14-01-2001

The heightened tension between the Czech Republic and Austria fills the front pages of most dailies today - "Austrians Vote On Czech Affairs" reads a provocative headline in today's Mlada fronta Dnes. "Petitioning Against Neighbour" echoes Hospodarske noviny.

Lidove noviny says that there's no reason for undue concern. This is predominantly Austria's problem, says the paper, explaining that even if the Freedom Party manages to collect enough signatures for a referendum it will primarily create a problem for its own governing coalition, and for the politicians in Brussels. Besides, even if a million Austrians do sign the petition, that still leaves a silent majority of Austrians who are clearly not bent on vetoing the Czech Republic's accession to the EU over this matter, the paper concludes.

Although most commentators attempt to remain objective over the Temelin dispute, highlighting the fact that the Austrian People's Party headed by Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel has taken a very rational stand on the matter, there is another story which is whipping up anti-Austrian sentiments in the border regions. The demand of Austria's Sudeten German community - the SLO - for Czech border towns where Sudeten Germans once lived to have bi-lingual signposts could not have come at a worse time.

Since most of those towns no longer have German minorities the locals tend to regard such requests as proof of Austrian high-handedness and arrogance. One mayor told Pravo that since there was a considerable Vietnamese minority in his town he was ready to put up notices in Vietnamese but saw no reason to have them in German, at least not for the time-being. Antonin Moravcik from the town of Podharadi said that the idea would make sense if there were Czech signs in Austrian border towns. Another mayor said that although bi-lingual notices and menus in hotels and restaurants made sense he saw no reason to introduce bi-lingual signs for Czech towns and streets .

On the home front, the papers note that the election campaign is now well underway, although the proper mud-slinging matches are yet to come. Mlada fronta Dnes says that for the present time politicians are making a big effort to be seen and heard on their pet topics. An invitation to a TV or radio debate is highly prized but even an appearance in a tabloid paper is not to be scoffed at. As for election promises made to voters the parties can easily brush up on most of those from the last elections - because few have been fulfilled, Mlada fronta Dnes says.

Commentators agree that, despite the amount of criticism leveled against him, Prime Minister Milos Zeman's planned retirement from politics will be a serious setback for the Social Democrats. Zeman was to the Social Democrats what Margaret Thatcher was to the British Conservative Party or Helmut Kohl to the CDU, says Mlada fronta Dnes. Although he has already been replaced as party leader - many people still identify the Social Democrats with Milos Zeman. It will not be easy for the party to face elections without him -especially with his main rival Vaclav Klaus still firmly at the helm of the Civic Democratic Party.

And finally, the war in Afghanistan has had an unexpected side-effect in the streets of Prague. Drug dealers are no longer selling so-called brown heroin from Afghanistan and have replaced it with very pure "white" heroin from a supplier in Asia. Although experts have issued repeated warnings about the potency of this drug several young addicts have already died of overdoses. According to available statistics Czech addicts consume an estimated 5 tons of heroin each year, and pay around 15 billion Czech crowns for the privilege.

14-01-2001