The British Lord Chancellor, Irvin of Lairg, paid a four day official visit to Prague last week. He had meetings on Friday with senior Czech representatives to discuss reforms and the operation of the Czech judicial system, with the particular emphasis on staff training for court administrators. The Czech Republic had to adopt some reforms in the judiciary sphere as a result of recent EU criticism. However, the Courts have been proved incapable of resolving hundreds of cases, many of which originated in the Communist era.
The government was still undecided on which minister would lead the Czech Security and Intelligence Service (BIS). The post, which was previously held by the Minister without Portfolio, has been left untouched since the recent Cabinet re-shuffle took place because the government decided to delegate responsibility to a different minister. There were rumours that the responsibility would be given to the Foreign Minister, Jan Kavan. However, a Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected such speculation by saying that Kavan had just been assigned to assess the merger of the two parts of the State Secret Service.[See below]
On Saturday, 29 April, the Western Bohemian town of Cheb celebrated the fifty-fifth anniversary of its liberation by US soldiers at the end of World War II. US Military Attaché to the Czech Republic, Scott Salyers, attended these celebrations as well as more than 40 American war veterans. Close to the German border, Cheb was a bastion of the Sudetendeutsche Partei [SdP] led by Konrad Henlein, a poltical party which later played a crucial role in the occupation of Czechoslovakia by German troops in the late 1930s.
Sorcerers and witches from around the country spent the last day of April meeting on hilltops and burning bonfires to celebrate Beltine, the international festival of witchcraft. The last day of April is the traditional witches’ night in the Czech Republic, a tradition that dates back to the Celtic era. Many Czechs are still proud of their old Celtic descendants, although the Celts had moved out from Central Europe long before the Slavs arrived in the 6th Century AD.
1 May was celebrated in various ways across the Czech Republic. Premier Miloš Zeman and trade union leader Richard Falbr laid wreaths at a memorial on the Střelecký ostrov in Prague, where Labour Day was first celebrated in 1890. At a different site, the leader of the Communist Party, Miroslav Grebeníček, attacked President Václav Havel and the country’s attempt to join the EU. He stated that the EU was nothing less than a tool of multinational enterprises. He also told a crowd of around 3000 Communist supporters that despite being exploited by the capitalists, a bright future lies before them. The anarchists also showed up with their own version of celebration, which resulted in 53 of them being arrested by the police.
The Czech Foreign Ministry has handed over offical notes revoking the non-visa agreements to representatives of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. These agreements were revoked in order to harmonise policy with the EU's visa policy. Citizens of Russia and Belarus now need to obtain a visa to visit the Czech Republic, effective from 29 May. The date is 28 June for Ukrainians. Some diplomats had previously speculated that Moscow would implement similar step for Czechs visting Russia.
A joint announcement was made on Monday that the Czech plane maker Aero and its counterpart, Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC), would conduct their first official test flight of their jointly developed aircraft. The single engine turboprop Aero 270 would have a flight range of around 500 kilometres and would have a capacity load of maximum nine seats. Both companies signed a contract worth USD 64 millions three years ago, with Aero taking care of the sales in Europe and AIDC in Asia.
The Head of the Czech Diplomatic mission to the EU, Pavel Telička, said on Tuesday that the EU did not have any reason to slow down the enlargement process and that the candidate countries had not given any reason for this to be suggested. There had been allegations that the EU would slow down the process with an alternative "big bang" scenario, where the EU would wait until 2006 to accept all the ten candidate countries. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Kavan hoped that the country would succeed in joining the club in three years time. Talking at the "Day of Europe" event in Prague on Tuesday, Kavan said that joining the EU would mean a great opportunity for the current generation to realise the ideas of post-war politicians, such as achieving permanent peace.
