Archive for the ‘Czech Republic’ Category

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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Rove on Waterboarding

Friday, March 12th, 2010

The memoirs of Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s supposed “Brain,” are now out. (Sigh . . . yes, I give you the link there to Amazon, even though they gravely miscategorized the work by not filing it under “fiction.”) The European reaction to this event is so far disappointing, in terms of any demonstrated willingness to call out pure hooey, bunk, baloney, poppycock for what it is, using any equivalent term in the local language.

We do have at least a start, with Marcus Ziener in the German business newspaper Handelsblatt of all places (The president’s eternal string-puller). He zeroes in (as does Rove in his book, apparently) on the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina – two of the George W. Bush administration’s biggest blunders, but not to hear Rove tell it. No, they were just unfortunate misunderstandings. Bush’s “Heck of a job, Brownie!” was nothing more than a gesture of morale support to a staff-member under pressure. And as for Iraq, the President was certain Saddam had WMD – he certainly would not have invaded the country at all had he known that he didn’t.

Up in his piece’s lede, Ziener makes the rather obvious observation that, with this book and the new publicity tour designed to sell it, Bush’s former leading political strategist is out to rehabilitate not only the reputation of the president he served, but also his own. Actually, it probably goes rather beyond that: when it comes to waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Rove (along with some other involved officials, especially former VP Dick Cheney) apparently feels the need to take some pre-emptive action to ward off a potential criminal indictment for conspiracy to torture – a crime against humanity all of us can recognize when we see it, and contrary both to the Geneva Conventions and US law. This lashing-out is what we see in his statement yesterday to the BBC in which he asserted he was even “proud we used techniques that broke the will of these terrorists.” (You can click the video on that BBC page to hear the words come out of “Turdblossom’s” very mouth; for me, hearing his voice this morning was all I needed to quickly switch to some other radio station.)

And again, reaction in the European press is disappointing so far. (Of course, less time has elapsed since Rove went on the BBC.) What there is, is generally just a straight transmission of his remarks, suitably translated. At least we do have Lidové noviny of the Czech Republic (Waterboarding is not torture, assets former Bush advisor). Yes, the report itself (from the Czech news agency CTK) just passes on what Rove has to say. But some on-line editorial assistant has also shrewdly inserted counterpoint in the form of a brief YouTube video about waterboarding from Amnesty International. (Check it out, if you want: it’s not so very shocking, even as it makes the point.)

UPDATE: Look, I don’t intend to touch Rove’s book with a ten-foot pole. But if you’re interested, I do have to admit that it’s still available from Amazon (at that link I gave you at the top of the post) for $16.50 with free shipping and mishandling (h/t to late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon).

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Communist Poland Sheltered, Armed Palestinian Terrorists

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

An interesting revelation came to light just yesterday, in a program broadcast on the private Polish TV station TVN. So far – strangely – I have found the story picked up only by the premier Flemish newspaper De Standaard and by the Czech mainstream daily Mladá fronta dnes. (That’s right: nothing in the Polish on-line press, yet.)

Of particular interest in that program was the interview it included with former Polish general Czesław Kiszczak, who headed the Interior Ministry of that then-Communist country from 1981 through 1989 – thus for the entire period of martial law that was initiated in mid-December 1981 in response to the growth in popularity of the Solidarity movement. General Kiszczak was willing to openly admit that Communist Poland provided shelter and weapons to Palestinian terrorists on the lam during the 1970s and 1980s, including to Abu Nidal, head of the Black September group which was responsible for the hostage-taking and massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 summer Olympic games in Munich, among other incidents. “We closed our eyes to the fact that they came to Poland to recuperate and equip themselves for further terrorist actions,” Kiszczak admitted. Poland was also quite willing to help with such preparations by selling these militants as many weapons as they wanted. Abu Nidal was even allowed to run a business in Poland – known by the name or abbreviation “SAS” according to the MFD account – for a while in the 1980s.

Former Polish president Wojciech Jaruzelski (thus Kiszczak’s colleague and immediate superior) was also interviewed for the program, according to De Standaard’s account. He could not recall anything of the sort happening.

