115 Roman Catholic cardinals locked themselves inside the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican on Monday to start a conclave that will elect a successor to Pope John Paul II. The cardinals heard a private sermon from 85-year-old Czech Cardinal Tomas Spidlik "on the need for careful discernment" in choosing the new pope. Cardinal Spidlik then withdrew, opening the way for the elaborate voting rites. At 85, Cardinal Spidlik is too old to vote, and the only Czech taking part in the election is 72-year old Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the archbishop of Prague.
The first six supersonic Jas-39 Gripen fighter jets leased from Sweden by the Czech Republic arrived in the country on Monday, the Defence Ministry has said. Eight more are to join the Czech air force by the end of August. The Gripens will be leased for 10 years at a cost of almost 20 billion crowns (850 million dollars), after which the country has an option to buy them or return them to Sweden. The planes will gradually replace the obsolete soviet MiG-21s. The deal, signed in June 2004, commits Sweden to investing 130 percent of the contract's value in so called "off-sets" in the Czech Republic, 20 percent of which will be direct investments in the Czech economy. The lease of the Gripens was approved by former Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla's government last June.
The chairman of the Croatian parliament Vladimir Seks who is visiting the Czech Republic has said Croatia is interested in the Czech Republic's support in its effort to join the EU. According to Mr Seks, seeking Czech support was one of the goals of his two-day visit during which he is to meet a number of Czech top officials. On Monday he met his Czech counterpart Lubomir Zaoralek, who said the Balkans and Croatia were among the priorities of Czech foreign policy, adding he hoped communication will be renewed between Croatia and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The EU last month suspended the start of accession talks with Croatia because of the country's authorities' unwillingness to capture and extradite a former general accused of war crimes.
The Czech political crisis has hit an impasse, with the three former coalition parties, the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Union, holding no new talks on forming a government after a previous deal failed on Thursday. Prime Minister Stanislav Gross now leads a minority government from which seven ministers have resigned but President Vaclav Klaus has yet to accept their resignations. Mr Klaus said on Friday he would not accept a minority cabinet from Mr Gross and instead would push for early elections. He also asked the three parties involved to inform him whether they were willing to form a new government based on the previous coalition. The Prime Minister and Social Democrat chairman Stanislav Gross said he would give his answer to President Klaus on Tuesday at the earliest.
The Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos said during his visit to Prague on Monday that the victory of pro-reunification Ali Talat in Turkish Cypriot presidential elections is a positive signal which could create a new atmosphere. During a joint press conference with his Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus Mr Papadopoulos said that such a new atmosphere was a necessary condition for starting further negotiations between both communities of the divided island.
The World Bank has officially labelled the Czech Republic an advanced economy, which means that the country will no longer be entitled to draw loans from the World Bank. Slovenia has so far been the only country of the former Eastern bloc to pass the so-called graduation. A Czech representative at the World Bank said that Hungary is expected to graduate this year and Slovakia and the Baltic States should graduate in the years to come. According to Deputy Finance Minister Tomas Prouza The World Bank has also come up with criticism towards the Czech Republic, concerning above all the reforms of the pension and health care systems and the issue of fiscal deficits.
Prime Minister Stanislav Gross says he will urge the President to accept the resignations of seven of his cabinet ministers as quickly as possible, and aims to present him with a list of suitable candidates for these posts. The embattled Prime Minister said in a televised debate on Sunday that he had no intention of resigning from his post unless it was clear that there was a new, pro-European government ready to take over. Mr. Gross said he would do everything in his power to prevent early elections. There is speculation that the Prime Minister is eager to part with ministers whom he sees as having been disloyal to the government and thus prevent the possibility of an overwhelming number of ministers enforcing the Cabinet's resignation at its next session on Wednesday.
The Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Miroslav Vlk, who will be in the conclave which will elect a new pontiff, has called on Czech believers to pray for the right decision. Cardinal Vlk praised the role of Pope John Paul II, describing him as possibly the best pontiff in the history of the Catholic Church. The 115 Roman Catholic cardinals eligible to vote have gone into sequestered lodgings and will dine together on Sunday night, before entering their momentous conclave in the Sistine Chapel on Monday afternoon. The 85 year old Czech Cardinal Tomas Spidlik is too old to vote but he was invited to deliver a "meditation" to the cardinal electors.
The Prime Minister said his ruling Social Democratic Party was ready to
go back to the negotiating table to try to reach agreement on the
formation of a new pro-European government, but that it would accept no
ultimatums from the smaller parties. Mr. Gross said that after the
failure of the preceding round of talks, the Social Democrat leadership
might decide to send a different team of negotiators to the coalition
talks. He did not specify who would represent the party.
A fragile coalition deal on a new government collapsed only hours after being clinched last Thursday, when it was rejected by the Social Democratic Party leadership. Opponents to the agreement said the party's negotiators had overstepped their mandate and been overly generous in concessions made to the two smaller coalition parties.
The parties in question -the Christian Democrats and Freedom Union - have said they are prepared to go back to the negotiating table on condition that the talks are based on the fundamental points agreed on last week.
President Vaclav Klaus said on Friday that he would push for early elections unless the three parties in the collapsed governing coalition could come to an agreement on forming a new government within a reasonable time-frame. Mr. Klaus ruled out a possible third alternative - a minority Social Democrat government. The President said he was very disappointed by the break down in talks and urged the three coalition parties to let him know without delay whether they were capable of resolving the protracted crisis.
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