Archive for the ‘Czech Republic’ Category

The AWOL Czech President

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

This week started off with a commemorative occasion of note, at least if you live in the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Monday, 21 August, marked the 49th anniversary of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the broad-based Communist reform movement underway there known collectively as the Prague Spring.

OK, the 50th anniversary next year will presumably be a much bigger deal. But for remembering officially the event in those peoples’ political history which, in its long-standing trauma, probably corresponds to the 9/11 attacks in the US, at the least, every year’s 21 August is surely worth some official attention. But not from the Czech Republic’s President, Miloš Zeman, at least not this year: there was nothing from the Presidential Palace, no attendance at any ceremony, no statement.

Naturally, then, the State Radio’s news channel, Radiožurnál, wanted to find out how come. Gaining no access to Zeman himself (perhaps somewhat understandably), they turned to his official spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček.


The interview was brief, three questions, amounting to “Did the President express anything in relation to the 49th anniversary of the Occupation, and does he intend to do so going forward?” What it yielded was no so much obfuscatory as, frankly, outrageous. The President had already expressed himself on that subject, Ovčáček maintained, and that at least 47 years ago when he made it clear he was against the invasion and paid for his opinion by losing his job. And then check this:

In other words, the President bravely expressed himself during that period when it was no cheap thing to do so, [whereas] today the sort of people who opine on this sad anniversary are those who during Normalization [the period following the ’68 invasion] were satisfied with digging in to the gravy-train [CZ: chrochtali u koryta].

Now, Zeman is getting old, perhaps he momentarily forgot that he is, after all, President of the country.

And then: “Isn’t he going to return to the subject at future anniversaries?” “The President puts forth his views on this almost every day, when he speaks of how the Czech Republic must remain a sovereign nation” and bla bla bla . . .

It’s as if Zeman has no further obligation to have anything to do with that Warsaw Pact “brotherly assistance” simply because of how he is alleged to have behaved in the years immediately afterwards. Let’s take a quick look at what that behavior actually was; for this, I go to his page in the Czech Wikipedia. I know, the particular nature of that source is such that you never can discount someone with a political point to prove distorting what you find there, but still, there’s some interesting material. (more…)

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Star-Crossed Hungarian Beer

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

You surely know that one cannot simply draw or display a swastika (or, indeed, a handful of other Nazi-associated symbols) these days within Germany or Austria – the police will soon want to discuss the criminal offense you have just perpetrated. Others of Germany’s neighbors have enacted similar legislation. In fact, in legislation during the early nineties Hungary added to that list of forbidden Nazi-symbols the Arrow Cross, a similar-looking symbol which represented the fascist Arrow Cross Party (Nyilaskeresztes Párt) which took over Hungary late in World War II, with the help of the Germans, and was responsible for the greater part of victims sent from Hungary to the Nazi annihilation camps.

Gregor Martin Papucsek, Budapest correspondent for the Czech business-news site E15.cz, in his recent piece “Totalitarian Beer,” notes the curious exception to this ban, and it’s the one I show here: the red five-pointed star. That is still OK, even as we all know that it stands for Soviet Communism in general, and perhaps the Red Army in particular. God knows the Hungarians suffered for decades under the Soviet yoke, starting from 1944 when that Red Army first invaded from the East the territory of Nazi Germany’s firm ally, and thus were not inclined to moderate the destruction they caused, nor the reparations they exacted – nor the damage and casualties they inflicted during the ultra-violent 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

Wait, though: Others use the Red Star, too, including the giant Dutch brewer Heineken. They were apparently quick enough to seize the commercial opportunities opening up in Eastern Europe during those early nineties to grab a large foothold in Hungary, and in fact Heineken is still a major player in that market, selling a handful of local brands as well as importing beers from the outside. Papucsek’s piece even speaks of what has been known colloquially as the lex Heineken (Latin: Heineken Law), leaving the Red Star alone for the Dutch firm’s convenience.

Not any more, though, not as of a law the Hungarian parliament passed on Monday which added the Red Star to the prohibited list. So what happened?

According to Papucsek, Heineken overplayed their hand – in Romania. Romania?! Yes, but specifically in Székely-land, part of what is known in English as Transylvania, what amounts to mostly Hungarian ethnic land which just happens to belong to Romania (via various accidents of history we cannot go into here). For yet another beer liked to use the Red Star in its insignia, and that was the Transylvanian brand Igazi Csíki Sör (name translates to “True Beer from Csík,” which is one of the counties there). Last year Heineken filed suit in a Romanian court to forbid that brewer from using the Red Star in its insignia.

Given the strange way things work in this part of the world, when the Transylvanians need legal/political help they are more inclined to turn to Budapest – i.e. their fellow Hungarians – than to Bucharest. What’s more – and as we see here – Budapest politicians are generally inclined to respond.

How will Heineken react? Will Heineken react? I rather doubt it.

UPDATE: A piece from the leading Dutch business newspaper, Het Financiële Dagblad (behind paywall) reports towards late June that the European Commission, having looked into this matter of the Red Star, sees no reason to stop Hungary from banning it if the government there so desires. For the Hungarians suffered SO much under the Communists, you understand! (They did, but this is not at all about that; read the main blogpost.)

As for Heineken, they are still counting on contacts at the top political level to help resolve this situation in such a way that they can continue to use the graphic which, as they point out, has been their logo from the very beginning.

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“Most Intelligent American President”

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

Oh good, there are quality President Trump-jokes cropping up already.

britske_listy
You can click through, but it will be in Czech. Glad to translate:

The aircraft was about to crash. Four passengers remained on-deck, but there were only three parachutes. The first passenger said: “My name is Steph Curry, I’m the best basketball-player in the NBA. Millions of fans need me, I can’t allow myself to die.” He took the first parachute and jumped.

The second passenger, Donald Trump, said: “I am the newly elected American president and I am the most intelligent president in American history, my country doesn’t want me to die.” He took the second parachute and jumped out of the plane.

The third passenger, Pope Francis, said to the fourth passenger, a ten-year-old schoolboy: “My son, I am old and don’t have many more years before me, you have many more years to look forward to, so I will sacrifice my life and give you the third parachute.”

The boy answered: “It’s all right, Your Holiness, there is also a parachute here for you. The most intelligent American president took my schoolbag.”

This comes courtesy of the Britské listy, a sort of reverse-EuroSavant in that it’s apparent purpose is to report to Czechs interesting articles from the British press. Naturally, then, this joke originates somewhere from there, but Britské listy does not give any reference to exactly where. In effect, I have translated it back to its original English.

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A Troubling Failure to Explode

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Was it an April Fools joke? You would hope so; and this report from the official Czech ČTK news agency did come out yesterday:

Granaty
“Ministry of Defence wants 39 million [that’s CZK] back for allegedly faulty grenades.”

But no, it all seems serious. That said, the ČTK piece lags far behind a related one from the premier Czech newspaper Lidové noviny which provides many more vital details.

This all has to do with a 2009 contract to the Czech Army from the domestic firm Zeveta Bojkovice, a.s.*to deliver 3,000 “grenades,” actually meaning the explosive part delivered by an RPG personal anti-tank weapon. Several of these were found to be defective, and Zeveta has not been cooperative in its reaction. The Ministry of Defense started complaining back in 2011, but the firm has kept denying any defects and refusing any financial restitution, so that the affair has finally landed up in court. That Kč 39 million that the government is trying to win back amounts to around €1.4 million.