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Vikings vs. Pirates

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

The pirate threat in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast is still very real, and Denmark recently was given the opportunity for the very first time to be in charge of the collection of NATO frigates (currently four) conducting anti-pirate operations in that area under the name Operation Ocean Shield. From January 25 Danish fleet admiral Christian Rune took over command, as his flagship Absalon set sail for the area after a stop in port at Muscat, the capital of Oman. He will stay in charge until March.

(Absalon – pictured here, photocredit to Uncle Buddha on Flickr – was the “fighting archbishop” of the Danish Middle Ages, who did much to build up Copenhagen towards the city it was to become by building a fort there. His statue is there in the city’s center, mounted on a magnificent rearing horse, in Højbroplads – that’s the square right by the Folketing, Denmark’s one-chamber parliament. The main sort of enemy he fought in his day, it turns out, was in fact Baltic Sea pirates.)

It’s no surprise that the Absalon has already seen some action, and the Danish press is following along to report. (more…)

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Slovak-Hungarian Language Dispute Still Doing Just Fine(s)

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Since last September, relations between fellow EU-members (and NATO allies; but also with a very troubled historical relationship) Slovakia and Hungary have been rather bad, due to a Language Law that took effect then in Slovakia mandating the use of Slovak in all communications with any government organizations – the only exception being within those localities where people speaking other languages constitute 20% or more of the population. In Slovakia, that can really only be Hungarians, and it’s true that in some places they do reach that 20% threshold, but not many. And if you try to communicate with a language other than Slovak in those many other places where you’re not allowed to, you can get hit with a fine – up to €5,000!

One excellent window onto this controversy is the main Czech business newspaper, Hospodářské noviny, which now has an article on the latest development: Bratislava is in a rage: Budapest to contribute to countrymen in Slovakia towards fines for Hungarian. Put simply: the Hungarian government is raising a fund of money – mainly from its own resources, although private contributions are also encouraged – to pay the fines and legal costs for Hungarian-nationals in Slovakia that run afoul of that Language Law. Even though those that do so will by definition be Slovak citizens, although of Hungarian ethnic nationality. The Slovak Minister of Culture Jozef Bednár has issued a statement condemning Hungary for “intervening in the internal affairs of the Slovak Republic.” That does seem to be an accurate accusation, as far as it goes, although on the other hand it was also the standard line trotted out by the Soviet Union and its satellites whenever the West chose to complain about human rights violations and the like in those countries while the Cold War was still raging

Indeed, you could think that a bit of “interference in internal affairs” is quite in order here to stifle this childish and embarrassing brouhaha – intervention not from Hungary, but the European Union. Yet it seems that neither the doctrine concerning relations between EU institutions and member-states nor the sheer willingness of EU top officials to actually do anything has evolved sufficiently for that to happen.

Things really get interesting towards the end of the HN article when the author (the piece is attributed only to the Czech press agency CTK) introduces secondary information – like only entities registered as organizations or businesses are liable to the fine, not physical persons. Or the fact that no entity has actually been fined yet! If that’s really true, you can safely guess that the Language Law was really intended to be little more than a Slovak political gesture. Unfortunately, that gesture is kicking up more than a bit of trouble with the neighbors.

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Micronesia Asks to Czech Dirty Power Plant

Monday, January 18th, 2010

As those of us keeping track of such things know, the mild, non-binding agreement that emerged out of last month’s COP15 UN climate-change conference in Copenhagen was disappointing to many. Just imagine how much it fell short of the expectations of those island countries, like the Maldives, whose very existence is threatened by the rising sea-levels global warming brings!

But now one of those island nations, the Federated States of Micronesia (that’s who you turn to for your “.fm” Internet domain), has found a novel way to do something about it. I first caught word of this from the Some Assembly Required blog, which provided a link to an article in the New York Times sourced to Reuters (so it must be true, eh?). There you can read all about it: The Micronesia government is trying to intervene to influence the re-commissioning of a coal-fired power plant – one located in Prunéřov, Czech Republic, or around 13,000 km away! It has expressed this intention in two official government-to-government letters, one sent last month (while the Copenhagen conference was going on, apparently), and the second (laying out the technical details of what it objects to in the plant) just last week.

