President Vaclav Klaus on Friday signed the law on the 2009 state budget, approved by the lower house last week. The president signed the bill into law despite the fact that he questioned the estimates on which it is based, saying that the government should have revised the figures with regard to the global financial crisis. The budget, which envisages a 38.1 billion crown deficit, is based on a growth forecast of 4.8 percent, a figure that experts say is unrealistic. Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek later admitted that the estimate was misleading and the deficit could reach 60 billion crowns or more. However analysts say that having a budget framework is in itself positive at a time of economic uncertainty.
The lower house of Parliament has rejected outright a government proposal on the deployment of Czech troops in foreign missions in 2009. The proposal drafted by the Czech Defense Ministry envisaged reinforcing the country’s military presence in Afghanistan and maintaining 550 servicemen in Kosovo. Although Prime Minister Topolánek offered a number of concessions, such as cutting back on the number of Czech troops in the ISAF peacekeeping mission and withdrawing from operation Enduring Freedom by the end of 2009, the opposition overturned the proposal with the aid of a number of independents. The vote has put at stake Czech participation in all foreign missions and the government is planning to hold an emergency session on the matter. Under Czech law the government has the right to maintain Czech forces abroad for a period of two months.
Two MEPs have nominated Czech President Václav Klaus for the European Citizenship Prize awarded by the European Parliament. Czech MEP Jana Bobošíková and Danish MEP Hanne Dahl from the Independence and Democracy faction submitted the proposal on Thursday. Ms. Bobošíkova said Mr. Klaus had been nominated “for his struggle for democracy in Europe and an extremely responsible approach to the defense of free and fair democratic discussion”.
The former Czech president Václav Havel has called on the Chinese government to end its persecution of dissidents and enter into a dialogue with Charter 08 signatories. In a piece for the Wall Street Journal, the former Czech dissident-turned-president said the Chinese government should learn the lessons of the Charter 77 movement: that intimidation, propaganda campaigns and repression are no substitute for dialogue. Charter 08 is a document issued by the Chinese opposition calling for basic rights, judicial independence and democracy. In the course of the past month it was signed by 5,000 Chinese dissidents.
Opposition leader Jiří Paroubek has said his conditions for a non-aggression pact with the government during the country’s EU presidency are early elections and the ratification of the Lisbon treaty with no strings attached. The Social Democrat leader was referring to the fact that some Civic Democrat deputies had attempted to link the ratification of the Lisbon treaty to the fate of the US radar on Czech soil. Mr. Paroubek said the idea of a barter trade was non-negotiable. His other condition for a non-aggression pact with the government during the country’s EU presidency was a pledge that early elections would take place before the end of 2009. Regular elections are scheduled to take place in June of 2010. Coalition leaders have indicated that Mr. Paroubek is asking too high a price. The leader of the Green Party Martin Bursík said that under the circumstances the government would have to do without a non-aggression pact.
The Czech government and the Office of the President are still discussing to what extent Mr. Klaus will take part in the events relating to the Czech EU presidency in the first half of 2009. It has already been agreed that President Klaus will receive members of the European Commission on January 7 and deliver a speech in the European Parliament on February 19. EU summits will be presided by Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek and Deputy-Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra. As concerns summits involving the participation of heads of state from outside the EU the government and the Office of the President will decide on case-by-case.
Coalition and opposition deputies in the lower house have engaged in intensive negotiations to try and reach agreement on a highly controversial aspect of the government’s health care reform – the health fees introduced at the beginning of this year. The opposition Social Democrats and the Communists who are strictly against the fees have now found support among the smaller parties in the ruling coalition –the Christian Democrats and the Greens and are in a position to push through a compromise agreement. The proposal being discussed is a selective elimination of health care fees for under 18s, low-income groups and seniors.
The police have arrested a 35-year-old man who is believed to have abused a number of underage girls at a Prague shopping mall in the course of the past two weeks. The incidents happened in the midst of the Christmas shopping rush when parents left young children to wander around the mall unattended. The suspect lured them into a cabin on the pretext that he had a daughter the same age and needed to see if the clothes he had picked fitted someone of her age. The police issued several warnings on the prime time news and showed the man’s face as recorded by a security camera.
A new survey by the CVVM polling centre suggests that a third of Czechs have no knowledge of the Lisbon Treaty – a stalled EU-wide document designed to streamline the European bureaucracy. According to the poll, 43, percent of those surveyed said their knowledge of the document was “very superficial,” 80 percent stated that they had no interest in EU or Lisbon Treaty-related matters, with only 19 percent stating that they were fully aware of what the Lisbon Treaty was. The survey is likely to raise eyebrows in light of the fact that the Czech Republic will shortly assume the rotating presidency of the EU.
A proposed selective elimination of controversial health fees introduced by Health Minister Tomáš Julínek remains in limbo as politicians iron out differences over legislation. The Minister has promised a willingness to compromise as both the government and opposition Social Democrats work on a plan that could see under-18s, low-income groups as well as seniors exempted from having to pay to visit a doctor, as well as exemptions for prescription fees. Meanwhile, the Czech Prime Minister indicated that the current system is not sustainable from a political point-of-view, in that it remains deeply unpopular and has seen the opposition successfully use it as a rallying point. At present, politicians from all sides are presenting various formulations for how to structure the exemptions – a decision will reportedly be made on Friday as to which version to present to the lower house of parliament for a vote.
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