The government on Wednesday also rejected a Senate bill that would introduce tuition fees at Czech state universities. The bill would transform universities into incorporated companies that provide education and applied research. They would also be freed of paying revenue taxes. The bill was drafted and approved by the Senate in response to growing dissatisfaction on the part of teachers and students regarding poor financing of universities. The strongest party in government, the Social Democrats, is strictly against the idea of tuition fees on the grounds that they would limit access to higher education for socially weaker students. The bill will now go to the Lower House.
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla has written to author J.K. Rowling of 'Harry Potter' fame, responding to her criticisms of the use of caged and netted beds in Czech institutions. Earlier this month, the best-selling author of children's books had characterised the use of the beds as an appalling and cruel practice. Last week, Health Minister Jozef Kubinyi banned the use of caged beds and ordered the use of netted beds to be phased out this year. In Mr Spidla's letter, he defended Czech practices and noted that the two types of beds were used only for short periods of time, when mentally ill or disabled people were in an agitated state and needed to be restrained from harming themselves or other patients. For his part, President Vaclav Klaus has called the ban a "cheap gesture" that does nothing to address problems confronting Czech hospitals and social institutions.
Czech Prime Minister-designate Stanislav Gross vowed on Tuesday to act quickly to form a new government, after leaders from the three parties that make up the current governing coalition agreed to again cooperate. The leftist Social Democrats, of which Mr Gross is party chairman, the centrist Christian Democrats and rightist Freedom Union are looking to form a coalition similar to that of outgoing Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla. Mr Gross told reporters that Tuesday's agreement paved the way for the new-old coalition to write a government manifesto, which would guide it up to a general election in 2006. Coalition leaders are due to discuss the manifesto on Friday. State budgets, changes to tax laws, household rent deregulation and foreign policy are among key items the coalition is looking to reach agreement on.
The leadership of the Christian Democratic Party on Monday approved the party's participation in a coalition government with the Social Democrats and the Freedom Union. Party deputies have started the process of pledging support for the emerging three party government. Christian Democrat leader Miroslav Kalousek said he could guarantee support from every single party deputy. The designated Prime Minister Stanislav Gross has requested a commitment in writing from all parties of the emerging coalition in order to make sure that the new government will have majority support in Parliament. Although all three parties have agreed to the measure, some deputies for the Social Democratic Party say they are not prepared to sign such a commitment until they know more about the future government's policy programme and the division of ministerial posts.
A new health care concept prepared by health minister Jozef Kubinyi has come under fire from his party colleagues. The concept is based on lower health insurance fees and greater financial participation of individual patients, such as paying for prescriptions, the cost of an ambulance, hospital fees and administrative fees at doctors' offices. The proposal has evoked strong criticism from members of the Social Democratic Party. Labour Minister Zdenek Skromach, a leading party figure, said it was in direct conflict with the basic principles of the Social Democrat's policy programme. The controversial concept will further decrease minister Kubinyi's chances of retaining his post.
The new Austrian President Heinz Fischer said at his first press conference since taking office that he would not demand concessions from Prague on controversial issues which have burdened the countries' relations in the past, such as the Temelin nuclear power plant in southern Bohemia or the controversial Benes decrees on the grounds of which 2.5 million Sudeten Germans were expelled from post war Czechoslovakia. The Austrian President who is to visit the Czech Republic on August 25th, said he would come with goodwill and welcome an open dialogue on all sensitive issues.
However, a few dissenting voices were heard at the Social Democrat Central Executive Committee meeting on Sunday. For example the former foreign minister Jan Kavan said he was not willing to sign a document pledging support for the new government before he actually knew its policy programme. Observers say that around ten Social Democrat MPs might follow Mr Kavan's decision. Also, the head of the lower house Foreign Affairs Committee, Vladimir Lastuvka, said the best option would be a minority Social Democrat government because he said he doubted the Social Democrats would be able to stick to their 2002 election manifesto in a broad coalition cabinet.
Customs officers confiscated illegal stockpiles of cigarettes worth more than 14,000 euros and some 120 litres of alcohol on Saturday in a surprise raid on the largest open air market in the Czech Republic, in Potucky near the west Bohemian town of Karlovy Vary. Detectives from the Czech Trade Inspection confiscated almost 700 pieces of counterfeit brand clothing worth approximately 40,000 euros. The customs officers, who arrested four people during the raid, are going to stay at the site for the next few days to monitor the market with approximately 2,000 mostly Vietnamese stall keepers. The sale of alcohol and cigarettes at open-air markets was banned in January this year.
Both the leadership and the Central Executive Committee of the Social Democrat party have approved the steps the party's acting leader, Stanislav Gross, is taking in trying to form a new government following the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla in June. An overwhelming majority of the committee members have also agreed that Mr Gross should continue the talks with the party's coalition partners, the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Union, on the forming of a government that should last until the end of the term in 2006. Mr Gross said earlier that the new government could seek a vote of confidence in the lower house in mid-August.
The Interior Ministry has said that the month of June saw the smallest number of asylum seekers in the Czech Republic since 1999. While in May, 420 people applied for asylum, in June the number dropped to 317. Last June, the number of asylum seekers was almost twice as high, at 899. Most new applications were filed by the citizens of Ukraine, China and Vietnam. According to the Interior Ministry the decrease was caused by the Czech Republic's accession to the European Union, whose legislation stipulates that asylum seekers have to apply in the country in which they first crossed EU borders.
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