I’ve been able to find Czech-press coverage of this rather extraordinary episode only in that country’s main business newspaper, Hospodářské noviny. But that coverage is pretty thorough. There is a main article, telling the story: Micronesia: Prunéřov is [just] one of a thousand power plants, but it still is damaging us. In addition HN has an exclusive interview in a second piece (conducted by an unnamed reporter) with Andrew Yatilman, Minister of the Environment for Micronesia (We are fighting for our lives, Prunéřov is just our first act, says Micronesian minister).

Actually, in contrast to the impression of cool rage that that headline might give you, you’re really struck much more in the interview by how ad hoc this effort is on the part of the Micronesian government – how they are feeling their way as they go along in this legal initiative without precedent. For instance, Greenpeace (as you might expect) has had a big influence in this whole thing: it was protests carried out in front of the Prunéřov plant in question by Czech Greenpeace activists last month that inspired the idea in the first place, and Greenpeace has cooperated closely with the Micronesian government in providing both legal and technical advice. Will you be trying this with other plants, other governments? asks the reporter. For sure, Yatilman replies, although only after this episode is over and we have a chance to learn from the experience. (Note well that Micronesia is not going so far as to demand that the Czech government shut down the plant, it is only asking to be included in the process for granting it approval to re-open, so it can insist on a range of anti-CO2 emission safeguards.) Are any other island nations ready to join you in these efforts? I don’t know yet, Yatilman replies.

The interview concludes with a bit of unwitting comedy, as the HN reporter inquires whether Minister Yatilman is aware of the attitudes towards global warming of the Czech President, Václav Klaus. He is not; HN informs him how Klaus denies that global warming even exists, that he’s one of the world’s most-prominent climate change deniers. “Good that you say that,” replies Yatilman,

because we got a letter from the Czech Republic that purported to be from the president. But we didn’t really believe that. It wasn’t written on any letterhead stationery and it tried to find out why we were doing what we are doing. As if we weren’t a sovereign state. Underneath was some signature, but whether it was from your president, I don’t know. In any case we didn’t take it seriously.

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Was Swine Flu Just a Hoax?

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

It’s all there in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Just months after rushing to order enough swine-flu vaccine to protect their citizens, European governments are canceling orders and trying to sell or give away extra doses as they sit on a glut of the vaccine.

The main reason: European health officials decided that only one shot per person was needed, instead of the two originally planned.

Actually, there may have been another reason, as announced in the headline of the Czech Republic’s largest-circulation mainstream paper Mladá fronta dnes: Expert: Swine flu pandemic is a swindle by the pharmaceutical companies.

That’s right, it is alleged their profits were not all that they should be, so the drug companies manufactured a crisis to pump up sales revenue by at least millions. But who is the “expert” making this claim? His name is Wolfgang Wodarg, and he is chairman of the Health Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. (Note: that has no direct connection to the European Union, it’s a completely separate – in fact, earlier – organization. I know, it’s confusing . . .) And it seems that that Parliamentary Assembly will debate this question later this month, so maybe we’ll hear more about it then and become better able to judge.

Fortunately, the MFD article cited another piece giving all the details in the UK’s Daily Mail, so you can read about them there. But it also links to an article it published itself (i.e. in the Czech paper MFD) last July, about how the prominent Czech politician (and former Minister for Health) David Rath was also of the opinion that swine flu was just some sort of fraud for the benefit of the drug companies.

UPDATE: And indeed, French president Sarkozy’s house-newspaper Le Figaro is now announcing that the swine-flu epidemic there (known as “H1N1”) is over, according to an organization of French doctors called Réseau [i.e. network] Sentinelles France. At the same time, the article’s author (mysteriously known only as “C.J.”) says that it’s still recommended that one get immunized – the disease “could know a rebound.”

