Big stories of 2000

01-01-2001

Hello and welcome to Radio Prague. As we've almost reached the end of the year 2000, today's programme is devoted to a review of the events that made the headlines this year. Nick Carey and Rob Cameron join me in the studio for a round-up of the big stories of 2000.

After all the hype and the stress the Millennium Bug, at midnight on December 31st 1999 everything carried on working as per usual. Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman and opposition leader Vaclav Klaus, both acknowledged techno-sceptics, claimed that the Millennium Bug was just a way for software companies to rake in large profits. The two men came under fierce attack from all those involved in dealing with the Millennium Bug, as organisers said it was thanks to extensive preparations that the Czech people weren't sitting round candles on January 1st.

The infamous opposition agreement between the opposition Civic Democrats and the minority Social Democrat government was the focus of much media attention in January, as the two parties held extensive negotiations over the budget for the year 2000, which the Civic Democrats eventually agreed to support, thereby saving the government from political disaster. In return, the Civic Democrats forced concessions from the government, and the opposition agreement, or the Tolerance Pact as it also called, was expanded to include five new areas of co-operation. Prime Minister Milos Zeman also agreed to replace up to five ministers in his cabinet.

January was a stormy month in Czech prisons, as prisoners rioted and protested over conditions. The main complaints of the thousands of prisoners involved overcrowding, poor food and clothing, and a new law restricting the number of packages they could receive. The Justice Ministry eventually gave in to some demands, and promised a review of the prison system.

The popular Czech song called 'Skoda Lasky', known around the world as the 'Beer Barrel Polka', has been awarded the prize of the Czech Hit of the Century. The song was in written in the early 1930s, and was chosen by listeners of Czech Radio from a list of one hundred songs pre-selected by music critics.

Czech politicians gave mixed reactions to the inclusion of the far-right Freedom Party in the Austrian government at the beginning of February. The government kept cautiously to the official line of the EU at first, while opposition leader Vaclav Klaus sent a letter of support to Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel. Relations between the two countries soured when the Freedom Party, led by the infamous Joerg Haider, said that Czech membership of the EU should be made conditional upon the annulling of the Benes Decrees. As a result, the Czech government cut off all top level ties with Austria.

Female members of the Social Democratic Party formed their own shadow cabinet in reaction to Prime Minister Milos Zeman's statement that there was no place for women in his cabinet, as men were better qualified. One member of the all-woman shadow cabinet pointed out that there are enough female experts in the Czech Republic suitable for ministerial posts.

And rumours circulated that Czech-born US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was considering running for Czech president. State Department spokesman James Rubin told journalists that while Mrs. Albright was flattered that the Czechs would consider her for such an important job, she was not giving the matter serious consideration. The idea was also lambasted by most Czech politicians.

The budget for the year 2000 was approved in its third and final reading. The budget replaced an interim, emergency budget in place since January 1st, and meant that government ministries could go ahead with spending. As a result, the opposition Civic Democrats increased pressure on Prime Minister Milos Zeman to make an extensive cabinet reshuffle, as agreed in their Tolerance Pact.

Two young Czech men were charged with breaching the peace for throwing raw eggs at US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the Czech city of Brno. The two men apparently belonged to an anarchist movement and wanted to express their opposition to what they called American imperialism. Albright made light of the incident and said it did not spoil her visit.

A Czech publishing house created controversy by publishing 10,000 copies of an unedited translation of Adolf Hitler's book "Mein Kampf". While the director of the publishing house said that the book is a historical document, human rights groups openly condemned it. Due to the controversy, copies of the book sold like hot cakes, and the publishing house announced plans for a second print run.

And police investigated a letter from an organisation calling itself the Armed Forces of Moravia, which threatened to launch a series of attacks on the Czech authorities. The letter called for the execution of leading Czech officials such as President Vaclav Havel, Prime Minister Milos Zeman, and the main opposition leader Vaclav Klaus, in retaliation for Prague's alleged discrimination against Moravia, the Czech Republic's eastern region. Many claimed the whole thing was a hoax.