By itself, this sort of incident is not so surprising. Czech public procurement generally has gained an unsavoury reputation for mainly seeming to function to enrich insider businessmen, who deliver shoddy performance at high prices. The really interesting aspect here is that the Czechs discovered that this ammunition was faulty in Afghanistan, where back in 2010 they had a 700-man contingent under NATO.

That original ČTK piece just said “grenade,” which got me rather indignant; a hand grenade is a close-combat weapon whose failure to explode when expected easily results in serious consequences. But then I found out from Lidové noviny that this rather had to do with the RPGs. That’s a bit better, mainly because these are weapons that are meant to be fired at some range. Furthermore, given that the Taliban generally have no armored vehicles – i.e. the type of target one would expect to have to fire an RPG against in an emergency – these were likely generally fired under rather less urgent circumstances, probably against structures like buildings. One hopes that the defects discovered did not include any tendency for these munitions to actually explode when they were not supposed to. Still, even if we assume that – and even keeping in mind the rock-bottom Czech standard for government procurement – this sort of failure is deplorable.

* If you still are looking for a laughing matter, that link I provided previously was to the English version of the Zeveta Bojkovice website. This is the holding company that owns the ammunition firm, but anyway – what’s this appearing high-up on their homepage?

One can never capture every single moment in life. But it is possible to retain the moments which made it richer in some way, or just belong to the bright bits without which the colourful mosaic of the past years would not be complete…

For real! This is also no April Fool’s prank, I promise!

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US Army’s Wild Dragoon Ride

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

Throughout this past month NATO has been busy with its “Atlantic Resolve” set of military exercises in Poland and the Baltic states. These are something new, not occurring previously to the first such training deployments there starting last Spring, and, as is evident by the very name, are designed to bolster local morale in those lands against the increasing military misbehavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In fact, military exercises under the same name, also involving American troops (that’s sort of the point), are now getting started in Romania and Bulgaria, and supposedly will include Georgia in May, with US troops set to cross the Black Sea by ferry!

But there is also something else rather new about that Baltic “Atlantic Resolve” as well, now that it’s time for the US troops who trained there to head back to base.

konvoj
“American convoy stopped in Krakow and Warsaw.” This is truly remarkable, for American troops stationed in Europe generally return to their bases by train – and then usually in the middle of the night, since such transports have lowest priority on any local rail network. Still, and especially for the heavy equipment, that remains the best way to transport these units over long distances.

All that is thrown out the window for “Operation Dragoon Ride,” however, whereby 120 military vehicles and the US soldiers that serve them – from their unit markings it seems they are of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment – are currently making their 1,800 km way back from the Baltics to their base at Vilseck (Bavaria), Germany along the local highways and byways. This article in České noviny discusses how they are currently traversing Poland with, as mentioned, planned stops in Krakow and in Warsaw. In fact, in the latter city (Poland’s capital, of course) they visited the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. And that’s not all their itinerary in Poland: these troops also met up with the inhabitants of the town Drawsko Pomorskie, which only has 11,878 residents in the first place and is way up in northwest Poland, near the Baltic coast – but, you see, the town also is host to a major firing-range and NATO maneuver area just to its South. (more…)

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Where’s the Fuel?

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

Strange news from out of the Czech Republic, where it seems around 5.5 million liters (= 3,594 barrels) of oil from the state strategic reserve has just disappeared, according to Dagmar Klimovičová at Hospodářské noviny.

Nafty
It appears the Czech government subcontracted the task of managing its strategic reserve to Viktoriagruppe AG, a German company headquartered in Munich. That was its first mistake; allowing Viktoriagruppe to take part of that reserve outside of the Czech Republic was its second.

The Viktoriagruppe company . . . has not been able to explain reasonably since 23 September where 5.5 million liters of this material has gone to from its German storage facilities at Krailling [just outside of Munich]. Rather, it has been firing employees as it faces legal proceedings from Czech and German customs and financial authorities.

Viktoriagruppe also runs oil storage facilities for the Czech strategic reserve – for now – at three separate sites within the Czech Republic. Not surprisingly, that state petroleum reserve company (known as ČEPRO) is now busy having the oil Viktoriagruppe stores there – 15 million liters of it, or 94,347 barrels – transferred to other facilities under ČEPRO’s direct control; that, together with doing the same with the remaining oil stored in Germany, is now “our primary interest” according to under-fire ČEPRO head Pavel Švager.

That oil still in Germany, according to this piece, is “many times more” than the 15 million liters ČEPRO is seizing back from Viktoriagruppe’s Czech facilities; journalist Klimovičová understandably won’t give the precise figure since, even though no doubt such a figure exists somewhere in the books, the real one won’t be known until the comprehensive audit of just how much Viktoriagruppe is holding there in Krailling for the Czech Republic is complete.

This isn’t the first such run-in ČEPRO has had with Viktoriagruppe, writes Klimovičová: just last summer there was another discrepancy, of around 700 million liters, discovered during another audit of the latter’s German holdings of the Czech reserve. Viktoriagruppe officials tried to blame the shortfall on losses due to the transport and storage processes, but ended up paying a CZK 500,000 (€17,960) fine anyway.

The larger issue though, of course, is that of storing one’s national “family jewels” on foreign soil, and therefore outside of direct national control. Perhaps it’s something to be avoided, whenever possible, as the Czechs are finally finding out now.

At least we are not talking here about the analogous case of the national gold supply: it is true that many countries have theirs stored outside their borders, for various historical reasons, at places like New York (mainly at the New York Fed) and London. I don’t know whether that applies to the Czech national gold supply; who knows what happened to it between Nazi and Soviet occupations of the country last century, and in any case what was left of it presumably was split with Slovakia during the “Velvet Divorce” at the beginning of 1993. The good news here – while also bad news – is that that petroleum reserve is now steadily dropping in value anyway, what with the recent fall in oil prices worldwide.

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Cracking Down on Business-As-Usual

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

This came recently out of left field, or specifically from the Czech on-line news agency Aktuálně.cz. It might foreshadow something big; or it could mean nothing.

Egypt_podezira
“Egypt accuses Obama and European politicians of espionage. Investigation is said already to have begun.”

“Espionage”? How so? The piece continues:

. . . they are said to have commissioned agents to inform them on the political situation in Egypt ahead of the presidential election. The spies were supposedly to deliver information to secret services in Germany, USA [sic], Israel and Britain.

I can tell you already: these accusations are true! These “agents” have already been in place for a long time. For one thing, they can easily be found at any of the embassies of the countries named. Far from simply making available a local official country representative (“ambassador”) to call when needed, such diplomatic offices routinely see it as their additional mission to gather information about the host country for the benefit of their governments back home – and one would think that Egypt’s presidential election, due to be held on the 26th and 27th of this month, is naturally of prime interest. (more…)

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Putin: Banish Smurfs into Exile!

Monday, May 5th, 2014

It’s the military clashes in eastern Ukraine that are deservedly getting all the media attention now, those between the Ukrainian “neo-fascist nazi’s” on the one hand and those pro-Russian “terrorists” on the other. But there is at the same time an undercurrent of reports about how Russian society itself has recently changed, and how it is changing as Vladimir Putin whips up war-fever to rally his citizens around his authoritarian rule.

