The Chamber of Deputies has approved the government's state budget for 2004, including a record deficit of 115 billion crowns, or more than 4.2 billion US dollars. The budget was supported by 98 out of 198 deputies present, with 95 deputies from the opposition Civic Democratic Party and Communists voting against. The 115 billion crown deficit was proposed by the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla as part of a sweeping, multi-year budget reform package. Parliament has already given a green light to other reform measures including sales tax increases and corporate tax cuts which take effect next month. The deficit, based on a budget with 754 billion crowns in expected revenues and 869 billion crowns in expenses, is around 4 per cent higher than this year's record spending gap. Overall, the prime minister hopes to bring the deficit under control over the next three years so that the Czech Republic can qualify for changing its currency to the euro before 2010. Meanwhile, the approved budget for 2004 must still be signed by President Vaclav Klaus.
Some 300 Czech students gathered in Prague on Wednesday to protest against what they see as government under-financing of Czech universities. Students met at Prague's Charles University before marching to the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, carrying various banners and signs, while police looked on. In front of the Lower House students handed Waltr Bartos, the head of the Lower House's commission on Education, a document outlining their view on the state-of-affairs. They also addressed the education minister, Petra Buzkova, on her way to proceedings. Wednesday's protest followed a similar meeting on Tuesday that took place in the east Moravian city of Olomouc.
Czech police have said they arrested four traffickers from a major narcotics gang, following a nationwide series of raids on Wednesday. The four, police say, include the alleged kingpin of the Europe-based organisation. Police spokeswoman Blanka Kosinova revealed that the traffickers were believed to have smuggled almost 240 kilos of heroin - some 2.5 million doses, along with 19 kilos of cocaine, from the Czech Republic to other European countries. Names and other details on the suspects have not been released. In all police raided 12 locations Wednesday, including the alleged gang leader's luxury Prague home. Confiscated were guns, vehicles, cash, fake documents and bullet-proof vests. The police operation, dubbed 'Operation Titanium' saw Czech officials co-operate with Austrian and Italian authorities. Now, each of the suspects in custody could face up to 15 years in prison.
Meanwhile President Klaus also held talks with the Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson. The two men discussed the possible leasing of Swedish-made Gripen jet fighters for the Czech Air Force. On Monday a Czech commission made up of five ministries recommended to the cabinet that the air force should lease the planes from Gripen. The country must replace its fleet of ageing MiGs by the end of 2004.
President Vaclav Klaus - speaking during an official visit to Sweden - has said the disadvantages of the euro outweigh the advantages. In a speech to the Swedish Parliament, President Klaus said the euro was created purely for political reasons and not economic necessity. Mr Klaus also said that in his opinion the results of deeper European integration had fallen well below expectations. The Czech government says it wants the country to adopt the single European currency by the end of the decade. Sweden is one of three European Union countries not to have adopted the euro.
The Agrarian Chamber is planning to protest against the mass slaughter of animals in connection with BSE safety measures. Farmers complain that current regulations on BSE safety result in the slaughter of an excessive amount of cattle. The last two positive cases of BSE alone resulted in the slaughter of over 1,000 head of cattle. The Agrarian Chamber and Czech farmers' associations feel that this could be remedied without endangering consumers and plan to send a petition to Brussels, asking for the respective regulations to be reviewed.
A commission of experts has advised the Czech government to accept Sweden's offer of Gripen fighter jets to replace the Czech Republic's aging fleet of Soviet made MIG-21s. The commission assessed five offers in all. The US, Belgium, and the Netherlands offered second-hand F-16 planes while Canada competed with its two-engine F-18s. Sweden got the edge over its rivals by offering brand new places at a leasing price ten percent lower than the threshold put down by the Czech Defense Ministry. The Czech government is to make a final decision by the end of the year. If the proposal is approved 14 Gripen jets will replace the aging MIG 21s in 2005.
Czech ambassador to Kuwait Jana Hybaskova, who was recalled on Friday, insists on her criticism of the government regarding the decision to withdraw the Czech Army field hospital from Iraq. Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said Jana Hybaskova was removed from the post after persistent criticism of her government's policy in Iraq. The government decided to withdraw the field hospital from the Iraqi city of Basra by the end of the year, sending 80 military policemen to Iraq instead. Mrs. Hybaskova believes the withdrawal of the field hospital harmed the Czech Republic, because it comes at a time when in her view, the presence of the hospital could have helped the Czech Republic take an active role in the economic transformation of southern Iraq.
President Vaclav Klaus has vetoed the second of two bills which make up the government's package of planned public finance reforms. Mr Klaus refused to sign a bill on social security payments, saying the proposed legislation was selective and unfair. On Wednesday the president vetoed a bill increasing health insurance payments for the self-employed. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla has said he is confident the ruling coalition's deputies will unite to overrule the president's veto when the bills are returned to parliament. Mr Klaus has so far signed six of the draft laws.
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