Interior Minister Vaclav Grulich was officially removed from office as part of Prime Minister Milos Zeman's extended cabinet reshuffle, and was replaced by the young Stanislav Gross, a rising star within the Social Democratic Party. Before he left, Mr. Grulich made a farewell measure of banning the extreme right National Alliance, for repeatedly breaking the law on spreading racial hatred.

Two other cabinet ministers, Transport Minister Antonin Peltram and Regional Development Minister Jaromir Cisar were replaced by Jaromir Schling and Petr Lachnit respectively.

Forty seven miners occupied a mineshaft at the Kohinoor coal mine in Northern Bohemia for three weeks, in protest over the mine's possible closure. The miners demanded an agreement guaranteeing the future of the mine, and the resignation of the current board of directors. The company that owned the mine entered negotiations with three possible buyers for the mine, but no deal was struck. Faced with the possibility of immediate dismissal, the 47 miners retracted their demands, asking only for social guarantees to help them handle redundancy.

With only a few months to go to the launch of the Temelin nuclear power plant in South Bohemia, environmental activists called for a national referendum to decide the plant's future. Prime Minister Milos Zeman said that while he himself had been in favour of a referendum several years ago, it was now far too late in the construction process to hold one now. A public opinion poll on the issue showed that almost 75 percent of Czechs were in favour of Temelin, which certainly didn't help the cause for a referendum

The Czechs once again topped the charts for beer drinking. Per capita beer consumption in the Czech Republic apparently reached just under 160 litres a year. The Germans come a second with 130 litres, and the Belgians were far behind in third place with 99 litres.

Austria agreed to give Czechs who were forced to work as slave labourers during World War Two full compensation. This was confirmed following a conference in Vienna at which all the countries whose nationals had filed for war compensation were represented. In the Czech Republic, this concerns some 19,000 people who were meant to receive approximately 35 thousand schillings each. Initially Austria attempted to negotiate a smaller compensation package for Czech nationals, saying they had received better treatment than for instance Poles had.

Popular Social Democrat MP Petra Buzkova filed charges against the author of a document intended to discredit her as a politician and a mother. The document alleged that she abused her three-year-old daughter, that she collaborated with the communist secret service, and was an alcoholic. The document was allegedly copied from a computer belonging to one of Prime Minister Milos Zeman's advisors. Ms. Buzkova said this matter was too serious to ignore.

And the Czech Republic and Slovakia came to an historical agreement over the division of disputed assets left over from the split of Czechoslovakia. The agreement consisted of returning Slovak gold that had been kept in the Czech National Bank since 1993, and shares in banks on either side of the border were traded. The agreement was part of an overall improvement in relations between the two countries.

Prime Minister Milos Zeman sought to quell a revolt from his own Social Democratic Party's senators over an electoral reform bill his government pushed through Parliament with the help of the main opposition party - the Civic Democrats. The reform favours larger parties, and will make it more difficult for smaller parties to gain parliamentary representation. In the end, the prime minister said that any dissenting senators would be removed from the party. The bill was passed by the Senate, and then vetoed by President Havel, who also took up the matter with the Constitutional Court after his veto was nullified by the Lower House of Parliament.

Police confiscated thousands of copies of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" from bookstores throughout the Czech Republic. The publisher was ordered to appear for questioning after he was charged with allegations of propagating fascism. The publisher said that he just wanted people to be able to criticise Hitler and his perverted ideology on the basis of facts.

A proposal by opposition leader Vaclav Klaus that a referendum be held on EU accession as soon as possible, preferably by the beginning of 2001, was greeted with widespread criticism from other political parties. Opponents of the proposal said the Czech Republic will not know all of the conditions necessary for accession by then, so the general public would not be able to make an informed decision. EU enlargement commissioner, Gunter Verheugen called Mr. Klaus proposal a strange idea.

The former treasurer of the right-of-centre Civic Democrats, Libor Novak, was found not guilty of tax evasion in connection with the party's 1997 funding scandal. Mr Novak was charged after signing tax returns containing donations to the party which had been entered under false names. A court in Prague ruled that Mr Novak's signature on the party's tax returns was insufficient evidence of guilt. The party covered up a number of donations from a millionaire businessman who was later granted a tender to privatise a large steelworks. The ensuing scandal led to a split in Vaclav Klaus's senior coalition Civic Democrats and the collapse of his centre-right government in November 1997.

