A two-day international conference is underway in Prague to mark the 10th anniversary of the country’s entry into NATO. The event is being staged in the Czech upper house, the Senate, with guests including the alliance’s current Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. The Czech Republic entered NATO on March 12, 1999, along with two other former Warsaw Pact members, Poland and Hungary. A poll by the STEM agency showed 73 percent of Czechs surveyed believe NATO entry was the right step to take. EU defence ministers are also meeting in the Czech capital on Thursday and Friday for informal talks.
During a meeting with NATO representatives in Prague President Václav Klaus said the alliance was one of the pillars of the free world and must remain the basis of European defence architecture. Mr. Klaus said that NATO had given the Old Continent 64 years of peace, had contributed to the end of the Cold War and had a new role to play in the 21st century.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said that along with international terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and energy security the Atlantic Alliance also faces the challenge of an increasingly self-assured Russia which did not hesitate to use force to defend its own interests in the closest neighbouring countries. The foreign minister said that NATO enlargement should not end with the accession of Croatia and Albania later this year. The question of NATO’s policy towards Russia has become one of the most debated issues at the conference with some delegates arguing that Russia should be invited to cooperate more closely with the alliance and treated as a partner and ally.
In a Czech Radio interview devoted to the NATO anniversary, the former Czech president Václav Havel said he believed the alliance should end at Russia’s borders, but he argued in favour of accepting Belarus and Ukraine if they were able to meet the respective criteria. The alliance must be defined both by common values and geographically – it cannot be extended forever, Mr. Havel said.
Close to five thousand farmers from a number of EU states gathered in Prague on Thursday for a massive protest against a two-track system of EU agricultural payments. Farmers from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Lithuania demonstrated against the fact they receive less than their counterparts from older EU member states. Some German and Austrian farmers also took part in the protest in a show of solidarity for what has been billed as the biggest protest by farmers in the last five years. The protest was called in a bid to push the EU into bringing forward the date for equal payments for farmers ahead of the current target of 2013.
The Interior Ministry has approved the registration of a new political entity – the Democratic Green Party. The party has emerged as a result of infighting within the Green Party of Martin Bursík, which recently lost close to half of its rank-and-file members following a confrontation between the party leadership and an opposition fraction. Mr. Bursík’s critics say he betrayed voters’ interests in return for political gains and accuse him of running the party in an undemocratic manner. The Democratic Green Party has over a thousand potential members and is expected to run in elections to the European Parliament.
An imprisoned Chinese intellectual and dissident has been given a prestigious human rights award as part of this year’s Jeden Svet, or One World, documentary film festival. Liu Xiaobo was named the winner of this year’s Homo Homini award at the festival in Prague on Wednesday night. He is one of the founder signatories of Charter 08, a manifesto criticising the Chinese government for violations of human rights, freedom of speech and environmental destruction. Liu Xiaobo was detained in December and is still being held without trial. The award, given yearly by the People in Need charity, was accepted by a fellow dissident who said Chinese dissenters had found inspiration in the former Czech president Václav Havel and the Czechoslovak dissident movement.
The 41-year-old Macedonian who shot dead four people last Saturday before turning the gun on himself is reported to have died of his injuries. The man forced his way into a restaurant where his ex-girlfiend’s father was celebrating his birthday and proceeded to shoot the girl, her new partner and both her parents in an act of revenge. All of them died on the spot. Reports say that he could not come to terms with the break-up and disputes over who should have custody of their two-year-old daughter.
A Czech court has handed a Polish football fan a four months suspended sentence for hooliganism. The young man was found guilty of endangering public safety when he threw a beer bottle from a moving train at a crowd of people. The bottle hit and slightly injured a police officer. The Polish national has been banned from attending football matches in the Czech Republic for a period of two years.
The Czech economy grew by 3.1 percent last year instead of the earlier predicted 3.5 percent, the Czech Statistical Office announced on Wednesday. If that figure holds, it would mean that economic growth nearly halved in 2008 from 2007’s 6.0 percent. The latest growth figure results from a revision of February’s estimate following new information from businesses and the government. The latest figures show how the financial crisis hit the economy at the end of the year. Economic growth in the last quarter of 2008 fell by 0.9 percent compared with the previous three months in what is the first quarterly fall since 1998.