The head of the opposition Social Democrats Jiří Paroubek said on Monday that his party would only support a bill on the Czech army’s foreign missions in 2009 in exchange for the abolition of health care fees. The ruling coalition, which no longer has a majority in the lower house of the Czech Parliament, failed to push through the bill in December, thereby leaving the future mandate of Czech forces in Afghanistan and Kosovo uncertain. The government used its constitutional right to prolong the troops’ mandate by two months, but they will have to be brought back if no agreement is reached by the end of February. The removal of health care fees has been a major issue of controversy between the coalition and opposition ever since they were introduced last year as part of the government’s health care reform.
Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek will replace four ministers in a planned cabinet reshuffle. The replacement will involve Health Care Minister Tomáš Julínek and Transport Minister Aleš Řebíček, both from the senior coalition Civic Democrats; Minister for Human Rights and Minorities Džamila Stehlíková, nominated by the Green Party, and Christian Democrat leader Jiří Čunek, who announced his resignation as deputy PM earlier on Monday. While the Prime Minister has not yet revealed who will replace the two Civic Democratic ministers, the Christian Democrat leadership has proposed that the deputy premiership should be assumed by the current Defence Minister Vlasta Parkanová and Cyril Svoboda should become the new regional development minister. Rock musician Michael Kocáb is expected to replace Ms Stehlíková as the minister for human rights and minorities.
The Škoda carmaker is going to resume production later on Monday after a three-week halt due to a sharp drop in sales caused by the economic slowdown. For the next six months, all three Škoda plants in the Czech Republic will limit production to four days a week. Despite the global crisis, Škoda sold a record of more than 674,000 cars last year. Meanwhile, the car manufacturer Hyundai announced on Monday that its plant Nošovice, northern Moravia, would halt this week’s production on Wednesday; next week, it would also adopt a four-day working week.
Czech trade unions have postponed a decision on an unlimited strike in public transport over planned taxation of employees’ benefits pending Wednesday’s meeting with Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek. A trade union spokesperson said the strike, which would affect trains, buses and Prague’s municipal transport, would take place if the Finance Ministry does not abandon its plan to tax employees’ benefits including free travel passes and food vouchers.
The Czech presidency of the European Union is planning to stage an international donor conference on Gaza. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said on Monday that the presidency was ready to convene the conference as soon as possible to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the people in the Gaza Strip once cease-fire is reached between Israel and Hamas. The conference should also consider the reconstruction of Gaza in a long-term perspective.
Czech palaeontologist Radek Vodrážka found a large number of unique fossils near the Czech Mendel Polar Station on the coast of Antarctica’s James Ross Island. Experts say the collection, which includes fossilized corals, shark teeth and skeletal remains of extinct sea reptiles, is unique in its scale and quantity.
An artefact entitled “Entropa” was unveiled in the seat of the European Commission in Brussels on Monday on the occasion of the Czech presidency of the European Union. The sculpture, created by Czech artist David Černý together with 26 artists from EU member states, has the form of a plastic kit of Europe in which each country is presented through clichés and stereotypes. The Czech Republic is depicted with a screen displaying controversial statements by President Václav Klaus; the Netherlands is shown flooded with only minarets sticking out of the water, Austria is covered with nuclear power plants and Sweden is depicted as an IKEA box with Grippen jet fighters. The sculpture will remain in Brussels until the end of the Czech EU presidency in June.
Russia and Ukraine have signed a new version of an agreement, brokered by the Czech EU presidency, which should restore Russian gas supplies to Europe. Russian PM Vladimir Putin said on Monday that the gas flow to Europe would resume as soon as the document is signed by the European Commission and international observers begin monitoring gas transit through the Ukrainian territory. The new agreement came after Russia withdrew from the previous deal, signed on Sunday, on the grounds that Ukraine had attached an appendix to the document which Russia found unacceptable. Czech Trade and Industry Minister Martin Říman, speaking on behalf of the Czech EU presidency, said that any further conditions set by Moscow would suggest Russia’s lack of interest in solving the issue.
Last year saw fewer people killed in road accidents than in 2007 as well as a lower number of traffic accidents, with 998 people dying in car crashes, which is the second lowest number since 1990. More than 160,000 traffic accidents occurred on Czech roads last year, down by 12 percent compared to 2007.
Some 200 people assembled on Prague’s Franz Kafka square on Sunday to demonstrate support for the Israeli military operation in Gaza, calling Hamas a terrorist organization which used women and children as live shields. The gathering was disrupted when some thirty pro-Palestinian activists appeared on the scene shouting anti-Israeli slogans but a cordon of police officers prevented any physical clashes between the two groups.
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