And the Czech National Bank imposed forced administration on the troubled IPB Bank. A rapid deployment force unit wearing masks and touting automatic rifles storming the bank's headquarters and carried off boxes of files. Forced administration was introduced after billions of Czech Crowns were withdrawn by worried customers. IPB was then sold with remarkable speed to another Czech bank CSOB

The debate on the Temelin nuclear power plant began to heat up in July, as fuelling at the plant was completed, and test for operations began. Almost 100,000 people signed a petition demanding a referendum on the launching of operations at the Temelin nuclear power plant, but the government rejected calls from parliament to hold a referendum, saying it was too late.

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel wrote to Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman asking him to help delay the launch of Temelin. Mr. Schuessel wrote that many Austrians were about Temelin, as considered it unsafe. An earthquake in Eastern Austria that reached parts of southern Bohemia further heightened fears in Austria over Temelin.

Prime Minister Milos Zeman was ordered to pay 20,000 Czech Crowns, or roughly five hundred dollars, for comments he made concerning former Social Democrat MP Josef Wagner. After Mr. Wagner's removal from the party, Mr. Zeman, then the leader of the opposition, said that no-one wanted Mr. Wagner, not even the Communist Party. Mr. Wagner then sued Mr. Zeman and won. The prime minister was meant to apologise within two years, or pay a fine. The prime minister failed to meet the deadline and had to comply with the court ruling.

Police in the Eastern Bohemian town of Hradec Kralove investigated claims that a patient had perfectly healthy kidneys removed in a local hospital in April. The hospital admitted the mistake, and the police said that if the doctors who operated on the patient committed a serious breach of their duties, they could face up to five years in prison. According to current legislation, the patient may be able to apply for just a few thousand Czech Crowns in compensation.

The Czech hygiene authority ordered an immediate halt to an unauthorised rave party, which lasted five days near the tiny hamlet of Lipnice in Southern Bohemia. Around five thousand party-goers camped in the field without water and refuse facilities. The authority warned that poor sanitary conditions meant an imminent danger of infection and ordered the field to be vacated, spread with lime and ploughed immediately.

The Benes Decrees, which were issued at the end of WWII, and which led to the expulsion of up to three million ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, made the headlines again and again in August. Austria's infamous right-wing politician Joerg Haider said his country would not back the Czech Republic's bid for EU unless the Czech government annulled the decrees. Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, however, and the Austrian Foreign Ministry, rejected any such claims, saying that the Benes Decrees would not be a condition for Czech accession to the EU. Both the Austrian People's Party and the far-right Freedom Party spent the rest of the month making contrary statements about the decrees.

The mayors of 25 municipalities in Czech border regions called on Parliament to speed up legislation and increase municipal powers, to enable the regulation of prostitution. The statement was made following a meeting of the mayors held in the Czech-German border town of Cheb, where prostitution is rife. The mayors called for new legislative measures which would restrict prostitution to brothels and designated areas.

The two main issues in September, and indeed it seemed as if there were only two because of the amount of media attention devoted to them, were the Temelin power plant, again, and the IMF/World Bank meetings.

In the face of increasing pressure from Austria, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman stuck to his guns and said that Temelin would go on-line as planned. This despite the fact that Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel stated that Austria would prevent the completion of the energy chapter of Czech EU accession talks, effectively blocking Czech EU membership, if the issue of safety standards at Temelin was not resolved.

Environmental activists repeatedly blocked border crossings on the Czech-Austrian border in protest against Temelin. The issue of Temelin was obviously of great concern for the Austrians, as a public opinion poll showed 92 percent of those asked said that the Czech Republic's entry to the EU should be made conditional upon safety standards at Temelin. In response, the Czech government lodged several official complaints with the Austrian government and the EU, saying that the blockades prevented the free movement of people and goods guaranteed by international law.