It’s often very ugly, such as with the website that has been set up to list publicly the Russian Federations greatest “traitors” – check it out, the very URL (http://predatel.net) is the transliteration of the Russian word for “traitor” (предател). No surprise, at the top of the list you’ll find the anti-corruption blogger and Moscow mayor also-ran (but barely) Alexei Navalny, currently under house arrest and prohibited from communicating with anyone (including via Internet) other than his family.

But this can take a turn to the ludicrous as well:

Putin_noSmurfs
From the Czech Television website: “In the service of ideology. Putin wants to forbid the Smurfs.” (Šmouly – that’s “Smurfs” in Czech. I don’t know what their name is in Russian – reader tips are welcome! UPDATE: And they have arrived! It’s Смурфики.)

Of course, it’s not actually Putin himself. It’s rather the Russian Education Ministry which has proposed banning the Smurfs from Russian TV as “damaging to youth,” but Putin has given this his blessing. And that’s not all: other series such as South Park and the Simpsons are likely to be under similar review soon. (more…)

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Gross Metamorphosis

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Imagine being only 34 years old, yet hobnobbing with European heads-of-state, even with the American president, as an equal. This man lived that dream. (Even today he is only 44 years old – still looking pretty spry there, yes?)

SGross
That’s the “Grosse” (-> “Gross”) there, Stanislav Gross, premier of the Czech Republic for the ČSSD Social Democratic Party for roughly nine months from August 2004 to the end of April 2005. It’s remarkable to climb so high at such a young age, yet it was also reflective of Czech society at the time. First as Czechoslovakia, then as the Czech Republic, the country was suddenly thrust into the modern Western world with the “Velvet Revolution” of late 1989, and there immediately arose a sharp dichotomy between those coming to adulthood before and those after that turning-point. The former were largely considered much too tainted by forty years of Soviet-type attitudes – “they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work,” and the like; those of literary bent are referred here to the early works of Milan Kundera – to be much use in the new, real worlds of business and politics, so that the short history of the Czech Republic is already replete with many amazing tales of very young people with very great responsibilities. Stanislav Gross in 2004 was merely the tip of that pyramid. (more…)

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East Gas? West Best!

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

It seems Russian troops – even though they (mostly) are not yet labeled as such – are in the Crimea to stay. Reclaiming that strategic peninsula for Ukraine would require the use of force, something no state outside of the Ukraine is willing to contemplate, and before which even Ukraine authorities themselves should hesitate due to the risk of thereby only losing more of their territory.

What the West is left with is proceeding with a deliberate worsening of relations with Vladimir Putin’s regime as punishment: denying him the chance to get yet more mileage out of his $51 billion Sochi reconstruction by staging a G8 summit there, for instance. But the unfortunate problem is that, to a great extent, this can turn out to be self-defeating as the West needs Russia just as Russia needs the West.

Anyone who follows international affairs regularly can name two vital areas right off the bat for which that is true: Iran and Syria. For the former, the West seems very close to achieving a remarkable deal that will safeguard against any nuclear weapons ambitions Iran might have – but one for which Iran’s willingness has been predicated upon united political and economic pressure from the West and from Russia. As for Syria, the regime there is already behind on the schedule for the elimination of its chemical weapons that Russia did quite a lot to help draw up.

(Now, this NYT piece claims that Syria is ready to try to speed things up to try to make up lost ground – but the article is dated March 4. Returning to Russia’s potential reluctance for any more international cooperation, there are always those inspections that Putin, in good times, ordinarily consents to undergo in relation to various arms-control treaties.)

Then there are the more tangible things – like natural gas. (OK, it’s a gas, but still slightly more tangible than a pure concept such as “arms control.”) Plenty of European countries are still dependent on gas supplies from Russia, piped through the Ukraine. And so we get this:

V4 Czech
I know, that must seem at first sight like some confused jumble. “V4,” for example: what’s “V4”?* That is shorthand for the “Visegrad 4,” itself a shorthand for the Central European countries Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. And what the governments of those countries have done is think ahead a bit in light of this new geopolitical confrontation with Putin. (more…)

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“It’s you!” At The Russian Games

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

“It’s not us – it’s you!” That’s the official Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics line they take on the latest hitch that has arisen, as reporter Jules Seegers reports in the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad:

NRC_Sochi_itsyou
The Games have finally started, as you well know, meaning that there are now scheduled athletic events – meaning people get to turn up to see them. The problem is that too many are failing to do so: 92% of event tickets have been sold (that number itself is a separate issue worth discussing), but so far only 81% of those ticket-holders have attended the events they had paid to see.

How can that be? I mean, that’s why they traveled to that God-forsaken sub-tropical town on the shores of the Black Sea in the first place! It’s hard to think of any on-site distractions that could have diverted their attention elsewhere – OK, maybe some might have found themselves locked in their bathrooms, but you have to presume that would have affected only a few.

To Games spokeswomen Alexandra Kosterina, the cause is clear: a “problem with the Russian mentality,” by which she means too many people think they can show up at events just at the last minute! Don’t they realize that there are all sorts of security formalities to take care of before one can be admitted?

First of all, it’s curious how she paints all spectators – Russian and non-Russian – with that “Russian mentality.” (Surely there are some Germans there, too, for example.) Nonetheless, she is probably correct in pinpointing the problem: as Seegers points out here, visitors are checked “several times” before being granted admission, and an accurate awareness of the necessary measures to take in response (analogous to “Be sure to show up to the airport at least three hours before your flight!”) no doubt is only slowly taking hold. Still, this “We don’t have a problem, it’s you that has the problem!” attitude is what is notable to me, even though we’ve already had the occasion to see it here at Sochi. “It’s not us – it’s you!”: There’s your true motto for these Olympic Games!

Olympic Cover-Up

Then there is also this. Remember, we all live in a Brand, Brand World – and Samsung is part of that world when it comes to the Olympic Games, both for the Sochi Winter Games as well as for both Summer and Winter Games in the past.

Sochi_Samsung_iPhone
While it may be true that these benevolent Korean executives believe so strongly in sport, they definitely believe in spreading the Samsung name worldwide. The Olympics offer a great opportunity to do that, and for these Winter Games the company has gone all-out to support its latest phone version, even including one in each “goody bag” handed out to all the participating athletes. (The Mladá fronta dnes article to which that Zpravy tweet links even says the ones they gave the Czech team came in the Czech national colors.)

That’s the good part; the bad part is that Samsung doesn’t want to see at Sochi any phones from competing brands, which did not pay for Olympic rights. Now, they have not been granted dictatorial powers to ban any competing mobile phones from the Games (although, in this Russian context, such a measure is surely not unimagineable). Just what they have been allowed to do is still somewhat unclear, but it seems to have extended to at least making any athletes who do carry iPhones tape over the Apple logos durig the opening ceremonies.

Again, that’s the athletes – and hey, they’re getting new Samsung phones for free! – not any spectators. And the MFD piece further links to an English-language Slashgear article for corroboration.

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Doomed from the Start

Monday, January 27th, 2014

SobotkaBohuslav Sobotka: this 42-year-old fellow (to the left) is going to be the new Czech Prime Minister as of this upcoming Wednesday, and you can read a fairly good introduction to the man in the GlobalPost (via Agence France-Presse). Yes, in the Czech Republic top politicians are often quite young – public personalities above a certain age are often discredited by what they did during the bad old days – and it’s good to get the political scene there somewhat back to normal, after a 2013 that saw a caretaker PM in place whom nobody wanted, after the previous head of government had to resign in a corruption scandal.

