An investigation continues into the cause of the fire that ravaged a whole wing of Prague’s historic art deco Industrial Palace at the city’s main exhibition grounds on Thursday night. The fire raged for most of the night and damages have been estimated at 1 billion crowns, the equivalent of around 50 million US dollars. The police are investigating a number of theories including the explosion of an oxygen container at one of the exhibition stalls, a short circuit and even arson. The blaze destroyed part of the building rented by the son of Social Democrat supporter Václav Kočka, whose other son was shot dead last week. The Kočka family, which holds the concession to run a fun-fair at the exhibition grounds, has in the past been accused of having links to organised crime.
Czech top officials have welcomed a statement by US President George Bush according to which seven countries, including the Czech Republic, have met the criteria for the US visa waiver programme and would be given visa-free status with a month’s time. Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek said the abolition of US visas for Czech citizens would remove one of the last remnants of the Cold War era and further deepen good relations between the two countries. Although no date has been announced, Czech officials have indicated that it will most likely be November 17th, the anniversary of the student protests that led to the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.
General František Hrabal, head of the President’s Military Office, has been charged with mismanagement of funds and breach of trust. The general is suspected of having spent hundreds of thousands of crowns from the office’s budget on promotional gifts for friends. If found guilty, he could face up to five years in prison. The same accusation has been leveled against two other generals. The news web site iDnes said the president had been informed about the matter. General Hrabal’s predecessor in office stepped down last autumn on suspicion of embezzlement. He resigned after it came to light that he had proposed a big financial bonus for himself.
Voting has ended in the country’s regional and Senate elections. An
estimated forty percent of eligible voters came to the polls to elect
governors to 13 of the country’s 14 regional assemblies and senators to
27 out of 81 constituencies.
The Social Democrats have come out top in all thirteen regions, winning 36 percent of the vote, the ruling Civic Democrats are second with 23 percent, followed by the Communists with 15 percent and the two other parties in government – the Christian Democrats with 6,5 percent of the vote, and the Green Party with 3 percent.
The Social Democrats also dominated the Senate elections, where 25 of their 27 candidates will be taking part in the second round of elections next week. Twenty Civic Democrat candidates have made it to the second round, as have three Christian Democrats. A second round of voting will be held next week in 26 constituencies where no candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote. Social Democrat Radek Sušil was the only candidate to secure a seat in the Senate in the first round.
The leader of the ruling Civic Democrats, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek has conceded defeat and urged voters to come to the polls in the second round of Senate elections in order to give the party a chance to maintain the Civic Democrats’ narrow majority in the Senate. Mr. Topolánek said that the party leadership would meet on Sunday to debate the party’s defeat.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Social Democrat Jiří Paroubek, whose party won outright in four of the 13 regions where voting took place and led in the remaining 9, has thanked voters for their support and promised that his party would stand by its election promises. He said the election was not over and urged them to come to the polls in the second round of elections to the Senate next weekend.
The balance of power in the Senate will be crucial for pending votes on planned reforms, the Lisbon treaty and Parliament’s approval for a US radar base to be built on Czech soil. The opposition Social Democrats are hoping that their strong showing in the elections will further undermine the government’s position and have initiated a no-confidence vote in the coalition government next Wednesday.
South Korean carmaker Hyundai Motor is planning to launch production at its new Czech plant in early November, according to the AFP news agency. The plant has not yet received all the permits it needs, but the local building office says everything should be settled on time. Hyundai expects to employ a total of 2,000 staff in the Czech plant by the end of the year and to produce 200,000 Hyundai i30 cars a year for European markets in the first phase, with an increase to 300,000 units by 2011. It will be the third largest car factory in the Czech Republic, a country where car production makes up 18 percent of GDP, after Škoda Auto and TPCA, a joint venture of Toyota and PSA Peugeot Citroen.
A 400-strong neo-Nazi march through the town of Litvínov ended in violent clashes with the police on Saturday afternoon, as officers barred the way to a part of town inhabited by a large Romany community. The police failed to restrain the extremists and some of them managed to slip through the police cordon to the Roma inhabited area, where some 200 Romanies were waiting for them armed with sticks and other weapons. Re-enforcements were brought in and the police eventually got the situation under control. Several people have been detained for questioning.
Prices on the Prague Stock Exchange slumped on Friday, pulling the headline index down by 10.20 percent to a four-year low of 842.8 points while other European equities gained ground in volatile trade. Coal miner NWR led the decline, shedding 20.58 percent. Czech bank Komerční banka, controlled by Societe Generale, fell by 17.75 percent, forcing the market to suspend trading at one point, while Austria's Erste Bank lost 15.16 percent.
In related news, the fire which destroyed part of the site on Thursday has raised questions about the future exhibiting of the Slav Epic, a famous series of paintings by the Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha. It has been planned that the paintings would be moved from their location of 45 years at Moravský Krumlov, in southern Moravia, and housed at the Křižík Pavilion in Prague. The pavilion on the exhibition grounds was undamaged by the blaze. But some have criticised the site as a poor choice on account of renovation needed and the fact that it lies in a flood-danger zone. Moravský Krumlov has made clear it will seek reassurances over the site; a contract over the Slav Epic has been negotiated between Prague and the Moravian town but has not yet been signed.
The number of suspects wanted for the hijacking of a transport truck on the Czech Republic’s D5 highway recently is almost certainly higher than originally reported, a police spokeswoman has said. The truck was hit for 6 million crowns’ worth of cigarettes by individuals posing as police officers and customs officials. Earlier reports had damages estimated at half that amount and said that only three men were involved in holding up the truck and off-loading its cargo into nearby vehicles. The suspects are at large. The case is the second of its type on the D5 in the last two years.
The government has sent a proposal for savings account guarantees of up to 50,000 euros to the Chamber of Deputies, aiming to see the bill passed as quickly as possible in light of the global financial crisis. The plan was approved by the government earlier this week. The opposition Social Democrats have said that they will recommend proceedings on the bill to be shortened to two days, but stressed they will push for the guarantee to be doubled to 100,000 euros. Earlier, the finance minister made clear the coalition was not against doubling the limit covered, but only if a number of EU states back-pedalled on blanket guarantees.
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