06-03-2001

Well there's nothing like a quiet week for news in the Czech Republic to bring out those earth-shattering headlines: the main story in today's PRAVO is "Bakers To Raise Price Of Bread In April." Hold the front page. Reports of panic as Foot-and-Mouth spreads across the English Channel into continental Europe still dominate the front pages today, with MLADA FRONTA DNES reporting that officials at the English port of Dover are not disinfecting travellers before they set off to the continent, unlike their Czech counterparts at Prague's Ruzyne Airport.

But let's start at home, and PRAVO - underneath the price of bread story - claims that far-right groups have taken control of SPIGL newspaper, a rather obscure tabloid with ultra-patriotic and far-right leanings. The paper says the acquisition is part of a concerted campaign by the Czech ultra-right to force their way into mainstream politics. The paper's new editor in chief is Jan Kopal - leader of the newly formed National Social Bloc and Secretary of the Patriotic Republican Party, two far-right groups with strong support among neo-Nazi skinheads.

SPIGL'S long-time publisher and editor in chief Ladislav Fronek - himself no stranger to the odd patriotic rant - is apparently relinquishing control of the paper due to a forthcoming hip operation. Mr Kopal, however, swears to PRAVO that SPIGL will not become a party rag, and would remain independent.

The National Social Bloc, says PRAVO, was formed at the weekend, when members of the Patriotic Republican Party, National Alliance, National Resistance and other extremist groups came together under one umbrella, as anarchists clashed with police outside Prague's Eden Centre. Culture Minister Pavel Dostal told the paper it the duty of every democratic society to keep a watchful eye on far-right groups, and be prepared for danger.

The top story in LIDOVE NOVINY today covers the continuing woes in the Czech banking sector, and the cost to taxpayers. Over the past few years, successive governments have been forced to spend billions of crowns in taxpayers' money to save banks from collapse - or compensate creditors after they've collapsed - often due to bad loans and poor management. The state has also had to bail out the largest Czech banks in order to make them attractive to major investors.

So far, the paper says, the total cost per taxpayer for bailing out the Czech banking sector is forty thousand Czech Crowns, or three months' average salary. And the latest bill to be added to this total is forty billion Czech Crowns, or more than one billion US dollars, for one of the country's leading banks, Ceska Sporitelna. The bank was sold to Austria's Erste Bank last year, after the Czech government made sweeping guarantees for Ceska Sporitelna's bad loans. The final calculations are still being made, says LIDOVE NOVINY, but fears that the bill for Ceska Sporitelna would be massive are gradually being confirmed.

MLADA FRONTA DNES reports on celebrations in Prague of the Muslim holy festival Hajj. The capital's only mosque - situated in the rather drab high-rise estate of Cerny Most - was packed with the faithful for afternoon prayers on Monday, says the paper, as the Imam intoned 'Allah Akbar' and read from the Koran.

But for some Muslim residents the temptations of life in the Czech Republic have proved difficult, writes MLADA FRONTA DNES. Sudanese student Amjad Mustafa came to Prague seven years ago, and immediately started forgetting the verses of the Koran. He drank, went to discos and dallied with women. "It was Satan testing me. I had to embark on my own personal jihad, a crusade with myself. It took me two years," Amjad tells MLADA FRONTA DNES.

And ending on a rather piquant note - spare a thought for those poor officials hired by the National Statistics Office to go round to people's houses collecting completed census forms. PRAVO reports that one form collector was chased 500 metres down a street by an Alsatian and bitten.

Twenty-five-year-old Marek from the town of Liberec says being attacked by rabid dogs has become something of a daily routine. "Almost every gate has one of those stickers with a picture of a dog saying 'I can be at the gate in five seconds' and most don't have bells on them. I have to decide whether to open the gate and be torn to pieces, or walk round the house and wait for someone to notice me." The latter course of action would seem more sensible, Marek.

06-03-2001