Czech political leaders have condemned the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. President Vaclav Klaus said he had been deeply shocked by the violence, calling it an abominable attack against the very foundations of human civilization. The Czech Foreign Ministry expressed concern for the fate of the country. In a statement for the CTK news agency the Foreign Ministry said that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto would almost certainly influence the course of elections in Pakistan and expressed hope that the country would not be thrown into turmoil.
All three parties in the centre-right government have promised to support the pension reform bill in its first reading in the lower house. The draft, proposed by Civic Democrat Labour Minister Petr Necas, outlines radical changes to the current pay-as-you-go system, including a higher retirement age for both men and women and a longer period of mandatory insurance. Although in earlier years there was general consensus that the pension reform should receive support across the political spectrum, now Minister Necas says that the need for reform is so pressing he wants it approved with or without support from the opposition parties. The Greens and Christian Democrats have both promised to support it in its first reading in the lower house.
President Klaus has been awarded the Pushkin Medal for the promotion of Russian culture. The medal was bestowed on him by Russian President Vladimir Putin and was handed over by the Russian ambassador to Prague Alexei Fedotov at a special ceremony at Prague Castle on Thursday. The ambassador praised Mr. Klaus’ fluent Russian and the fact that he is always willing to negotiate in the language during his working visits to Moscow. The Pushkin Medal was established in 1999 by the former Russian president Boris Yeltsin to commemorate the 200 anniversary of Pushkin’s birth. It has been awarded to some 300 renowned personalities, including 30 foreigners.
The popularity of presidential candidate Jan Svejnar is growing. Mr. Svejnar, a professor of economics with dual Czech-American citizenship, is Mr. Klaus’ only rival in the February presidential elections. According to polls conducted by the STEM agency public support for Mr. Svejnar has jumped from 15 percent in November to 35 percent in December. On the other hand support for incumbent president Vaclav Klaus dropped from 62 to 35 percent. Commentators say this could be due to Mr. Svejnar’s American–style election campaign and President Klaus’ refusal to take part in a televised debate with him, on the grounds that his views are well known already. Vaclav Klaus has now revised his stand and says he is ready to take on his rival in a debate in Parliament, since it is deputies and senators who will be electing the future head of state. The Communist Party has not ruled out nominating its own candidate for the presidency, so there could in the end be three candidates running for office.
Czech singer and entertainer Karel Cernoch has died at the age of 64. He succumbed to stomach cancer a year after undergoing an operation and chemotherapy. Karel Cernoch started out as a rock-and-roll singer in the 60s and later tried his hand at other genres including jazz, country, pop and most recently musicals. He has sold countless CDs and appeared in a number of Czech films.
The church is to receive 83 billion crowns in compensation for property confiscated by the state which cannot be restored to it. However in view of the fact that the state cannot afford to make a one-off payment the actual sum will be much higher. Government representatives and church officials have agreed on a phased-out payment spanning 60 years. With an interest rate of 4.85 percent the church should receive 267 billion crowns in all. Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek said that the agreement would now enable the state to privatize thousands of hectares of land and real estate, which were blocked by the ownership dispute.
As of January 2008 Czechs going on maternity or paternity leave will be able to decide whether they want a longer maternity leave on less money or a shorter one on more. A new law will introduce a three-tier system which will enable parents to take anything from a few weeks of maternity leave to four years. The short option would get them 11,400 crowns a month, the four year option a mere 3,800 crowns per month. Parents have welcomed the flexibility but criticized the fact that the decision must be made in advance and cannot be changed at a later date if the family’s circumstances should change.
A number of highly publicized cases of child abuse in 2007 have led the government to tighten the law on the protection of children. The bill envisages more qualified social workers to detect cases of abuse and a clear definition of what kind of environment a child can be placed in, in the event of a messy custody battle. The nation was shocked this year by the case of a mother who severely abused her own children, shutting a 7-year old boy in a broom cupboard for days on end where he was bound, naked and made to eat his own vomit. The case of a perfectly healthy ten year old girl whom a judge sent to a mental home because her parents couldn’t agree on custody rights also revealed serious failings in the legal system.
The police have arrested a foreign national suspected of killing one of the drivers of the country’s biggest lottery company SAZKA in late November. The arrested man is reported to be a hit man from one of the former Soviet Republics. It is still not clear why SAZKA’s driver was shot dead and the police believe he may have been mistaken for the company’s director who often drives the company car himself.
An opinion poll conducted by the Median agency indicates that the biggest disappointment for Czechs in domestic politics in 2007 was the case of the former deputy prime minister Jiri Cunek. Mr. Cunek faced criminal prosecution over alledged bribery and refused to resign for months, leaving the cabinet only when it emerged that he was also suspected of having abused social benefits in the years before he entered high politics. The bribery case was closed for lack of evidence and investigators said that in the case of the social benefits – Mr. Cunek had not violated the law – and could at the most be accused of lack of ethics. Jiri Cunek’s attempt to return to Cabinet met with serious opposition from his party colleagues and although he remains head of one of the three governing parties – the Christian Democrats – his popularity rating has slumped. Thirty percent of respondents said he had serious character flaws and had abused his position.