From that GlobalPost piece we learn things about Sobotka such as that he likes science fiction and is even said to have a sweet tooth. Yet a couple of passages strike a strange tone: “known for being short on charisma but long on integrity” or his declaration in an interview “I would like politics to be a bit more matter-of-fact in the future.”

Specifically, these things sound rather odd to anyone who has followed The Fleet Sheet’s Final Word (a free, English- or Czech-language, Monday-through-Thursday daily comment on Czech politics) for any length of time. There, Bohuslav Sobotka has long been known as “Suitcase Sobotka,” an indication of his preferred method of accepting illegal money – in the past, at least, such as when he served as the Czech Republic’s Finance Minister from 2002 to 2006 under three successive Social Democratic prime ministers.

Is this the same guy? He is! A rather ominous sign for his own prime minstership, one would think. And one would think correctly, as we read in today’s Final Word:

By our count, three Czech PMs have left office as a direct result of some sort of financial scandal (Václav Klaus, Stanislav Gross [under whom Sobotka was Finance Minister], Peter Nečas [the last properly-elected PM before Sobotka]). What sets new PM Bohuslav Sobotka apart from these three, as well as from the other seven Czech PMs, is that a potential financial scandal is hanging over him before he takes office.

The exact nature of that scandal is unimportant here. (You can read further if you’re curious.) The point, basically, is that the Czech Republic is a rather corrupt place, and its citizens know it, which results in a constant stream of new “reform” parties emerging at elections claiming to want to do something about that. The latest is “ANO 2011” (ano in Czech means “yes”), founded and dominated by the Czech Republic’s second-richest man, Andrej Babiš, who of course is in line to become Sobotka’s Finance Minister.

It’s a sad situation. But at least you can realize that this new Czech government is destined to no good end. And you read it in the Final Word – or, at least, here – first.

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Come On & Take A Free Ride

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Free public transportation: there’s a Socialist idea if ever there was one, but it’s a concept that is being tried out at an ever-expanding list of European towns. One of the latest examples – and probably most prominent, since it is after all a national capital – is in Tallinn, Estonia, where city trams and buses have been free for around three months now, as we see from Czech Business News:

V Tallinnu je MHD už čtvrt roku zdarma, město si to chválí: Estonské hlavní město Tallinn před tř… http://t.co/RxuMgp06e9 #czech #news

@cznews

Czech Business News


Free to those registered as having a permanent residence within Tallinn, that is: not for those just visiting. So it seems you still have to check in at some ticket-punching or RFID chip-reading apparatus while boarding, it’s just that you’ll get the tickets/chip-cards you need for free if you’re a city resident. Others have to buy them – but don’t worry, you can use your regular euros to do that, Estonia has been in the Eurozone for over two years now!

(Be sure to save a 1- or 2-euro piece or two as a souvenir for the unique Estonia image on the reverse side! OK, it’s just a map of the country, but it’s different!)

As the piece reports, yearly spending on public transport amounts to around €12 million, but this scheme does tend to flush out those who can be regarded as city permanent residents – and so can otherwise be taxed – but just have not been up to now. Plus there are the other more-obvious effects: ridership up 10%, traffic on main city arteries down 15%.

As it turns out, if you’re curious about this urban experiment but don’t read Czech (or don’t want to put up with Google Translate’s version), the Washington Post recently offered its own coverage.

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Unfriendly Presidential Send-Off

Monday, March 4th, 2013

[Please note the correction added at the end of this blogpost.]

Now here’s a tweet you don’t see every day! It has to do with Václav Klaus, now the former President of the Czech Republic, but it’s not just about his departure from that office:

CN: Senát má rozhodnout, zda podá na Klause žalobu pro velezradu #klaus #senat #amnestie http://t.co/ebQLBOWPP8: http://t.co/yhHmp4QGPn

@Zpravy

Zpravy


Velezradu: “treason.” So that’s “Senate must decide whether to charge Klaus with treason.”

“What’s that all about!” you might ask. It is a pretty poor good-bye present, don’t you think? Why couldn’t the Senate just have handed the ex-President a nice necktie, or maybe a gold pen?

But OK, this is fairly easy to explain in an American context, for those out there with long-enough memories. You might recall that the dying days of the Clinton Administration, back in early 2001, were rather by the ridiculous pardons Bill Clinton started handing out, most especially to Marc Rich, the financier who had made sure he was out of the country when he was indicted by the IRS for tax evasion.

Well, Václav Klaus did much the same thing as the end of his presidential term started to come within sight.around last New Year’s Day. He issued a wide series of pardons which mainly went – in a similar manner to Marc Rich, funnily enough – to businessmen guilty of abusing the Czech Republic’s system of “coupon privatization” for disposing of State-owned properties back in the 1990s, by “tunneling” many of those companies, i.e. systematically stealing their assets, sucking them dry, then escaping to foreign lands with well-stocked Swiss bank accounts. It’s no coincidence that by far the major actor involved in getting coupon privatization going was then-Premier Václav Klaus.

(OK, the České noviny report that you get when you click through the link in the abovre tweet also says that the Senate has also charged him with further harming the Czech national interest by refusing to sign duly-ratified laws that he didn’t like – for example, the EU’s Lisbon Treaty – and by paralyzing the country’s court system by refusing to nominate any new justices for a whole year.)

Well, it’s the justices of the Czech Republic’s Supreme Court which now get to preside over an impeachment trial:

Senát schválil ústavní žalobu na Václava Klause. Z 68 přítomných senátorů pro žalobu hlasovalo 38, proti 30.

@iDNES_vyber

Zprávy iDNES.cz


Right, the vote among Senators was 38 in favor, 30 against. This probably isn’t about Klaus actually ever going to jail, though. Just as elsewhere, impeachment is mainly a matter of removing a sitting President who can be shown to have violated the law in a serious way. Conveniently, the Senate waited until Klaus had already left office – but he still stands to lose the payments he is still due from being President (e.g. his pension, though he has other pensions) if he is convicted.

BTW that same article has an instant mini-poll to the side showing 69% approving of the impeachment. Those numbers might change by the time you access that page later.

So Václav Klaus, second President of the Czech Republic, is not just going to fade away into the sunset; the Senate won’t let him. Things could get exciting!

P.S. Apologies that the IDNES tweet above announcing the result of the Senate impeachment vote did not have the usual link within it to allow you to go look at a Czech-language article. But let’s give IDNES (= the on-line paper of the Czech Republic’s biggest non-tabloid daily, Mladá fronta dnes) a bit of a break, they’ve had a hard time:

České zpravodajské servery čelí druhé vlně počítačových útoků. Weby iDNES.cz tak mohou být opět problematicky dostupné. Situaci řešíme.

@iDNES_vyber

Zprávy iDNES.cz


That’s right, they’ve been hacked! There’s a lot of that going around among news organizations these days. Should you desire to access their website, it might not be working quite yet.

CORRECTION: Klaus has not yet left the Czech Presidency, his last day is 7 March 2013. So the Senate’s action has caught him in the last days of his term. Naturally, there is hardly enough time to resolve the treason charges during his remaining time in office, so this impeachment cannot have the effect of removing him as president.

