The Czech presidency of the European Union has called for the quick resumption of full deliveries of Russian natural gas supplies to EU member states, after learning on Friday that deliveries from Russia through Ukraine to countries like Hungary and Poland had seen a considerable decrease. Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, on behalf of the Czech EU presidency, stressed that the EU needed to avoid similar such developments in the future. In its dispute with Ukraine, Russian energy giant Gazprom cut off supplies to the country this week and accused Ukraine on Friday of illegally using gas designated for the EU. The European Union is pushing for an urgent resolution to the dispute, setting an extraordinary meeting of EU representatives in Brussels on Monday.
On Friday rescue workers were called out in separate cases to save eight people who had fallen through thin ice on local ponds, TV Nova reported. Four incidents took place near Mělník, north of Prague, four in south Bohemia. As well, officials on Friday recovered the body of a 40-year-old man who drowned after having fallen through ice while skating a day earlier. Officials are warning skaters to avoid frozen ponds for the time being, until the country sees colder weather. Skaters should check that the ice is at least 25 centimetres thick, TV Nova said.
On Saturday Mr Medvedev met with Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra who stressed the EU had alternative means for gas supplies if Russia and Ukraine did not reach an agreement soon. These include the potential use of different suppliers from Asia or the Middle East. At the same time Mr Vondra expressed optimism that Russia and the Ukraine would resolve their differences quickly.
Five regional hospitals in central Bohemia are offering patients a chance to sign up for subsidies countering mandatory health fees introduced by the government last year. In January 2008, the government introduced controversial fees aimed at reforming the health care system, requiring patients to pay 30 crowns per visit to the doctor’s and 60 crowns per day spent in hospital. The region of central Bohemia is the first to provide the subsidies on patients’ behalf – in keeping with a pre-election promise by the Social Democrats last year. Other regions with local Social Democrat-led governments are now expected to follow suit. While many have welcomed the development, TV Nova and other sources have reported that dozens of hospital visitors on Friday turned down the offer of subsidies, opting to pay the government’s health fees “on principle”.
In related news, Gazprom export head Alexander Medvedev told journalists in Prague on Saturday that responsibility for problems in gas supplies to some EU countries lay with Ukraine; he said the state had failed as a transit country. He accused the Ukrainian state-owned Naftogaz of not having paid for supplies and of “stealing gas”. He stressed that EU commitments had to be honoured.
The Czech Republic has suffered defeat at the hands of Russia in the quarterfinals at the world junior hockey championship in Ottawa, Canada. The Czechs were beaten on Friday by a score of 5:1. The game was tied a goal apiece after two periods, but the Russians exploded in the final period for four goals. It is the fourth year in a row that the Czech juniors will finish outside of the medals. Russia now faces Canada, while Sweden will face Slovakia in the semi-final round.
The possible outbreak of new conflict in the Balkans as well as energy dependence on Russia: those are threats that Europe must avert, the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg has told the German political monthly Cicero. He made the comments on the eve of the Czech EU presidency. The monthly has described the 71-year-old Mr Schwarzenberg - a politician with an aristocratic background - as “the most remarkable foreign minister in Europe”. On Sunday, Mr Schwarzenberg will head on his first important mission since the Czech Republic took up the EU presidency: he will travel to the Middle East, heading an EU delegation hoping to work towards a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.
The Czech state deficit in 2008 was just below 20 billion crowns, over 1 billion US dollars, the lowest in the past eleven years. The Finance Ministry initially anticipated a deficit of 70.8 billion crowns and even raised the estimate to 71.3 billion crowns over the summer. Last year’s deficit of 19.4 billion crowns is the lowest since 1997, when the government of Václav Klaus posted a deficit of 15.7 billion crowns. The country’s public budget deficit in 2008 was 1.2 percent of GDP, fulfilling one of the basic conditions for the adoption of the euro.
The Czech Republic will start issuing visas to Vietnamese nationals again in January following a temporary suspension over alleged corruption. The government in November suspended the issuing of visas and long-term residence permits for all Vietnamese nationals in reaction to the rising levels of counterfeiting and tax evasion allegedly committed by members of the Vietnamese community. The Czech embassy in Hanoi is to launch a new system for accepting visa applications in order to guarantee fair and equal treatment. The Vietnamese, who are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the Czech Republic, have not been included on the list of countries whose citizens can apply for a green card to work in the Czech Republic.
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