In a New Years address to the nation President Vaclav Klaus highlighted the fact that the Czech Republic is entering its 15th year of democracy. He said Czechs hold the future in their own hands and that they alone bear responsibility for the successes and failures that the new year will bring. Mr. Klaus noted the fact that in just a few months time the country would be joining the EU which he described as a new chapter in the country's history. The president said that the country would lose part of its sovereignty but that there would be advantages to make up for it. He expressed the hope that Czechs would avail themselves of all the opportunities opening up to them and that Czech representatives in Brussels would defend the country's interests well. Mr. Klaus appealed to all Czechs to make a wise and prudent choice when they vote both in local elections and elections to the European Parliament.
The Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs, Cyril Svoboda, has warned that the Czech government's decision to acquire Swedish Gripen fighters jets could have a negative effect on Czech-American relations. The CTK news agency quoted unnamed diplomatic sources that this Czech participation in the renewal of Iraq could suffer as a result. On Wednesday, the Czech government decided in favour of the Gripens over U.S.-made F-16s. A few days before, the U.S. ambassador to Prague, Craig Stapleton, had hinted that Czech-American relations could feel an impact if the cabinet selected the Gripens. The government wants to lease 14 new Jas-39 Gripens for over 17 billion crowns for ten years. The modern fighters should replace the ageing Soviet-made MiG-21s by 2005.
Czech footballer Pavel Nedved, mid-fielder for Juventus Turin and captain of the Czech national team, has been voted the best Czech sportsman of the year. Nedved becomes the first football player to be awarded the Czech title. He replaces freestyle aerials skier Ales Valenta on the throne. Cross-country world champion Martin Koukal came in second, while ice hockey player Milan Hejduk was third. In the category of teams, the award was given to the national football team under coach Karel Brueckner. The Best Sportsman of the Year title has been awarded every year since 1959.
President Vaclav Klaus met Prague Archbishop, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, for the first time since he was elected Czech president in February. The heads of state and Church discussed the general situation of churches in the Czech Republic as well as a Czech-Vatican agreement which is supposed to define the position of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church in the Czech Republic but was rejected by the Lower House earlier this year. According to media reports, the relationship between Klaus and Vlk had been somewhat cool but the latest meeting, which lasted much longer than planned, suggests a warming in relations. The two leaders are to meet again in a few months' time.
In skiing Czech Katerina Neumannova won the women's 10km freestyle race at the World Cup in Ramsau, Austria, on Saturday. 30-year-old Neumannova returned to cross-country skiing after a six-month break following the birth of her daughter. Neumannova finished first with a time of 27 minutes and 9.0 seconds, 24 seconds ahead of second Kristina Smigun of Estonia.
The European Phare programme will contribute almost a million euros for projects focused on the Romany minority. The projects are organised by various non-governmental organisations, and are aimed mainly at integration of the Roma into the society and improving their education, employment and housing situation.
The eastward expansion of the European Union will prove a boon to flourishing organised crime groups, the European police agency Europol said in its annual report on organised crime. With border controls relaxing as the EU grows from 15 to 25 countries next May, Mafia-style groups will use new member states as bases for trafficking drugs and people. The report said powerful crime networks were getting increasingly sophisticated, moving away from the traditional, hierarchical model seen in Mafia movies and towards a cell-based structure that made it harder for police to find the top bosses. It said there were signs international crime groups were moving their activities to the EU newcomers, which were also becoming focal points for money laundering.
Two policemen who allegedly attacked a Romany family in May this year are to face trial, the newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes reported on Friday. The state attorney says that after around 30 Prague-based police officers had been drinking in a pub near the central Bohemian town of Jicin, a group of them forced their way into the Davis family's home, shouted racist abuse and beat up some family members. The Interior Ministry has already conducted an inquiry into the alleged incident; it found no evidence of racism. If found guilty in court, the two officers could face five up to years in prison.
The Czech cabinet decided late on Wednesday to take up Sweden's offer for 14 new JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets to replace the Czech Republic's aging fleet of Mig-21s to be retired at the end of next year. The government followed an earlier recommendation by a commission of experts that had ranked Sweden's offer first among five offers in a government tender. Those included proposals from Belgium, Holland, and the United States, offering modernised F-16 fighter jets which are used by most NATO countries. Following Hungary, the Czech Republic becomes the second NATO country to select Gripens, manufactured by BAE Systems/Saab. A spokesman for the Swedish defence material command said that the financial terms of the contract would depend on whether the Czech government decided to lease the fighter planes for five or 10 years. The first Gripens are expected to be operational in April 2005, with deliveries to the Czech Republic to be concluded by late August of the same year.
Petr Mach, the former president of Prague's first division football club Sparta Prague, has been granted an early release from prison. Mr Mach began serving a five year sentence for tax fraud in June 2001, after Mr Mach had failed to declare a luxury BMW automobile bought in Germany. His failure to declare the vehicle divested the state of more than 1.3 million crowns. Mr Mach's release decided by a Prague court must now be confirmed by a state attorney.