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Slovaks On the Move

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

Geography buffs find particularly interesting places in the world where major urban centers come close together but under different jurisdictions: the greater New York City metropolis, say, or the Liège-Maastricht-Aachen area in NW Europe. But there is one other that is more interesting even than these, featuring major urban centers once divided by the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, and that is the Vienna-Bratislava area along the Danube. (Which, if you enlarge it even further, also includes the Hungarian city of Mosonmagyaróvár – OK, we’ll forget about that one for now . . .)

Indeed, a major Bratislava residential area known as Petržalka (to the south, and infamous for its very many drab panelák Communist pre-fab high-rise apartment buildings, still there today) has for years crowded right up to the line beyond which no one was allowed to be seen, lest they be shot. Ever since that regime fell in 1989, travelers heading to Bratislava on the bus from Vienna’s Schwechat airport (e.g. your humble blogger) have still found it remarkable the way the villages and fields lying to that city’s east abruptly give way to crowds of buildings once you cross the border.

But now there is no more “border” – that part of the world is now in the EU’s Schengen Area. Slovaks are no longer constrained, and so now they’re breaking out::

Novinky: Bratislavané se stěhují do Maďarska a Rakouska: http://t.co/8XyLzZ69

@Zpravy

Zpravy


“Bratislavans are moving to Hungary and Austria,” it reads. Yes: “moving,” as in “house.” This article – and note, it’s on a Czech news website – mainly discusses Slovak settlement in two neighboring places, namely the Austrian village of Wolfsthal – which you ride through on that airport bus – and the Hungarian town of Rajka, in the other direction but still only about 20km from Bratislava.

Hasicom
As recently as 2007, there were only three Slovaks in Wolfsthal, out of a population of around 720; now it’s 230 Slovaks making up a population of 900. The mayor, Gerhard Schödinger, certainly speaks Slovak – he has a Slovak wife! (And he used to be an Austrian customs official, back when there was a border.) As we can see, he also makes sure that the public signs dotting this Austrian town are bilingual German/Slovak. The Slovaks living there like it mainly because, well, everything is so German – “It’s peaceful here,” says one, “with beautiful Nature, order and safety in the streets” – but also because the Austrian government offers great social welfare benefits, topped off by easily-attainable and cheap loans of up to €50,000 for home improvement. (more…)

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In a Bit of a Jam

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Are you in or headed towards the Czech Republic, but still looking forward to your marmalade at breakfast time? Sorry, that’s probably not possible:

iDnes: Marmeláda se nevrátí, Unie odsoudila Česko k rosolu a džemu: Marmeláda se do regálů českých obchodů hned … http://t.co/6FXkUxdZ

@Zpravy

Zpravy


But don’t despair: it depends on what you call “marmalade,” as we learn from a recent article from Mladá fronta dnes. The European Commission is quite strict about what it allows to be called marmalade. That is one of the EU’s protected food designations – like “champagne” or “Parma ham” – so the Commission has demanding requirements: “marmalade” must at all times be made only of citrus fruits, and must have at a minimum 20% of actual fruit content.

A certain Czech foods company called Hamé realized it was about to get into trouble (e.g. incur fines) for calling some of its fruity breakfast-spread concoctions “marmalade” and so filed an appeal to be allowed an exception. That was rejected; the choices for the label are to be only “jam” (džem) or jelly (rosol). But it might still be what you yourself regard as “marmalade”; you’ll have to examine the label – yes, it will be in Czech, so instead just take the plunge and purchase a likely-looking jar and go home and see!

So now the Czech public can savor – if they haven’t had the chance before – the sort of laughable instance of EU interference in their everyday lives that people in older member-states have been complaining about for years. The thing is, that’s precisely the wrong audience, given the pronounced anti-EU attitudes already prevailing among many leading Czech politicians, notoriously headed by President Václav Klaus himself.

Finally, I mentioned that the Commission was “quite strict” about its protected designations, but that’s not quite true, even in the case of “marmalade”: in Denmark, Greece and Austria you can find products with that designation which do not meet the citrus fruit/20% content requirement. But that’s because the respective governments were careful to get their marmalade exemptions as their countries were becoming member-states, i.e. back when they had a little more leverage. The Czech authorities didn’t think of that back in 2004 when the Czech Republic entered the EU – they were busy defending designations a bit closer to home, like slivovice, a potent fruit-based alcohol.

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My Big Fat Greek Kludge

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

ELSTAT: you know, it’s surprising this acronym is not better-known within the context of the economic crisis that has been raging since (roughly) 2008. And I mean in a negative sense, the way names such as Lehmann Bros., Goldman Sachs, Royal Bank of Scotland, Northern Rock, etc. now call up unpleasant associations among most economic observers.

For ELSTAT is the abbreviation (from the Greek) for the “Hellenic Statistical Authority,” the Greek government’s official statistical agency. If you are of the view that Greece never belonged in the Eurozone in the first place – and many are, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy – then ELSTAT is your villain, as it was the false statistics it submitted in the 2000-2002 time-frame which led Greece to be admitted into the club when it was not ready, and may never have been. Similarly, ELSTAT was involved back in late 2009 when Georgios Papandreou won the national elections and became Greek prime minister, only to announce shortly thereafter that his country’s fiscal situation was way worse than he, the EU, and the general public had been led to believe (by ELSTAT) – and that was what kicked off the long-running Greek sovereign debt imbroglio which even last Monday’s deal with the “troika” (EU, ECB and IMF) has surely not definitively solved.

Anyway, there’s a new ELSTAT scandal now, and Dirk Elsner over at @blicklog tips us off:

Staatsanwaltschaft erhebt Vorwurf, dass Griechenlands Staatsdefizit 2009 auf EU-Druck zu hoch angesetzt wurde http://t.co/dG4DPUPY

@blicklog

Dirk Elsner


There’s also an article to the same effect in the Czech press, spotted by @Zpravy:

tiscali.cz: Řecký parlament bude šetřit údajné “nafukování” údajů o deficitu: http://t.co/NgrpIbe0

@Zpravy

Zpravy


What is going on? Well, once again ELSTAT’s numbers are said to be in error, and that for a political purpose. This time, however, you can say that the alleged fraud is in the opposite direction: numbers not falsified to fool outsiders, but rather to fool the Greeks themselves! The Athens public prosecutor now asserts that the Greek budget figures were actually exaggerated back at the end of 2009 – just after Papandreou had taken office – and this at the request of the EU. Specifically, the EU wanted to see a budget deficit figure of 15.4% – and duly got it – rather than the 12% which was reality. Why? For ammunition to use to browbeat the Greeks into the tough austerity measures they passed/started to pass then.

A Greek parliamentary committee is going to look into this. For now, the suspicion remains that ELSTAT is an agency not to be trusted by anyone, whether on the home or the visiting team. There is also sure to be an additional, unpleasant political effect if the Greek electorate starts to feel it was misled into adopting the painful budget/pension/wage cuts the government undertook to mollify the EU and to deal with its fiscal situation.

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Petition Factories

Monday, January 9th, 2012

The next Russian election, the one that will inevitably elevate Vladimir Putin back to the presidency, is not until next March, but from a Czech source we see the political machine is already hard at work.

tiscali.cz: Předvolební kampaň na ruského prezidenta má první skandál: http://t.co/QasPJgmv

@Zpravy

Zpravy


“Preliminary campaign for Russian president has its first scandal.” Yes, it’s scandalous, if not quite entirely straightforward, as explained in the accompanying article about the discovery made by opposition activists in Moscow of the wholesale fabrication of signature-petitions being perpetrated in local universities. (more…)

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Not So Isolated

Friday, December 9th, 2011

It’s the make-or-break EU summit, going on now within the cavernous Justus Lipsius European Council building in the Brussels European Quarter. Will what issues from this conference be enough to save the euro?

