US President George W Bush has named seven countries, including the Czech Republic, as having met the criteria for being added to the United States’ visa waiver programme. Others include the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Also on the list: the Czech Republic’s neighbour, Slovakia. Mr Bush said on Friday other countries were also on the path towards visa waiver. The United States requires that countries seeking inclusion in the programme issue tamper-proof biometric passports. Countries are also required to see only a low number of US visa applications rejected annually.
A large part of Prague’s historic Výstaviště Industrial Palace was
destroyed by a major fire on Thursday evening. The fire broke out in the
Art Nouveau building around 7 pm. Fire officers have refused to speculate
about the cause, but arson has not been ruled out. The blaze destroyed
part of the building rented by the son of Social Democrat supporter
Václav Kočka, whose other son was shot dead last week. The Kočka
which holds the concession to run a fun-fair at Výstaviště, has in the
past been accused of having links to organised crime.
Prague’s mayor, Pavel Bém, said he would push for the complete renovation of the building. So far, damages have been estimated at between 800 million and 1 billion crowns, the equivalent of around 50 million US dollars. On Friday afternoon, the firm leasing the Výstaviště site, including the industrial palace, announced it had been insured for 2.5 billion crowns. The impressive steel-and-glass Výstaviště Industrial Palace officially opened in March 1891. In recent years the Art Nouveau palace and its grounds have again fulfilled their original purpose as a venue for exhibitions and trade-fairs, as well as cultural events.
In related news, the fire which destroyed part of the site on Thursday has raised questions about the future exhibiting of the Slav Epic, a famous series of paintings by the Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha. It has been planned that the paintings would be moved from their location of 45 years at Moravský Krumlov, in southern Moravia, and housed at the Křižík Pavilion in Prague. The pavilion on the exhibition grounds was undamaged by the blaze. But some have criticised the site as a poor choice on account of renovation needed and the fact that it lies in a flood-danger zone. Moravský Krumlov has made clear it will seek reassurances over the site; a contract over the Slav Epic has been negotiated between Prague and the Moravian town but has not yet been signed.
Czechs are going to the polls on Friday and Saturday in elections to
decide on almost all of the country’s regional assemblies and a third of
the seats in the Senate. A second round of voting will take place next
weekend in Senate elections in which no candidate takes more than 50
percent of the vote. The elections are being seen as a test for the
party in the coalition government, the Civic Democrats, who now control 12
of 13 regional assemblies and hold a Senate majority.
The coalition government faces a no-confidence vote next Wednesday.
Meanwhile, politicians casting their votes on Friday urged Czechs to take part in the voting process: Senate and regional elections in the Czech Republic traditionally have a lower voter turn out than parliamentary elections.
The government has sent a proposal for savings account guarantees of up to 50,000 euros to the Chamber of Deputies, aiming to see the bill passed as quickly as possible in light of the global financial crisis. The plan was approved by the government earlier this week. The opposition Social Democrats have said that they will recommend proceedings on the bill to be shortened to two days, but stressed they will push for the guarantee to be doubled to 100,000 euros. Earlier, the finance minister made clear the coalition was not against doubling the limit covered, but only if a number of EU states back-pedalled on blanket guarantees.
Prices on the Prague Stock Exchange slumped on Friday, pulling the headline index down by 10.20 percent to a four-year low of 842.8 points while other European equities gained ground in volatile trade. Coal miner NWR led the decline, shedding 20.58 percent. Czech bank Komerční banka, controlled by Societe Generale, fell by 17.75 percent, forcing the market to suspend trading at one point, while Austria's Erste Bank lost 15.16 percent.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Czech PM Mirek Topolánek will meet in Prague on Monday to discuss issues including the global financial crisis, the future of the Lisbon Treaty the Czech news agency ČTK has reported. Mrs Merkel will also meet with Czech President Václav Klaus and speak on the issue of politics at Prague's Charles University. It will be Mrs Merkel’s second visit to Prague as chancellor. During her first visit, she and her Czech counterpart discussed the European reform treaty - again the focus this time, its future uncertain after it was rejected by Irish voters. The Czechs have not yet ratified the document and are waiting for a Constitutional Court ruling that is to determine whether the treaty is at odds with the Czech constitution.
The number of suspects wanted for the hijacking of a transport truck on the Czech Republic’s D5 highway recently is almost certainly higher than originally reported, a police spokeswoman has said. The truck was hit for 6 million crowns’ worth of cigarettes by individuals posing as police officers and customs officials. Earlier reports had damages estimated at half that amount and said that only three men were involved in holding up the truck and off-loading its cargo into nearby vehicles. The suspects are at large. The case is the second of its type on the D5 in the last two years.
Czech forward Tomáš Fleischmann notched up one goal, one assist for the Washington Capitols in the team’s 4:3 win over Pittsburgh, helping turn around a game that already appeared lost. Fleischmann scored his team’s opener when the Caps were down 3:0 in the first two periods. In other hockey action, 32-year-old Florida Panthers goalie Tomáš Vokoun had a poor game against Minnesota. The goalie allowed four goals in two periods and was pulled by the team coach. Florida lost by a final score of 6:2.
Writer Milan Kundera has issued a statement, saying he was not given the chance to react to allegations he informed on someone nearly six decades ago, before the story was published by the Czech magazine Respekt. On Monday Respekt quoted a 1950 police record which says Mr Kundera reported the presence in Prague of a Czech-born foreign agent, leading to the man being sentenced to a long term in the uranium mines. For its part, the magazine says the world renowned author declined the opportunity to give his side of the story. Milan Kundera, who now lives in France, has described the allegations as lies. Meanwhile, literary historian Zdeněk Pešat has issued a statement saying Miroslav Dlask, a friend of the writer’s in his student days, admitted before his death that it was he who informed on the agent.