09-03-2001

Bootleg booze, Czech football in crisis, EU-sceptics and long live pneumatic post!

PRAVO MAGAZINE: The deadly trade in bootleg alcohol

PRAVO MAGAZINE features a frankly horrifying article this week on the multi-million trade in bootleg alcohol - poor imitations of well-known Czech and foreign liquor made from illegally imported synthetic and vegetable spirits.

It's depriving the Czech Finance Ministry of millions of crowns in lost tax revenues, but even more worrying, those who drink the stuff could be sentencing themselves to blindness or even death.

You'll find bottles of fake spirits on sale in markets across the country. Often they contain 30 percent alcohol instead of the 40 percent on the label, but in return the customer gets a dose of phthalate - which causes cancer, xylene and toluene - which cause permanent liver damage, and, as a special bonus, methylalcohol - which destroys the retina.

"Last year we carried out 21 inspections at markets [throughout our region] and discovered that 90 percent of the spirits on sale were seriously hazardous to human health," says Vaclav Krlis, Chief Food Inspection Officer in the West Bohemian city of Plzen. Testing the bootleg liquor in laboratories, writes PRAVO MAGAZINE, scientists discovered traces of phthalate, xylene, toluene and other dangerous chemicals.

In 90 percent of cases the stall-holders know they're selling bootleg alcohol. The most common are 'rum' and 'vodka', which are relatively easy to make. Before me, writes the author of the article, lie dozens of bottles of fake booze, confiscated from various markets. 'Have a taste!" jokes an inspector. I'm no teetotaller, she writes, but one sniff is enough to put me off. The contents stink of paint-thinner - and she even found a cherry pit floating in a bottle of spirits advertising itself as 'Extra Smooth Rum - First Class Quality Guaranteed.'

PRAVO MAGAZINE says the synthetic and vegetable spirits used to produce the fake alcohol are so strong they can strip barrels and pipes of dangerous particles of plastic and metal, and the residue ends up in the bottle. Meanwhile, the people making the fake liquor are making millions, and depriving the state of millions more in tax.

"Contraband ethyl alcohol is smuggled from Italy, Germany, Ukraine and even the Far East," says the Managing Director of Plzen's famous Stock Distillery. "But with the profit these guys are turning over, they could afford to import if from the moon."

TYDEN: Czech football hangs its head in shame

Moving on, and TYDEN reports on the sorry state of Czech football. The game, says the magazine, has been shaken to its foundations. People have been talking about 'petty' fraud - such as bribing referees and players - for years. Now the chairman of the Czech Football Association, Frantisek Chvalovsky, has been arrested on suspicion of illegal financial transactions amounting to hundreds of millions of crowns.

You might not think it from looking at the pitches of the clubs playing in the Premier League, says TYDEN, but there are hundreds of millions of crowns flowing through Czech football. Sparta Prague's annual budget amounts to some 400 million Czech crowns, Slavia has around 150 million to spend, and other clubs have between 30 and 70 million crowns in their coffers.

But the murky financing of the game has given rise to much speculation. Rumours abound that players, referees and officials alike are on the make, but no-one, of course, wants to go on the record with detailed allegations. None of the numerous stories which have appeared in the press have ever been proved. And everyone, writes TYDEN, who has come forward with allegations, has been pilloried. But last week saw some shocking news. The head of the Czech FA, Frantisek Chvalovsky, was arrested last Friday and charged with fraud, in connection with his private business dealings.

Former Czech international Milan Luhovy says Chvalovsky has no place in Czech football, and must step down. "Chvalovsky thought he won the post because of his qualities, education and opinions. But he didn't. Throughout the ten years he's been in charge he's been kept there by powerful figures in the shadows. The problem is that Chvalovsky is glued to his post," says Luhovy.

"Of course it's hard to find proof of serious corruption. But if they really wanted to find it, they would. When people are talking about the problem openly in public, then in my opinion the normal thing to do would be for the head of the football association to call a meeting with the Interior Minister and work out ways to stamp it out," he tells TYDEN. But that, says the magazine, has not happened.