The answer to that remains up in the air, as the summit continues into the weekend. What we do already know, however, is that an important split has occurred within the EU, resulting from the failure of German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy to have accepted by all 27 member-states their proposals for greater national budget control and coordination. Now the action on that front has shifted to the group of 17 member-states who actually use the euro.

The excellent “Charlemagne” commentator from the Economist has already termed this development Europe’s great divorce, in an article (in English, of course) featuring at its head a picture of the defiant-looking British PM David Cameron pointing an aggressive finger towards the camera. And indeed, this one and many other press reports from the summit would have their readers believe that the UK is isolated in its stand of resistance against those “Merkozy” proposals for greater EU power over national budgets. That is certainly also the message from the authoritative German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, where an analytical piece from Michael König is rather dramatically entitled Bulldog Cameron bites the British into isolation.

But such observers should be careful about rushing into any over-hasty conclusions. They should remember that a number of other member-states share an attitude towards the EU rather closer to that of the UK than Germany or France. The Czech Republic, for instance:

iDnes: Klaus a Telička schvalují rozvážnost v Bruselu, ČSSD varuje před izolací: Prezident Václav Klaus označil … http://t.co/Qh043Qmm

@Zpravy

Zpravy


(more…)

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“Mice Legs-Down”

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Bush – remember him? George Bush the Younger, I mean. There’s a strange story about him out now, picked up by @Zpravy (why hasn’t it gained wider circulation?):

prvnizpravy.cz: Bushovi krátce po 11. září řekli, že byl otráven: Exprezident George W. Bush dostal několik týdn… http://t.co/W5VNMsuY

@Zpravy

Zpravy


I’ll translate the part before the colon (the part after is incomplete anyway): “Shortly after 9/11 they told Bush he had been poisoned.”

Yes! And we get more details in the article referenced in that tweet, from tiscali.cz. This all comes from the interviews former National Security Advisor/Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is now doing to push her memoirs. In particular, this story is from an interview she recently did with ABC News – the American, not Australian, one presumably.

Apparently there were serious fears that the White House had been contaminated in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks with botulin toxin – that’s right: Botox! – which, when not being used to smooth over face-wrinkles, is also one of the most deadly toxins known in nature. During a trip Bush made to attend an APEC summit in Shanghai, the jolly face of Vice President Dick Cheney, back in Washington, came up on the video-conference screen to say that Botox had been detected at the White House and all who worked there were going to die. “What’s that? [CZ: Cože?] What’s that, Dick?” was Bush’s first response.

Of course, this needed to be checked out at the laboratory, where several lab mice were infected with the White House material. As her aid Steven Hadley then advised Rice: “Let me put it to you this way. If those mice are legs-up, we’re done for. If they are legs-down, we’re OK.” Naturally, after a tense 24 hours of waiting – all while carrying on with the summit as if nothing was wrong – Bush was whispered the message “Mice are legs-down,” no doubt mystifying the eavesdropping Chinese over the Americans’ new code system, but leaving the American delegation hugely relieved.

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Restoring Tank Dignity

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Ah yes, the Pink Tank. It’s one of the foremost icons recognizable to anyone interested in Czechoslovakia’s throwing-off of Soviet rule in the 1989 wave of Eastern European revolutions. True, the events that made this war-chariot famous (by making it pink) did not happen until about a year-and-a-half after the actual Velvet Revolution, but they unquestionably represented a deliberate snub to the Russians.

We’ve had occasion before on this blog to discuss the maverick Czech artist, David Černý, whose rosy re-christening of the Russian IS-2 tank that used to stand on Soviet Tankers’ Square in Prague made him famous, but that was in the context of one of his later (but just as wacky) artistic works. Anyway, the focus now is on the tank itself: whatever became of it? Lidové noviny provides the answer, via the Czech Twitter-news service Zpravy:

Lidovky: Růžový tank přebarvíme, plánují ruští kozáci: http://t.co/oazjtJzQ

@Zpravy

Zpravy


“The pink tank we will paint another color, plan some Russian cossacks.” Yes, citizens of the Russian city of Chelyabinsk (in Siberia, just east of the Urals) – including members of the “Cossack Tank Brigade” stationed there – are taking up a collection to re-paint it to another “special” color, presumably closer to the green of its original military purpose. They have also paid for a special plaque, listing WWII veterans’ names from the Chelyabinsk area, that they are asking the Czech government to place in front of that tank. It’s no longer at the square (now known as Kinsky Square), by the way – it was moved to become part of the collection of Prague’s Military Museum, and a series of six photos accompanying the article show the tank (still pink, and with what looks like a snorkel on top lending it a certain priapic aspect) being moved across the Vltava River that bisects the Czech capital.

David Černý, by the way, has no problem with any of this. His only question is whether the Chelyabinsk cossacks would like to hire him to re-paint the tank, or whether they’re just going to send some other Russian artist of their choice to Prague to do the job. Does he really need the money – or was he joking?

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A European Crisis Glossary

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

Amid all the brouhaha about S&P downgrading its rating for US Government debt, the parallel ongoing crisis in Europe should not be forgotten. “Crisis”? Take it away, Nouriel:

Definition of “crisis”: when officials need to huddle up on a weekend before Asia opening to take decisions & do statements a turmoil rages

@Nouriel

Nouriel Roubini


The Czech daily Mladá fronta dnes, as caught by the @Zpravy Twitter-feed, has the details on this particular edition:

iDnes: Lídři EU chtějí rychle realizovat závěry summitu. Uklidní tak trhy: Vlády musí urychleně dokončit dohody … http://bit.ly/oLaqvt

@Zpravy

Zpravy


Turns out, if you like, that you can blame everything on European vacation syndrome (e.g. “No one touches my August holiday!”): EU leaders want to quickly carry out changes from summit, that way they’ll calm markets is the headline here.

  • “Summit”? That’s the one they just had, of course, an extraordinary convening in Brussels on July 21 in reaction to the Italy/Spain funding troubles.
  • “Changes”? That has to do with the European Financia Stability Facility (EFSF), which leaders at that summit agreed would be beefed up to better be able to intervene to assist eurozone member-states in financial need, eventually even becoming a sort of European Monetary Fund.

(more…)

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Czech Police Dum-Dums

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Pssssssst – looking to wreak some mayhem? Maybe a stag-party the likes of which has ever been seen? Well, turns out the police in the Czech Republic are running seriously short of ammunition for the 9mm handguns. This bit of helpful information has just recently been revealed . . . by Mladá fronta dnes (on-line idnes.cz), merely the top-circulation mainstream newspaper in the whole country!

Police having a hard time loading pistols, are sharing out last supplies
The police are struggling with a shortage of 9mm ammunition, which is fired by the service-pistols of practically every officer of the law. Police commanders assert that a disturbance in the procurement procedure is at fault and that they’re already preparing a new one. Meanwhile well-supplied police agents are sharing with those having trouble with their supplies.

So go ahead, head on over there, find some outlet ready to sell/rent you some firearms (harder than in the US, but by no means impossible), and go to town: you’ll surely out-gun the local authorities. Especially after you realize, along with me, that that picture of a well-filled box of ammo at the top of the on-line article indicates no relief: those are military rifle-grade rounds, not pistol ammunition.

