30-10-2001

The main stories in the Czech papers today focus on a helicopter crash in the Czech Republic on Sunday that involved two former astronauts, and the further escalation of a bizarre dispute between Prime Minister Milos Zeman and the country's First Lady, Dagmar Havlova.

Indeed, the story about Mr Zeman and President Havel's wife is the lead story in both Mlada fronta Dnes and Lidove noviny. The dispute between the two goes back a year, to when President Havel named Zdenek Tuma as the new head of the Czech National Bank. At the time, the prime minister was furious over the decision, and challenged it in the Constitutional Court. Dagmar Havlova herself was apparently offended by Mr Zeman's behaviour towards her husband, and sent the prime minister a message that she would never shake his hand again.

If that doesn't sound dramatic enough, both papers report that Mr Zeman failed to turn up for celebrations on Sunday commemorating the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak state in 1918. This was originally attributed to the fact that an army helicopter crashed the same day, but Mr Zeman came up with a different reason, one that has, and no doubt will, fuel endless speculation in the Czech press. At a press conference on Monday, the prime minister told journalists that he did not attend the celebrations, in order to avoid putting the First Lady in the awkward situation of having to shake his hand.

Mlada fronta Dnes quotes Senate Chairman Petr Pithart as saying that the prime minister's behaviour is ridiculous, and that if all politicians were to go on recalling old disputes, the whole country would come to a halt. In a commentary in the paper, Martin Komarek calls the prime minister's actions comical. He likens Mr Zeman's behaviour to that of a four-year-old boy, but comments that this infantile man is actually the prime minister of the Czech Republic.

Speaking of the celebrations on Sunday, Lidove noviny reports that members of the main opposition party, the right-of-centre Civic Democrats, are still furious over the speech President Havel delivered on Sunday to mark the founding of Czechoslovakia. The president's speech has been widely perceived as an attack on Civic Democrat leader Vaclav Klaus.

According to Mr Klaus, the president abused the occasion to make a political speech, and that Mr Havel is out of touch with events in the Czech Republic. Other Civic Democrats have spoken out against the president's speech, but in some other circles, especially the opposition right-of-centre Four Party Coalition, President Havel's words have been welcomed, Lidove noviny concludes.

Away from Czech politics now, and Prazske Slovo reports there was an anthrax scare in one of the main offices of the country's largest insurance company on Monday. Two women who work in Ceska Pojistovna's mail room fell ill while sorting letters. They complained of burning hands and found it difficult to breathe.

They were rushed to hospital and the office was shut down for several hours. The atmosphere in the building was tense, the paper reports, until it was announced a few hours later that both women had been released, and were not suffering from anthrax. No suspicious materials were found on the scene that suggest the presence of anthrax spores, and according to a leading specialist, of the 120 suspicious packages reported since the first outbreak of the disease in the USA, not one has been found to contain spores, Prazske Slovo concludes.

Pravo reports on a statement made by Prime Minister Milos Zeman on Monday, that BAE Systems, the company that is the hot favourite, and indeed now the only contender, to sell up to 36 supersonic jets to the Czech Republic, has met all the conditions necessary for the sale.

The prime minister told journalists on Monday that all four of the ministries involved, industry and trade, defence, foreign affairs and finance, have now to put forward a proposal on the tender for the jets, and a final decision is expected in November. The prime minister also did not rule out that one of the original contenders, American company Lockheed Martin, may still be in the running. The US government, the paper says, has exerted pressure on the Czech government to buy F-16s from Lockheed Martin, regardless of the official result of the tender. All the prime minister would say is that if the Americans want to negotiate, the Czech government is willing to do so.

30-10-2001