30-05-2001

The faces looking out from today's front pages are those of US Secretary of State Colin Powell - warning Czechs to count their money carefully before spending billions of crowns on new fighter jets, President Havel - in connection with more speculation as to whether there is a powerful clique ruling the roost at Prague Castle, and a smiling Michael Johnson - the American sprinter and five- times Olympic champion, who is currently in the Czech Republic to run a race "just for the fun of it" as he told the press.

The fighter jet dilemma - to buy or not to buy expensive new fighter jets which the country can ill afford - has again been thrashed out from every conceivable angle. The fact that four out of five firms have backed out of the 100 billion crown tender has certainly not gone unnoticed. Some commentators see this as cause for concern, and accuse the government of setting too high a price for the deal.

However, Jiri Hanak of Pravo - a paper close to the ruling Social Democrats - asks: "What's the big deal? This is business as usual and if the government has demanded that the chosen company invest 150 billion crowns in this country then what are we kicking up a fuss about? The four firms each had good reason to back out. Their planes were twice as expensive and older than those being offered by the British-Swedish consortium Gripen. Moreover, Gripen has agreed to invest in the offset programmes which are part of the deal, Hanak adds. The fuss being kicked up is led by those who lobbied for the other firms, but that has nothing to do with our national interests, the author concludes.

Is there a powerful clique ruling Prague Castle? Mlada Fronta Dnes has devoted a page and a half to that popular topic. The President's long-standing rival, Civic Democratic Party leader Vaclav Klaus, recently suggested that President Vaclav Havel's old friends, most of whom are no longer active in politics, were using him to influence developments on the Czech political scene.

Mlada Fronta Dnes talks to the President's seven chief advisers, but arrives at the conclusion that there is no concerted influence. The bottom line is that Vaclav Havel does his own thing, the paper says. He is a man who listens but does not necessarily heed. And often he will surprise both politicians and his aides by saying something he firmly believes without prior consultation or much regard for diplomacy. In other words, says the paper, this president is certainly nobody's puppet.

Most readers who open Wednesday's papers will quickly zero in on a news item that concerns almost everyone in the Czech Republic. The price of petrol has once more crossed the 30-crown psychological barrier, and even for those who don't own a vehicle this is a harbinger of higher consumer prices and services to come.

Pravo, which carries a snapshot of an amazed driver staring at the new prices at a petrol station, has added a touch of humour by featuring the report right next to a picture of the visiting Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda and Czech government spokesman Libor Roucek out jogging.

Well, if the price of gas stays at its present level this could be the perfect solution. Of course Mr. Dzurinda and Roucek are not suggesting a simple solution to the problem. The caption under that snapshot says that the two have decided to run the New York Marathon in November and merely took a practice run through the streets of Prague.

30-05-2001