer of the European Commission said at a discussion forum entitled "Britain and the Czech Republic - Together in the EU" that despite the progress made in adopting European legislation in the last six months, the Czech Republic would still need to intensify efforts in court reform and improve public debate on EU membership. He said that reforms in the EU institutions would be completed by the end of this year. Thus, it would be able to admit new members and help the Czechs fulfil their ambitious goal of joining the EU in 2003. The former UK Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe also attended the forum and said that all countries applying for EU membership must hold a referendum, as well as public debates on what it involves. The Czech Republic, he added, needs not to worry about losing its sovereignty as a member of the Union. It had been exactly 15 years ago that Howe made an official visit to the former Czechoslovakia, during which members of his delegation held secret meetings with the leading dissidents of the time, including Václav Havel and Olga Havlová, which caused a huge embarrassment to the then Communist government.
Deputy Defence Minister Jaromír Novotný said after a meeting with the director of Nato's Airborne Early Warning and Control Programme Management Organisation (NAPMO), Darleen Druyun, on Tuesday that the Czech Republic would be ready to enter the organisation before 2003. If the Czech Republic entered NAPMO this year, it would have to contribute an estimated CZK 120 million. Meanwhile, according to a March poll by Sofres-Factum publicised on Thursday, almost 50 per cent of Czechs wanted Nato aircraft to protect the country's air space. More than 25 per cent wanted their country to have its own supersonic fighters, while 36 per cent thought that the army should not buy any aircraft at all.
On Wednesday, the Senate approved a government bill on regional administration. The law is a key legal norm in the ongoing reform of public administration which is to outline the structure of a third tier of self-government between the Parliament and municipal authorities. The new Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said the bill took into consideration the constitutional principle, which says that an assembly manages a region with independent functions regulated by law. The Senate also passed a draft on elections to the assemblies in the new self-governed regions.
The Czech Chamber of Deputies passed an amendment to the law on money laundering. The draft still needs Senate approval and the President's signature. The amendment intends to cut tax evasion, increase state budget revenues and eliminate the impact of money laundering on the country's economy. It abolishes anonymous deposits and grants power to the Finance Ministry to request information from tax administrators during the entire tax procedure. The law, if implemented properly, would be a reliable tool to curb the corruption and so-called tunnelling which are such familiar sights on the country's economic and political scenes and have long been tarnishing the Czech Republic's reputation.
Prime Minister Miloš Zeman became the chairman of the committee of Socialist International for Peace, Democracy and Security, which unites Socialist and Social Democratic parties from around the world. Portuguese Premier Antonio Guiterres, also a chairman of SI, nominated Zeman and his proposal was then approved by the Socialist International Council. Zeman will have Daphin Sharfman from Israel's Labour Party as his deputy.
The Senate recommended that the Czech Army continue its service in Kosovo as part of the KFOR international force. The army Chief-of-Staff Jiří Šedivý had earlier commented that the contingent of about 200 soldiers should remain in Kosovo at least until the end of the year. The Czech Army had previously planned to withdraw in the middle of 2000, leaving the mechanised battalion, which now serves under the command of the SFOR force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Currently, there are six Czech policemen in Kosovo. 14 additional policemen will be sent in the second half of the year.
The lower house of Parliament passed a government bill on genetically modified organisms on Thursday. The new law regulates management of genetically modified products from the perspectives of environmental protection, human and animal health and biological diversity. It would also stipulate that only authorised persons registered with the Environment Ministry would be able to handle such organisms. The bill must still be approved by the Senate and the President.
Foreign Minister Jan Kavan met with officials from Lockheed Martin & Northrop Grumman in Los Angeles on Thursday. The companies are involved in bidding to supply the Czech Air Force with supersonic fighters. The Czech government said it would call a public tender in the coming week. The emphasis would be on offset programmes, in which the winner would invest its proceeds in the Czech Republic. The winner will be announced in 2003.
Deputy Foreign Minister Yvonne Střečková admitted that the Czech Republic was still lagging behind its neighbours in reforming its public administration. At a conference of interior ministry officials from the Visegrad group in Prague on Thursday, Střečková said that while Poland, Hungary and Slovakia had already begun implementing reforms, the Czech Republic was still in the legislative phase of the process. Nine years ago, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland agreed to co-operate on the process of EU integration by forming the Visegrad Group.
A project intended to increase interest in the Bible was launched on Thursday. The project is to be held in 170 locations around the country. Anyone interested in copying verses from the Bible will be able to obtain scrolls of paper in libraries, bookstores, schools or prisons. At the completion of the project, the manuscripts will be bound into six editions based on a 16th century Czech translation of the Bible. Czechs are one of the most secular nations in the world, with less than 10 per cent of the population regularly attending a house of worship and only about one-third believing in a supreme being.
Markus Bonorianto, 15 April 2000
Mladá fronta Dnes
ČTK - Czech News Agency