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Big Brother at the Football Match

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Allow me to bring up an interesting article, plucked from my incoming Twitter-feed, that has languished a while among my bookmarks. It’s from the website of Ekonom, the weekly economy/business magazine affiliated with the leading Czech business newspaper Hospodářské noviny; entitled How Hooligans Are Caught, it describes an episode of Czech export success of a quite unexpected sort, from a firm with the rather funny name (even in Czech) of Integoo – namely providing anti-hooligan security at football stadiums.

I suppose what Integoo is selling fairly describes every stadium-manager’s dream, as this security system has at its core a combination of video-cameras and software that enables fairly precise facial recognition. Most soccer/football clubs these days (at least in the Western world) operate on the basis of “club cards” or “season tickets” held by their established set of fans, who are expected to attend a majority of games, with only limited tickets for each match left over for casual visitors. So when you apply to get your club card, you have to provide a photograph of yourself; that then enables the Integoo security system, when someone tries to go past the stadium turnstiles for a match, to match up the face of the person holding the ticket with the face of the person on record – and to block the turnstile either if the faces do not match or if that face has become officially undesirable due to past bad behavior.

Only the Krakow club KS Cracovia is benefiting from purchasing and installing this system as of yet, according to the article. So it’s obviously a sort of guinea-pig for the technology, which will presumably spread far more widely, and quickly, once it has proven itself there.

Make no mistake, Polish football needs something of this sort of technology, for at least two reasons: 1) Polish football hooligans are a real problem! (Everyone hears about English hooligans – or did, until a few years ago when the problem seems largely to have died down – but their Polish counterparts have long been a serious societal scourge.) And 2) You might have heard about that Euro 2012 football tournament coming up, to be held in Poland and the Ukraine (if the latter can actually get its act together in time) – football stadiums hosting those games will have to deal with hooligans from all corners of the continent!

Then again, there’s more than a whiff here of all the bad associations conjured up by the mention of George Orwell’s title “1984.” On the one hand, it’s understandable why this is happening here from these lands’ recent pasts under oppressive Communist governments, which would have lept to implement such technology – for purposes way beyond just football – had it been available then. On the other, it’s hard imagining the Czech Republic as being the locale for this sort of pioneering technology – but I guess that just unfairly maligns that country, which actually boasts inter alia considerable programming talent, as evidenced by world-class anti-virus software companies and the like. Still: Is this sort of face-recognition set-up all that pioneering? Surely something similar has been implemented already elsewhere, somewhere in the world?

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Legionnaires’ Fiscal Disease

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

One of the most fantastic military adventure stories in history, but which few people have ever heard of, is that of the Czechoslovak Legions. Czechs and Slovaks have generally heard about them, as you would imagine, but as an article in Lidové noviny makes clear, that fact doesn’t necessarily command any Czech government money (nor Slovak, probably) any more.

Students of European history know that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was involved in World War I on the German side (the “Triple Alliance”) from the very beginning – logically, since that Empire was dominated administratively by German-speakers. However, a large part of its soldiery was made up of Slavs, with no particular affinity for things German. (Which Hungarians, however, did have – but that’s another story!) Finding themselves on the Russian front, ordered to fight and kill fellow Slavs on the other side of the trenches, many of these soldiers soon found that they would rather just desert at the first opportunity – and indeed, then form into units on the other side that would fight for the Russians. (more…)

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Czech: Not As Bad As U Think!

Friday, December 24th, 2010

Let me reveal a dark secret here which I haven’t written about before (well, OK, just once) and may come as a surprise to many of you: The Czech Republic – yes, the land of Václav Havel and “living in Truth” – is, sadly, a corrupt sort of place. We were only recently reminded of that fact by the latest government scandal (the best English-language summary comes undoubtedly from the Economist’s “Eastern approaches” blog). The Environment Minister, one Pavel Drobil, was caught on tape not only manipulating expenditures from the state environmental fund to feather his own financial nest, but also covering the misdeeds up – to include offering the whistle-blower a promotion in exchange for destroying the recording. Drobil did have to resign (though the whistle-blower also lost his government job, but of course), and for a while the very existence of the current Czech coalition government (only 6 months old) hung in the balance, because the opposition tabled a motion of no-confidence in the parliament and, after all, two of the coalition parties (VV and TOP 09) were new on the political scene, propelled to prominence by citizen disgust over the country’s seeming political status quo – most especially, the corruption.

In the end though, President Klaus intervened, there were a lot of meetings, everyone forgot about how anti-corruption they were supposed to be, and the current government managed to sail on. With that settled, what do we now see – and in the pages of the country’s leading business newspaper, no less! – but today’s piece by one Petr Honzejk entitled The Czech Republic is better than it seems. Masaryk’s “do not fear and do not steal” is coming back in style.

Make no mistake: the title is the basic message, but I’m glad to give you the lede as well:

There’s no use in fooling oneself. It’s enough when we can use a little realism. We live in a better country than we ourselves think.

Talk about looking on the bright side! With this latest Environment Ministry affair everyone is wailing “Nothing has changed!” Honzejk writes – but they’re wrong! Hey, at least there was a whistle-blower in the first place, who resisted all the lucrative pressure exerted to shut him up! And look, the minister resigned the same day the charges came to light – that has never happened before! He goes on:

This isn’t some exercise in naïveté. Nor the obligatory pre-Christmas optimism. Only a mention that, so long as we choose anything other than a self-tormenting point-of-view, we will see a better country in all directions than a year ago.

Like: Hey, we got a new government this year and escaped that “Paroubek goulash populism” we were all stuck in coming into 2010! (Jiří Paroubek actually was Prime Minister from 2005-06, but I guess he has continued to have a lot of behind-the-scenes influence.) And it’s a new government committed to enacting reforms! he adds. Stipulated – but surely his position as a writer for Hospodářské noviny enables Honzejk to be aware of the shameful compromise that has kept this government propped up, as well?

It’s almost comical, the happy-talk rabbits he tries to pull out of his hat here while trying to retain an even-handed, judicious tone. “[The Czech political scene] is no utopia,” he concedes, “as the Motolska Hospital affair showed us this year.” (Wait, I never even heard about that one! But I probably don’t want to know!) But look, research shows that the amount of illegal software installed on Czech computers has declined! Hooray!

No, the Czech Republic can no longer be regarded as belonging to the “Wild East,” he asserts. After all, the EU has decided to put the office of its Galileo GPS program in Prague. And the British news paper The Telegraph recently named Prague “the best vacation destination in the world,” while no less than the New York Times back in April had a laudatory (if rather short) travel article about the country’s #3 city, Ostrava (over on the eastern border).

OK, Prague is very nice to visit, but about Ostrava I don’t know for sure, having never visited there. However, my suspicion is aroused by phrases in that NYT piece like “Ostrava’s most famous symbol was a 1,033-foot-high slag heap” and “grimy reputation” and “derelict sites.” I suspect the travel writer is trying rather too hard here to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – as is, for that matter, Petr Honzejk in his “don’t worry, be happy!” article. That his argument can be put forth in a leading business newspaper must certainly be the very definition of “protest[ing] rather too much“; we should rather all keep in mind the Economist’s rather more gloomy conclusion: for the Czech Republic “[t]he gloss is off.”