The Czech Republic has set aside around CZK 345 million [USD 8.4 million] to help finance humanitarian aid projects to foreign countries this year. One third of the budget was proposed by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, while 31.36 percent of the money would be reserved for educational purposes through the Ministry of Education. The aid would mainly go to Asia (33.9 percent) and the Middle East (20.58 percent), followed by Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
The state budget balance worsened in April. It plunged into a deficit of almost CZK 4.5 billion [USD 110 million] compared to a surplus of more than CZK 8.4 billion [USD 205 million] in March.
A recent survey by the Sofres-Factum polling agency showed an increase in the government’s credibility among the citizens after the re-shuffling process of some of its cabinet members. The respondents showed the Interior Minister Stanislav Gross and Justice Minister Otakar Motejl as the most useful ministers.
Dutch telecommunication giant KPN confirmed its intention to increase its stake in Czech Telecom. The government planned to sell its remaining 51 percent stake in the company by the end of this year or in 2001. The sale of the whole stake to KPN had been one of the possible variants of the sale. KPN currently holds 6.5 percent of stake in the company. KPN has been said to be in talks of possible merger with Spanish Telefonica.
The government finally established the Committee for Intelligence Operation to co-ordinate the work of the intelligence service. The Committee would be headed by the Deputy Prime Minister for Security and Foreign Policies Jan Kavan, who is also the Foreign Minister. The government also widened the State Security Council with Prime Minister Zeman at the helm, to include the Labour and Social Affairs Minister Vladimír Spidla, the Minister of Trade and Industry Miroslav Grégr and the Minister of Transportation and Communications Jaromír Schling. As a part of the National Security Council, the new Committee replaced the existing Council for Intelligence Services. The country now has four intelligence services: military intelligence, counter intelligence and two civilian secret services.
Russian Ambassador to the Czech Republic Nikolai Ryabov has toned down his earlier statement from March about Moscow’s "serious concern" over the state of Czech-Russian relations and supported further Czech investment in Russia. In a conversation with the Head of the Czech Senate Libuše Benešová on Wednesday, Ryabov said that he did not mean the whole of bilateral relations when making the remarks, but only some aspects such as trade relations and the visa regime. The Russian Foreign Ministry refused to comment on his statements.
On Wednesday the government approved a bill to protect classified facts, which would simplify vetting procedures for those in contact with secret or confidential information. The new law would now include health proficiency conditions for all degree of security vetting and personal proficiency conditions for the first stage of vetting. An affidavit would be needed for the second stage. In a third "secret" stage, vetting would be conducted only if the intelligence services feel a security risk from the checked person.
In another development, the government also passed a draft law on qualification for the medical profession. Under the new regulations, doctors that previously had to undergo two professional performance tests now only need perform one. Before the test, medical graduates would have to work in the health care sector for a certain period. An edict would be issued to regulate the period, most probably about six years on average.
The Russian Foreign Ministry accused President Václav Havel of questioning the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation on Thursday, and attempting to justify the separatists and terrorists activities in Chechnya. His outburst was a reaction to Havel’s statement in a Czech newspaper saying that Chechnya had not always belonged to Russia. It should be up to the Chechens to decide their fate. Military action did not target terrorists, but the people, Havel added. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that Prague should understand that what the federal government had been doing was trying to restore law and order. The fight was then also a part of the international struggle against terrorism. President Havel has not yet commented on the reply.
Former US Republican presidential candidate and senator Bob Dole received an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Bohemia in the city of Plzen (Pilsen) on Thursday. He had ealier attended the celebrations to mark the fifty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Plzen by American soldiers at the end of Second World War. He later met President Havel to discuss NATO enlargement. Václav Havel thanked Dole for his support for Czech membership in NATO.
Czech Republic will have to speed up the harmonisation of its environmental laws with EU norms, the European Commission member for the environment, Margot Wallstroem, said. Harmonisation would not be sufficient; the country would need to put EU environmental legislation in practice, she added. She turned to Czech deputies and senators to ask them to speed up the approval of the new environmental laws in the country.
Markus Bonorianto, 4 May 2000
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