The two strongest parties in Parliament - the ruling Social Democrats (ČSSD) and their opposition "partner," the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) - pushed through their long-planned electoral reform which will see the current proportional system changed to first-past-the-post. Under the new law, 35 electoral districts will be establish, voting will be restricted to Sundays only and all seats will be distributed in the first round of voting. For the first time in ten years, Czech citizens abroad will have the right to cast their votes. The minimum number of votes needed to enter Parliament will be raised so that two-party coalitions will need ten per cent of the vote, three-party coalitions 15 per cent and four-party coalitions 20 per cent. The electoral reform was one of the main conditions of the "Opposition Agreement" signed by the ČSSD and ODS after the June 1998 elections.
Since mid May, the Czech consulate in Moscow has already accepted around 100 applications for Czech visas daily, although the new regulation requiring Russian citizens to obtain Czech visas to enter the Czech Republic will come into effect on 29 May. Visas will be issued within a week, although this may eventually be extended to ten days. Rough estimates place the number of potential applicants at up to 500,000 annually. Visas can also be applied for in St Petersburg. In February, Prague decided to impose visa requirements on Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians in an attempt to harmonise Czech law with EU regulations. Reports also said on Friday that the Russian Embassy in Prague had begun to accept applications from Czech citizens.
Foreign Minister Jan Kavan announced that the government had decided to extend visa requirements to other countries of the former Soviet Union, including Moldavia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan and went on to say that the government had officially confirmed the same policy toward Georgia and Tajikistan.
Reacting to a plan by the British government to have British immigration officers conduct controls on Czech passengers flying to the UK already on Czech territory, the Czech government's Commissioner for Human Rights Petr Uhl said that the measure would be a clear expression of racial discrimination. The Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross and the British Ambassador in Prague, David Broucher, met on Thursday to discuss the issue. The main goal of the measure is to tackle the number of asylum seekers from the Czech Romani minority.
Vietnamese Defence Minister Pham Van Tra arrived in Prague on Friday to begin his official visit to the country. After meeting with his Czech counterpart, Vladimír Vetchý, he said that the Vietnamese Army would like to co-operate with the Czechs in the area of armament but did not specify in which way. The Czech Republic could also assist in the training of Vietnamese soldiers. The Vietnamese Army currently operates the Czech-made L-29 and L-39 aircraft and expressed an interested in co-operating with the Czech Republic on the aircrafts' maintenance and repair.
In its regular report of every six months, the European Commission predicted Czech economic growth would fall to 1.8 per cent, down from the expected 2.8 per cent of the last report. It described the country's economy as a typical example of neglected restructuring and said that the current recovery occurred mainly as a result of higher demands in EU markets. According to the report, the unemployment rate was higher than the officially recognised nine per cent, for as many as 140,000 employees had not received their wages at all or only in part. The real rate was estimated at some 12 per cent. The Czech Republic has the lowest balance of payment deficit compared to other EU candidate countries and no serious problem with inflation. However, the report showed higher economic growth in other candidate countries.
President Václav Havel took part in a solemn ceremony at the National Cemetery in Terezín commemorating the victims of Nazism. The memory of those executed, deported and tortured, he insisted, must remain a challenge for the new millennium, which the new generation should never forget. Havel also warned against the rise of racial, national and religious hatred. More than 1000 people from over 20 countries took part in the commemorative ceremony in what had at one time been a north Bohemian fortress, built by Empress Maria Theresa in the 18th century, before the Nazis made it a transit point for Jews and other nationalities on their way to extermination camps.
Deputy Foreign Minister Hynek Kmoníček began his two-day official visit to Algeria on Sunday. Upon his arrival, he told local journalists that the visit was a part of political consultations on bilateral issues. According to him, the situation in Algeria had been improving and the country is an important market in the region. He also said that relations among the two countries had been good for decades.
After long negotiations with the government, the Volkswagen Group decided to purchase the remaining 30 per cent stake held by the state-owned Česká konsolidační banka in the Škoda Auto company for CZK 12.3 billion (USD 312 million). The government maintained the right to hold one seat on Škoda's supervisory board until the end of February 2007. Volkswagen already held a 70 per cent stake in the company before the deal was made.
The Czech and Slovak prime ministers, Miloš Zeman and Mikuláš Dzurinda, signed a joint declaration on the resolution of Czech-Slovak property issues. Miloš Zeman presented his counterpart with a symbolic 14-kilogram gold brick, part of the 4.12 tonnes of gold returned to Slovakia by the Czech central bank last week. Dzurinda, speaking during his visit to Prague, said that relations between the two countries had never been better, adding that the future of both countries lies in their membership in the EU. The former Czechoslovakia split seven years ago, but the neighbours still remain united by a customs union, which the two premiers said would remain in place until one of the two countries joins the Union.
In a joint-statement, Miloš Zeman and Mikuláš Dzurinda identified the main goal of Czech-Slovak relations as closer co-operation in the process of EU integration. Premier Dzurinda said that bilateral co-operation would be based on agreements. Four agreements were signed during the Slovak premier's visit, regarding mutual protection of secret data; co-operation in education, research and culture; co-operation between the Czech Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Slovak Economy Ministry; and the provision and payment of medical services. Miloš Zeman expressed his support for Slovakia's bid for membership in NATO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The head of the European Commission delegation to the Czech Republic, Ramiro Cibrian, expressed his disappointment at the recent rejection by the Chamber of Deputies of two government drafts crucial for reform of the country's justice system. Cibrian said he hoped that the parties in Parliament would reach an agreement and pass the necessary legislation as soon as possible. Last week, the Chamber of Deputies rejected two amendments to the Criminal Code and the Constitution. Both had been the key pillars of the reforms of Justice Minister Otakar Motejl, the only non-partisan member of government.
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The Chamber of Deputies also passed an amendment on electronic signatures. Under the new law, Czechs will be able to submit their tax returns via the Internet. The law aims to ease communication with authorities and increase e-commerce. The Czech Republic is the first country in Central and Eastern Europe to introduce such a law.
The Chamber of Deputies passed a new amendment to the Constitution allowing the government to more easily send Czech troops abroad in an emergency and approve the transit or deployment of foreign soldiers on Czech territory during international peacekeeping missions or emergency operations. A decision by the government would be valid for two months and would still need approval from Parliament. The amendments are intended to enable the Czech Republic to react more with flexibility in order to fulfil its obligations as a member state of both NATO and the UN. Under the current law, the decision-making process is very complicated and lengthy.
The lower house of Parliament has approved a law on the financing of political parties. The new law allows a party to receive monetary "gifts" worth up to CZK 40 million (USD 1 million) per year. Annual membership fees should not exceed CZK 50,000 (USD 1250). The subsidy to support the mandate of a member of future regional assemblies will be CZK 250,000 (USD 6250) per year and will be transferred to the party to which the member belongs. Interior Minister Stanislav Gross stressed that the new regulations would not eliminate all problems concerning party financing.
Prime Minister Miloš Zeman began a two-day visit to Greece. He met with his counterpart, Greek Prime Minister Kostas Simitis, to discuss political and economic stability in the Balkans and EU integration. The two leaders also signed a pact on co-operation in industry, agriculture and technology and agreed to boost private investment by Greeks in the Czech Republic.
President Václav Havel will undergo a hernia operation in the summer. The President's office explained that the operation to repair a rupture caused by another operation on his damaged large intestine two years ago had been planned for some time. The operation date would be decided after consultation with Austrian surgeon Ernst Bodner. Havel has suffered from serious health problems since 1996, when he lost parts of his right lung during surgery to remove a malignant tumour.
Markus Bonorianto, 26 May 2000
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