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DEEP VOTE

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

I may run the risk of lowering the usually elevated tone of Eurodiscourse that I try to uphold on this blog. But the following is not really pornographic. (A tip for those of a certain age: the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally” – relevant here, as you’ll see! – got an “R” rating, which many considered too strict.) Anyway, this comes to us from the Young Socialists of Catalonia, via Reuters and the hyperactive Czech Twitter-feed Zpravy:

There is a point here, and it concerns the regional elections due to take place there next Sunday (28 November). The Young Socialists want people to be sure to turn out to vote – the “tag-line” message at the end of this clip is “Voting is a pleasure” – and preferably, of course, for Socialist candidates. That’s about it for any serious purpose, though, so the whole thing is rather overboard, a clever idea, but one that probably never should have been actually carried out. It should be no surprise that the clip was roundly condemned by spokesmen and -women from the more conservative parties on the political spectrum, as well as by some Socialist members of government in fact. The BBC website captured probably the best quote, from Joan Herrera, leader of the Catalonia Greens (and a man: “Joan” is a man’s name in Catalan): that it would be “very difficult to reach orgasm voting for any of the candidates, myself included.”

But Spain: how could something like this come from Spain? However, this is not your father’s (or at least your grandfather’s) Spain, that dictatorship of the Caudillo propped up by an unreformed and reactionary Catholic Church. It has changed, dramatically, and the watershed was in 1975, when dictator Francisco Franco’s death and the resulting return to democracy (institutionalized in a new constitution of 1978) prompted Spain to some extent to swing way to the other extreme and become an “anything goes” society. Abortion was legalized as well as divorce – together with, more recently, gay marriage. Cinema aficionados can refer to the award-winning films of Pedro Almodóvar for a series of (slightly exaggerated) portraits of this new prevailing culture – prevailing in Spanish cities, at least.

So, you say you’ve never been to Spain
But you kinda like the music?
Well, the ladies are insane there
And they sure know how to use it
They don’t abuse it
Never gonna lose it
You won’t refuse it!

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EU Budget Discipline – With Bite

Friday, September 24th, 2010

The scoop ultimately belonged to the Financial Times, but that article is ensconced behind their semi-porous paywall. So here at €S we had to get the news from Lidové noviny, from the Twitter alert by @cznews (Oh no! Not Rozpočtoví hříšnici!):

Rozpočtoví hříšnici v eurozóně zaplatí pokutu ve výši 0,2 % HDP: Země eurozóny, které v budoucnosti po... http://bit.ly/9X8tCn #czech #news
@cznews
Czech Business News

And a scoop it truly is, for the FT journalists (Peter Spiegel and Joshua Chaffin) have unearthed proposed “legislation” set to be officially unveiled by Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn next Wednesday, which their article terms “the EU’s most ambitious attempt to reorder its economic governance since this spring’s debt crisis that nearly destroyed the single currency.” Basically, the Commission would step up to take up a role in examining the national budgets of the 16 Eurozone member-states in a big way, with the authority to impose fines of 0.2% of GDP on governments which “consistently fail to bring down their public debt levels” – or “fail to control their annual spending,” or “fail to reform their economies to improve their competitiveness.” Once having decided to fine a member-state, the Commission under the proposal could only be stopped by a qualified majority vote from the European Council within 10 days of the decision. (Similar rules for member-states still outside the Eurozone will apparently be forthcoming later.)

Even just ignoring recommendations about how to improve national competitiveness (from the Commission presumably; and so how can they really be described as “recommendations”?) could make a government liable to a 0.1% of GDP fine. And, somewhat ludicrously, the Commission would also maintain a productivity data “scoreboard,” sort of like the running list of grades on an elementary school classroom wall.

Pretty amazing – especially when those of us with any sort of historical memory (it need not go back any further than ten years or so) recall the Stability and Growth Pact that was a key component to the introduction of the euro at the end of the 1990s. That also prescribed monitoring of (Eurozone) member-states’ public finances by the Commission; and it also prescribed “sanctions” (initially fines) for those governments who continued to violate the fiscal rules (budget deficit less than 3% of GDP, national debt less than 60% of GDP or getting there) after repeated warnings.

But it didn’t work: among the first to break these rules were the giants making up the EU’s “axis,” namely Germany and France, and no one ever dared to try to punish them in any way. Besides, there was always the fundamental bit of illogic in such arrangements of trying to punish by means of a monetary fine a government which has gotten into trouble because it doesn’t have enough money available.

So Why Now?

What’s the difference this time, that makes Commission staff think that these sorts of proposals will be accepted, and that they even will work if enacted to influence member-state government behavior? Obviously it’s the big Greek/Spanish/Portuguese/Irish/etc. debt crisis of 2010, which in May prompted the panicked assembling of a €700 billion+ support fund for states in trouble with their sovereign debt. It’s by no means clear that that will be enough to head off trouble; it’s by no means clear, for example, that Greece will in fact be able to avoid default (or, probably, the same thing camouflaged as debt “restructuring”).

Neither is it clear that member-states will be at all receptive to these latest Commission proposals as they are formally presented next week (together with similar ones from Council President Herman van Rompuy). It’s hard to avoid the thought that this sort of supervision of their budget processes from an external, super-national body of experts, backed up by sanctions with financial teeth, was not what most if not all of them thought they were getting into when they joined the EU and then the Eurozone. That historical process of European integration is likely about to face a decisive “gut check” moment, coming up next week.

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Ash Not Through Whom the Plane Flies, It Flies Through Thee

Friday, May 7th, 2010

“Not again!” That was surely the reaction among recent travelers to/from airports in Ireland, Scotland, and even some parts of Northern England upon finding that, once again, flights had to be canceled for a brief period due to airborne ash from that Eyjafjallajökull Icelandic volcano. In the meantime, Scottish government officials issued predictably annoyed statements aimed at the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority for taking such action, just like on a larger scale it had been loud complaints from all across the affected area that had hastened the lifting of the continent-wide flight ban that paralyzed air travel within Europe for more than a week last month.

Central to the European complaints had been assertions that the flight-bans were too extreme, that the ash really did not pose enough of a danger to justify the considerable economic damage that the bans caused – after all, a number of airlines actually went ahead and flew test-flights on their own responsibility (manned only by crews and observers, of course) up into the grit-cloud and everything seemed fine. Now the Czech business newspaper Hospodářské noviny reports on how Europe’s scientific community is finally getting its act together with some direct research aimed at setting firm norms for when it’s safe to fly in volcano ash, and when it is not. (more…)

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European, and Against Health Care Reform

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Health Care Reform is now on the lawbooks in the US, barring the unlikely event of a successful Constitutional challenge. As Europe reacts to this unexpected development – everyone thought that it couldn’t be done, particularly back in January – the prevailing attitude seems to be “Welcome to the club of states who don’t turn their back on the sick and the poor.” This new legislation does insert the US government more into the national health care business, in good European style, partly in order to finally enable (mandatory) insurance coverage for the 40 millions or so who are presently not covered.

But it’s always useful to remember that European opinion is never monolithic, even when it comes to the universal health coverage which has been the general rule there, in one form or another, since at least the 1960s. Not everyone in Europe opposed George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example; sure, the British even joined in with their own troops, but so did the Poles. And for one contrary view on America’s new Health Care Reform – one that is doubtful, not welcoming, but presumably intellectually palatable nonetheless – we have Czech commentator Radek Palata writing in the business newspaper E15 (USA: Savings don’t come for free). (more…)

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