US Vice President Joe Biden has said that the United States would press ahead with its missile defence programme in Central Europe, provided it works, is cost effective, and is built in consultation with Russia. The United States has been negotiating with the Czech Republic to install a radar base in Central Bohemia. Ten interceptor missiles would be sited in neighbouring Poland as part of the umbrella shield. Speculation grew this week that the new American administration may abandon the scheme, devised by President Barack Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. Mr Biden’s remarks in Germany on Saturday suggested that Washington was reviewing the multi-billion dollar project.
In related news, Czech Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs, Alexandr Vondra, has said that he believes Russia should be involved in plans to build a US radar base in the Czech Republic. Speaking at a NATO Security Conference in Munich on Saturday, Mr Vondra said that Russia should be invited to cooperate on the shield, but should not have a veto over the project. Mr Vondra also said the system should be built within the framework of NATO. The Deputy PM, who was representing the Czech EU presidency at the conference, also spoke of the need to strengthen the strategic partnership between the EU and NATO.
Czech Cardinal Miloslav Vlk has criticized Pope Benedict XVI for his decision to lift the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson. The British bishop has publicly denied the use of gas chambers during World War Two and the scale of the Holocaust. On Saturday, Lidové noviny reported that cardinal Miloslav Vlk spoke out against the Pope’s decision to reinstate Bishop Williamson on his website, saying the step had been taken ‘too lightly’. Cardinal Vlk added that, as a Catholic bishop, he categorically condemned anti-Semitism. On January 24, the Vatican reinstated Bishop Williamson, who had been excommunicated for 20 years. The move drew criticism from Jewish leaders, and some within the Catholic Church.
The government plans to spend some 75 billion crowns (3.5 billion USD) on minimizing the effects of the financial crisis at a national level. In an interview with Mladá fronta Dnes on Saturday, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek outlined his plans to combat the crisis, saying the government was prepared to spend funds worth two percent of GDP on a bail-out package. The government has founded an advisory committee called NERV which is currently devising ways to help the country limit the fall-out of the global financial crisis.
Journalist Sabina Slonková has been fined 20,000 crowns (nearly 1,000 USD) for protecting one of her sources. Ms Slonková, who works for the news website Aktualně, refused to reveal who handed her material from a meeting held between lobbyist Miroslav Šlouf and head of the president’s office Jiří Weigl shortly before the presidential election last year. The reporter was convicted under a law which compels journalists to identify their sources when such information can be used to investigate serious crimes such as murder. Ms Slonková has said the lawsuit is tantamount to ‘harassment’. On Saturday, Mladá fronta Dnes reported that the fine was the first of its sort to be handed out since the Velvet Revolution.
A large EU flag hanging in the centre of Prague to mark the Czech Republic’s presidency of the European Union was burnt for the second time in three weeks on Friday night, the website tn.cz reported. The flag was set alight just after 19:00 CET, an employee of the emergency services said. The flag hangs in Letná, on the spot where a massive sculpture of Josef Stalin used to stand, and can be seen around the city centre. This is third time the flag has been vandalized since it was erected at the start of the Czech Republic’s EU presidency on January 1. Three weeks ago it was set alight and before that vandals cut a section out of the fabric. The site is now being guarded by police.
Representatives of 15 NGOs have criticized the Czech Republic for its handling of the case of Vietnamese immigrant Le Kim Thanh. Mr Thanh was expelled from the Czech Republic for five years after working for three weeks without a visa while his application was pending. Three other men were also expelled, but they appealed the decision, and their expulsion was cut to three months. Mr Thanh did not manage to lodge an appeal because he was ill at the time. On Friday, some of the country’s most prominent NGOs called on the government to rethink its stance on the case. In an open letter, they said that it was the employer who had made a mistake with the visa, and not Mr Thanh. Education Minister Ondřej Liška said that the authorities had not taken the ‘human element’ of the Vietnamese worker’s case into account. The Czech Foreign Police respond that they have no reason to reassess the decision.
Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek is doing well at the head of the EU, a poll conducted by the STEM agency for Lidové noviny newspaper suggests. Respondents to the poll were asked to grade Mr Topolánek as if for a school report, with one being best, and five worst. The prime minister’s average was two minus. The poll also found that over 90 percent of those questioned were aware that the country currently held the EU presidency, and that 60 percent of respondents said that they did not like the controversial artwork the Czech Republic chose to represent its presidency – David Černý’s Entropa.
Members of the far-right Workers’ Party will stand in the upcoming European Parliament elections even if their party is banned by the Supreme Administrative Court, their leader Tomáš Vandas told press on Saturday. Mr Vandas said that if the party was banned, it would quickly form a new entity to run in the elections. The Workers’ Party recently drew the focus of the international media when it organized a series of rallies in Litvínov, northern Bohemia, attacking the town’s Romany population.
The Czech central bank has warned that the country is heading into a recession, radically altering its forecast for the country’s economic growth to red numbers, predicting a 0.3 percent decline. It is the first time the country could slide into a recession in a decade. The bank’s governor, Zdeněk Tůma, called the prospect for this year’s growth a “negative zero”, citing falling exports as the major cause. The central bank also slashed interest rates by 0.5 percent on Thursday to a record low of 1.75 percent. The move was expected, given the low level of inflation in the Czech Republic and the grim economic outlook for 2009.
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