The long-awaited IMF/World Bank annual meetings finally hit Prague, and some expectations, but not others, were fulfilled. Far fewer than the twenty thousand protestors expected actually showed, but fears over whether Prague would be turned into another Seattle proved well-founded, as some of the anti-globalisation demonstrators fought running battles with the police, causing extensive damages to businesses, and fast food restaurants such as McDonald's. The violent clashes were dubbed the worst violence to hit Prague since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. More than nine hundred protestors were arrested, a third of them foreign nationals.

The Czech police force was widely praised by politicians, the press and the people for its actions against the demonstrators, but there were widespread allegations of police brutality, which were hotly denied by both the police and Interior Minister Stanislav Gross. As politicians fell over themselves to criticise the violent protestors, the frequently controversial Deputy Chairman of the opposition Civic Democrats, Miroslav Macek, said that they should be shot. This idea went down like a rare steak at a vegetarian restaurant.

The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe spoke out against the reburial of remains at a medieval Jewish cemetery in Prague. As part of a deal between the Prague Jewish community, the insurance company that intended to build its headquarters at the site, and the Czech government, the remains were to be reburied at the same pace. According to the committee, the remains could not be reburied on the site, as this would breach Jewish laws. Jews may only be buried, the committee said, on sites blessed for the purpose. As this was not the case at the medieval site, the committee proposed the remains be reburied elsewhere.

And the winner of this years' dumpling-eating competition in Cerveny Hradek set a new Czech record. Jan Zila from Chomutov ate 57 dumplings with cream sauce in the space of an hour, adding 5 dumplings to the old record. In addition to the free lunch, he was awarded 1,500 Czech Crowns. Normally, people receive four dumplings as a side dish.

Thousands of Austrian opponents of the Temelin nuclear power plant continued blockades of the Czech-Austrian border on and off throughout October, while Temelin was officially put on line, further straining relations between Austria and the Czech Republic.

At the end of October, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel met to discuss Temelin. Although Austrian calls for testing to be halted at Temelin for further safety checks were rejected, the two men did agree to a regular exchange of information on Temelin, and to a further meeting at the end of November.

The Lower House of Parliament approved the state budget for 2001, with a much large deficit than planned, in its first reading. The minority Social Democrat government and the opposition Civic Democrats agreed on the figures for the budget at last minute talks. Prime Minister Milos Zeman welcomed the vote, saying that it will contribute to economic growth in the Czech Republic.

And police mounted a nation-wide hunt for a dangerous killer who escaped from a maximum security prison. Jiri Kajinek staged a daring escape from the prison, and disappeared without a trace. As the search for Mr. Kajinek continued, reports surfaced that he had a mobile phone in his prison cell, enabling him to plot his escape with accomplices on the outside. The director of the prison, the deputy director and eight guards were removed from their posts following allegations of incompetence and corruption. Prison services director, Kamila Meclova, however, remained in her job, but was merely stripped of her Christmas bonus.

The Governor of the Czech National Bank, Josef Tosovsky, stepped down after 11 years in office. Mr. Tosovksy said that he would leave his post by the end of November. The move was widely perceived as paving the way for President Havel to appoint a new governor before a law came into effect at the beginning of December, whereby the government would take over responsibility for naming new governor's. The ruling Social Democrats and the opposition Civic Democrats fiercely criticised the move.

There were more political battles on the way, as President Havel appointed Zdenek Tuma, hitherto the vice-governor of the Czech National Bank, as the new governor. The Social Democrat govern was up in arms over the decision and threatened to take the issue to the Constitutional Court, as the government said that President Havel had appointed Mr. Tuma without Prime Minister Milos Zeman's signature, which they claimed was unconstitutional.

Blockades by opponents of Temelin continued in November, as environmentalists were angry over the failure of Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel to force the Czech government to close down Temelin for further safety checks. The European Commission expressed its dismay over the blockades, while the International Roads Union called on the Austrian government to intervene, saying that the blockades prevented the free movement of people and goods.

The Czech government reacted angrily to the blockades, calling off a scheduled meeting between Chancellor Schussel and Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman. After the blockades were brought to a halt after more than a week, the meeting was rescheduled for December.

