More than one thousand Czech Catholics are on their way to the Vatican to thank Pope Benedict XVI for his visit to the Czech Republic last year. Travel agencies have organised 22 buses to take 1100 people and many others will be travelling independently. The pilgrimage programme begins on Tuesday on Saint Peter’s Square and will continue until November 11. Foreign Affairs Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and First Lady Livia Klausová will also be in attendance.
Speaking on the same programme, Defence Minister Alexandr Vondra said he would be pushing the government to devote a stable four to five percent of the annual budget to the army. Mr Vondra told Czech Television’s Vácav Moravec that his hope was to stabilise the army’s budget, which has declined in the past due to the economic recession. He did not say when the budget should be increased. The Defence Ministry has an expense limit of 49 billion crowns this year, which the cabinet has decreased to 44 billion for 2011.
The electricity company ČEZ is in talks with the European Investment Bank for a five billion crown loan for solar energy investments. Czech Television reported Sunday that the state owned energy giant is attempting to buy up solar projects whose financing may be jeopardised by the government’s plans to tax the sector. Investors fear the tax will harm 1450 companies and many have threatened lawsuits.
Customs officials in Prague have uncovered one of the largest stocks of imitation brand-name goods in recent years. The 12,000 items were primarily women’s handbags and wallets of the labels Louis Vuitton and Burberry, originals of which would have fetched more than 250 million crowns on the market. Two people handling the goods at a storage facility in Prague 4 have been arrested; they were found when police investigated a faint light seen through the roof of the facility.
Almost 200 Romanians who were allegedly exploited by employers in Plzeň have been bussed home with the help of the town hall, the police and charity organisations. On Friday the foreign workers were reported to have revolted against the poor working conditions and accommodation provided them by a private company; a fight then ensued in which one of the was injured. The employees reported the matter to the police and requested transportation to Romania. Police have charged three foreigners and one Czech for extortion and bodily restraint. The workers had been in the country for three months and said they had been promised 18,500 crowns a month but had received only roughly 2,000 and recently had not been paid at all.
Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said Sunday that while a part of foreign aid to Afghanistan was being lost due to corruption within the Afghan government, the alliance must continue to provide its support. Appearing on a Czech Television debate programme broadcast from Afghanistan, Mr Schwarzenberg said that every government in the region of Afghanistan was corrupt, that it cannot be rectified within five years, and that the Czech Republic was hardly in a position to criticise corruption elsewhere. The Czech Republic has implemented 131 projects in Afghanistan at a cost of 200 million crowns, primarily in the province of Logar.
The government will likely reject an opposition, Social Democratic initiative to introduce a 50% income tax on each kilowatt-hour of energy produced by solar electricity plants. The government’s proposed resolution calls the tax unnecessary, as the cabinet has already proposed a withholding tax on solar energy that it says is more systematic and comprehensive.
In related news, Pope Benedict mentioned the Czech Republic on Saturday during a visit to Spain, as an example of a nation that has turned away from faith. Speaking at the pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela, the pope called the spread of atheism since the end of the 19th century tragic, and said that faith must be renewed in order to respond to the secularism in countries like France and the Czech Republic, as well as Spain.
Transport Minister Vít Bárta says competing companies should be using Czech rail lines by July of 2013, which is earlier than had been expected. Mr Bárta told TV Prima on Sunday that he expects competition even sooner, but expects unforeseeable complications. The transport ministry took the first steps towards introducing competition in October when it asked for the publication of the plan in the European Union’s official bulletin. Certain tracks will be competed for next year. Czech Railways currently has a monopoly on train operation in the Czech Republic.
Works by the Czech artists Alphonse Mucha and Toyen fetched millions of crowns at auctions in Prague on Sunday. Mucha’s 1917 oil on canvass work “Nevěsta” went to a telephone bidder for two million crowns. In a separate auction, Toyen’s painting “Vinobraní” was sold for 6.5 million. Works by Toyen, an early 20th century surrealist named Marie Černínová, are among the most expensive Czech art pieces sold; last year, her painting “Sleeping” was auctioned for 20 million crowns.
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