The anti-corruption watchdog HlidaciPes.org says that companies in the Agrofert conglomerate of Finance Minister Andrej Babiš won public contracts to the tune of 35 billion crowns in the years between 2007 and 2016. According to the report, published on the organization’s web page, eight of the companies won a public tender for the first time only after Andrej Babiš became finance minister. Mr. Babiš is frequently under fire for conflict of interest, but claims that his companies are closely watched and any tenders won are won in fair and open competition.
Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has cautioned against jumping to conclusions regarding the newly-elected US president Donald Trump, saying that his election rhetoric and his real policy in office could be very different. Speaking to journalists on Thursday, Mr. Sobotka stressed the need to respect the outcome of the US election and take a pragmatic approach to the new US administration. He said he had already met with the US Ambassador Andrew Shapiro to assure him of the Czech Republic’s continued interest in maintaining close relations with the US.
Czech Radio has produced a photograph of the US ambassador to Prague, Andrew Shapiro, attending this year’s Czechoslovak Independence Day celebrations at Prague Castle, following President Zeman’s claim that he was one of the few diplomats who stayed away from the event. Mr. Shapiro’s presence at the ceremony in Prague Castle’s Vladislav Hall was also confirmed by the German Ambassador to Prague Arndt Freiherr Freytag von Loringhoven who sat next to him at the event. Relations between the president and US ambassador have been strained since the spring of 2015 when Ambassador Shapiro criticized the Czech head of state for attending V-Day celebrations in Moscow while other EU leaders boycotted the event in protest over Russia’s interference in Ukraine.
Justice Minister Robert Pelikan has said the process of acquiring electronic bracelets for the prison service could be concluded by February or March of next year. Delays in acquiring the bracelets have prevented judges from using the institution of house arrest in place of regular jail sentences. The prison service also wants to use the bracelets in order to facilitate the process of sending convicts to work outside of prisons. Experts are now in the process of testing the available technology.
The Slovak financial police have charged 32 people, including nine Czechs with large-scale tax evasion in trade with rebar. A network of companies from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia were reportedly involved in the scam which caused losses to the tune of hundreds of millions of crowns. Czech and Slovak police teams have been on the case since 2013. If the people charged are convicted of tax evasion they would face sentenced of between 7 and 12 years in prison.
The European Commission has opened an investigation to assess whether Czech Railways is not charging prices below costs with the aim of shutting out competition in rail passenger transport services in violation of EU anti-trust laws. EU Commissioner in charge of competition policy Margrethe Vestager said that while the Commission welcomes vigorous price competition to the benefit of passengers it is concerned that Czech Railways may have charged prices that are so low they could not cover the costs of the services provided. Czech Railways is the main railway operator in the Czech Republic and until 2011 it was the only rail company active on the Prague – Ostrava route. Following the arrival of rival companies RegioJet in 2011 and LEO Express in 2012 Czech Railways significantly decreased the prices it charged passengers.
The Czech Ministry of Environment starting accepting Thursday bids for projects to boost the roll-out of vehicles powered by clean alternative fuels. A total of 100 million crowns will be on offer for various projects aimed at curbing air pollution and noise pollution in cities, such as electric cars. Bids can be made until the end of March 2017.
A proposal by the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia to cut the VAT rate on newspapers has won backing in the lower house of parliament. The move to cut the current 15 percent rate to 10 percent was passed at first reading. It now goes to the upper house, the Senate. The move was initially opposed by the government, partly on the grounds that it would cut tax earnings by around 500 million crowns a year and also due to misgivings whether sales would rise. Finance Minister Andrej Babiš, the owner of two national newspapers, did not vote on the issue.
Around 100 Czech steelworkers took part in a demonstration in Brussels on Wednesday over a European Commission decision about China’s market status. A decision whether to recognise China as a market economy would make protective European measures against cheap Chinese steel imports much more difficult. Chinese imports have been stepped up because of the slowdown of the domestic economy. Czech steel workers say around 15,000 jobs, mostly at steel plants in the east of the country, as well as 45,000 jobs indirectly linked to the plants, are threatened. They also warn that the next steps in EU moves to penalise polluters could seriously damage the continent’s steel sector.