Police continued their nation-wide hunt for contract killer Jiri Kajinek, who broke out from a maximum security prison in late October. Police officials appealed to the public to help them hunt down the ruthless killer, saying they has discovered Mr Kajinek's traces in the vicinity of the prison.

The long-awaited annual progress report from the European Commission on Czech EU accession preparations caused endless scandal in the Czech Republic, as it ranked the Czechs on a par with Slovenia, behind Hungary, Poland and Estonia.

Czech officials were dismayed at the report, as they were expecting much better evaluation. The EU's enlargement commissioner, Gunter Verheugen, expressed his regret over Czech reactions to the report. According to Mr Veheugen, the Czech Republic's ranking was due to delayed restructuring of the of industrial and banking sectors. He placed the blame for this delay on former Czech prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, an acknowledged euro-sceptic, but stressed his belief that restructuring would be completed and saw no reason for concern. Mr. Klaus reacted by accusing Mr. Verheugen of interfering in the campaign for the upcoming senate and regional elections.

The Czech Republic's first regional elections and polls to a third of the Senate were by an exceptionally low voter turnout. Less than 40% of eligible voters came to cast their ballot in the first round of voting. In the end, the elections turned out to be a disaster for the ruling Social Democrats, who took none of the thirteen regional governments up for grabs. Worse was to come for the government in the second round of voting for the Senate seats. Out of the 27 seats available, the Social Democrats won only one.

The news was much better for the centre-right Four Party Coalition, as it won five regional governments, and took seventeen Senate seats. This was a severe blow for both the ruling Social Democrats and the opposition Civic Democrats, who lost their majority in the Upper House. This now meant that the two parties, who co-operate in accordance with their Opposition Agreement, could no longer force laws through the Senate.

The dispute over the appointment of Zdenek Tuma as the governor of the Czech National Bank by President Havel continued. The government continued to argue that Mr. Tuma's appointment without the prime minister's signature was unconstitutional, which the president denied. In the end, after the Czech Crown reacted badly to the political wrangling, and warnings from analysts against a legal challenge to Mr. Tuma's appointment the government let the matter drop, saying that the Constitutional Court would have to decide the matter for future appointments.

The import of all cattle, beef and beef products from EU countries where cases of BSE, or mad cow disease, were discovered, were halted. The Czech ban on beef imports thus now included products from Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Holland, Germany and Spain. In order to calm the general public, tests for mad cow disease were increased tenfold.

The European Union Summit in Nice, the longest and hardest ever, finally reached an agreement on internal reforms, and for expansion eastwards. Although a concrete date was not set, EU leaders said they hoped to accept new members before the European Parliament elections in 2004. The Czech Republic, one of the candidates for EU accession, will receive the same votes in the new European Commission as current EU member states of a similar size.

The majority of Czech politicians greeted the news cautiously, and promised to work hard to meet all necessary conditions for membership by the end of 2002.

Czech police recaptured escaped convict Jiri Kajinek who had been on the run for six weeks since his dramatic escape from a maximum security prison. Mr. Kajinek was arrested in a Prague apartment, where he had been hiding for weeks, by a police rapid action squad. Although the police said that he never left the apartment, information later surfaced that he had been shopping several times, using the not-so-cunning disguise of sunglasses. Mr. Kajinek's now famous words upon his arrest were: but I'm not wearing my underpants.

The publisher of a Czech edition of Hitler's autobiography, Mein Kampf, received a 3-year suspended sentence and a fine of two million crowns. Michal Zitko, head of the Votavia publishing house, was found guilty of breaking a Czech law banning the support of movements which suppress human rights and freedoms. Mr Zitko denied claims of supporting fascism, and said the book was of clear historical value.

And Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel and Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman finally reached an agreement on the future of the controversial Temelin nuclear power station. The Czech government acknowledged Austrian fears over the plant's safety, and agreed to produce a new environmental impact study, under the supervision of the European Commission, and to implement further safety checks at the plant. Austrian environmentalists remained unconvinced, and continued protests against the plant.

01-01-2001