REFLEX: EU roadshow gets less than rapturous reception in Czech countryside

Meanwhile REFLEX follows an EU information minibus organised by the Czech Foreign Ministry as it works its way round the country trying to convince Czechs of the merits of EU membership. Unfortunately, says the magazine, many people in rural areas are largely indifferent to the idea of EU enlargement, and some are downright sceptical. We reproduce for you some of the conversations recorded in the town of Dacice, by REFLEX journalist Tomas Fertek. First, a couple of secondary school students stop at the minibus in the town square:

"Good morning, are you interested in our country's entry to the European Union?"

"No."

"And could I interest you in some information about it?"

"No."

"Don't you have any questions about it? Something you might be interested in?"

"No."

"And won't you at least take home one of our leaflets? It's got all the info in it. All the pros and cons of EU membership. So you can make up your own mind."

"...I don't think I will, thanks all the same."

"Why don't you take a copy home, when you'll have time to read it."

"Alright. If you say so."

The older residents of Dacice were more interested, but hardly more keen on the idea. Witness the following conversation between two late middle-aged men idling away the hours on the town square:

"Stop wasting your time. They don't even want us there anyway. Austria's not what it used to be. There's no work. They don't want anyone else in. What would lads like us do over there anyway?"

"I dunno. Carpenter. Brickie. Something like that. Jarda makes 20,000 when he goes up to Prague."

"No he doesn't."

"He does. I'm telling you."

"He doesn't!"

"He does!"

"Alright, even if he does, you could earn that by staying here."

"No you couldn't."

"Yes you could, if you find yourself a nice little earner, you've got it. And you don't have to join no bloody union...Anyway it'll fall apart before they let the likes of us in."

"No it won't."

"Yes it will."

"Why would it fall apart, for God's sake?"

"...I don't know why, but I'm telling you, by the time they're ready to take us in, it will have fallen to pieces ages ago."

"IT WILL NOT BLOODY FALL APART!"

"Will."

Across Dacice's town square, writes REFLEX, a handful of teenagers sit in the winter sunshine. One of them is drinking from a box of wine, and playing with some EU balloons. One by one he blows them up. First a blue one. Then a yellow one. Then a blue one. Then a yellow one. Then a blue one...

PRAVO: Long Live Pneumatic Post!

And finally back to PRAVO MAGAZINE, and a story about the enduring charm of the pneumatic post system - the miles of underground tubes which used to send rolled-up messages zipping through the world's major cities on waves of compressed air, before the advent of telex, fax and email.

Information leaks, electronic theft and fraud, confusion caused by giant computer networks, hackers and ordinary human fatigue. All a mundane part of daily life in the 21st century, says the magazine. Long live email! Long live electronic bank transfers! But pneumatic post? In this day and age?!?

Well, yes. "For transferring original documents in real time, without distorting the contents, pneumatic post remains the best way to get something from A to B," says Jiri Hak, head of Czech Telecom's telegraph and telex network. From the Main Post Office in Prague's Jindrisska Street you can send a capsule up the tube to Prague Castle in eight minutes - faster than any motorbike messenger.

In 1899, writes PRAVO MAGAZINE, Prague became the fifth city in the world to receive a pneumatic post system. Today, 100 years on, there are 59 kilometres of tubes underneath the streets of the Czech capital. The capsules travel at speeds of up to 10 metres per second, and there are five main routes - to Nusle, Dejvice, Letna, Karlovo Namesti and Smichov. Pneumatic post tubes cross the River Vltava in three places.

And, as PRAVO MAGAZINE goes on, it wasn't just written messages which surfed the tubes. One operator used to send hot potato pancakes to his colleague in the other end of the city.

Amazingly, the pneumatic post system was still used regularly right up until the late 1980s. For the Czech media, it was an essential means of communication. The Czech News Agency, situated just off Wenceslas Square, was entirely dependent on it, says PRAVO.

Today, however, in the age of email and Internet, it has become a thing of the past. "Today none of the media use the pneumatic post system," says Jiri Hak. "But we've kept the stations, and we're ready to put them into operation at the drop of a hat... People often forget about the beautiful and practical things [that used to be part of their lives]. I think it's a good thing to jog their memories, especially if those things can still be put to good use."

 

09-03-2001