Hello and welcome to the programme. I'm Daniela Lazarova and we begin as usual with a look at the main newsstories this hour
NATO debate in Parliament
The Lower House of Parliament met for a second day of debate Thursday on the country's projected accession to NATO. Opening the debate Czech prime minister Josef Tosovsky said the Czech republic needed to be firmly anchored in the democratic world and that membership in Western structures would have obvious economic benefits as well. "It would be a good signal if the Czech Parliament ratified NATO membership before the upcoming general elections" Toshovsky stressed. This last remark was in reference to the efforts of the opposition Social Democrats who are trying to postpone ratification of the respective protocols until after the elections and , in the event of their victory, link the vote to a national referendum.
Advocating this course of action, opposition leader Milos Zeman pointed out that Hungary's referendum had reflected overwhelming public support for the idea . "Surely you would not deny Czechs an equal measure of intelligence?" he challenged the Lower House. While pushing for a referendum Zeman made it clear his party was strongly in favour of NATO membership. "As an economist I am well aware that the defense expenditures of a neutral state are two to three times higher than those of a country part of a collective security system " he said.
Meanwhile, the chairman of parliament's security and defense committee Petr Necas admitted, in his contribution to the debate, that the country's political representatives had by and large failed in the task of garnering strong public support for the idea of NATO membership. On the other hand NATO's opponents had skilfully manipulated public opinion in their favour by linking NATO membership to the presence of nuclear weapons and foreign troops on Czech territory , Necas said.
Coinciding with the first day of debate in Parliament, in Washington US President Bill Clinton formally asked the Senate to ratify the expansion of NATO, describing it as a step towards achieving a "free, democratic and undivided Europe". Clinton said including the former Wasrsaw Pact nations of Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic in the alliance would "erase the artificial line in Europe drawn by Josef Stalin at the end of WWII". The US Senate is expected to vote on the accession protocols in March. 67 votes are needed to confirm expansion.
According to an opinion poll published Wednesday the popularity rating of the Civic Democratic Alliance has dropped to 3,5% in the wake of a party financing scandal. Responding to the news party leader Jiri Skalicky said he put this latest slump down to the affair with Kamil Kolek, an entrepreneur who claims the ODA blackmailed him into donating two million to the party's coffers. Political analysts suggest the party's unwillingness to reveal the source of millions in political gifts is also to blame. According to Czech electoral law parties must cross the 5% margin in order to be represented in Parliament. The ODA leader was openly dubious as to whether his party could recover in time.
Michal Kovac Jr., the son of the Slovak president, who was arrested in the Czech republic last week -on an international arrest warrant - is to be handed over to German authorities later today. His extradition order was signed by justice minister Parkanova on Wednesday. Kovac's lawyer said his client had actually been arrested in the process of trying to get to Germany to face charges of fraud, and was impatient to clear his name. The charges against Kovac were made by an alleged accomplice who has already been sentenced in Germany.
Prison officials say they have released 894 prisoners within President Havel's post-inauguration amnesty. This number includes 310 foreigners. Altogether some 1,500 petty criminals are to be released by the end of this week. Criminologists predict that more than half of them will end up back in prison within a couple of months.
Sports - Czech cross country skier Katerina Neumanova has won her second Olympics medal at Nagano. She captured the bronze at the 10 km event , narrowly beaten by the two hot Russian favourites Olga Danilova and winner Larrisa Lazutin. 25 year old Neumannova was the country's first medallist at the Winter Olympics, winning the silver medal in the 5km cross-country skiing competition.
And finally a look at the weather - where the news is good, for the mild spring weather we're enjoying should stay with us for the next few days. Thursday and Friday should be sunny, clear days with day temps between 8 and 12 degs C. Nighttime lows between 3 and 1 degs C.
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