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Women Wear the Lederhosen

Monday, January 11th, 2010

I’ve had occasion recently to mention Switzerland, unfortunately in connection with that country supposedly “letting [itself] be pushed around.” I say “unfortunately” because such an assertion does not mix well with this other interesting article I’ve come across, by Adam Černý, in the main Czech business newspaper Hospodářské noviny: A troika of three women govern conservative Switzerland this year. No, I tell you that I do not want to make any connection of the one with the other!

In any event, it’s true: Doris Leuthard is now the Swiss president, while Erika Forster-Vanini is head of the upper chamber of the Swiss parliament and Pascale Bruderer is head of the lower. Even though Ms. Leuthard’s achievement should be seen in light of the Swiss practice of switching the presidency every year to a pre-determined member of the Federal Council, thus not by any election, it is nonetheless notable if only because the two previous women who have been Swiss president have been from the Left, of the Socialist Party. Ms. Leuthard is a Christian Democrat, the sort of right-wing German political formation more likely to feel that the age-old slogan Kinder, Küche, Kirche (“children, kitchen, church”) best encapsulates all that women should really worry their pretty little heads about.

The fact of three women now occupying the top Swiss governing functions is further striking because, as the HN headline notes, it’s a particularly conservative country. You might have heard how its citizens voted in November to forbid the building of minarets, and women there got the vote in the first place, on a country-wide basis, only in 1971. What is more, a full 30% of members of the Parliament are female. As Černý notes, that is a higher proportion than in the legislatures of the UK, France, Italy, and Austria. It may not be higher than the female-legislator rates in the Scandinavian countries, but there they employ quotas to boost their numbers from the distaff side, whereas the Swiss do not.

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The Dark Side of the Lisbon Treaty

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Hooray! Today’s the day that the Lisbon Treaty finally comes into effect in the European Union! As a result, the Union’s operations will from now on supposdly be more transparent, more effective, and more democratic. Those, at least, are the three elements that made up the principal content of the Laeken Declaration issued by EU leaders at their summit in December, 2001, in which they noted how the actual operation and accomplishments of the Union had become disappointing to so many, and so called for the setting-up of a convention to consider what could be done about that.

Inevitably, there remain many within the boundaries of the EU who go beyond mere disappointment to an outright rejection of that process that began at Laeken (that’s in Belgium, by the way) and ended up, through many twists and turns that included a rejected EU Constitution, with the Lisbon Treaty. Most prominent in this regard are the Czechs, if only because Czech president Václav Klaus was the last obstacle to the ratification of that treaty, holding out until only one month ago. Klaus was finally forced to knuckle under, but Czech anti-Lisbon opinion will not let this day pass without at least one more loud cry of protest. Thus it is that we get this article in today’s on-line edition of the Czech daily Lidové noviny. (Those signs brandished in the photo up top read “We want a Europe of free nations” and “We don’t want EU vetoes/prohibitions”; and the Czech word “dost” that’s also there simply means “enough.”)

That this sort of piece should appear on lidovky.cz is no surprise, since that newspaper – otherwise quite a mainline Czech broadsheet worth recommending, by the way – has through the years consistently provided a platform for the writings of Václav Klaus, whether in or out of power. This time it’s not Klaus himself who wrote the article – he’s still president, after all, so that would truly be rather too awkward – but instead one Michal Petřík, an advisor to President Klaus. (more…)

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Don’t Look Now – Don’t Look Ever – But New Miss Saudi Arabia Crowned!

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Miss SAOh joy! Longer-term €S readers will remember all the way back to May, when I first brought you word in this space about the “Miss Saudi Arabia” pageant. Due to the . . . er . . . somewhat different nature of that extravaganza’s judging-process, it takes rather longer than your average beauty pageant. But now this year’s winner has finally been crowned, and that is eighteen-year-old Aya Ali Mulla. I had not really been on the look-out for any sort of follow-up to May’s story – I promise! – but my RSS feeds nonetheless came up for me big-time and alerted me to recent coverage of that pageant’s outcome from the Czech press, namely from Lidové noviny and Mladá fronta dnes. These articles are (almost) the same, as they both are by-lined to the same Czech press agency piece. For example, they have similar headlines: “Saudi Arabia has new Miss, but no one has seen her” and “Miss Saudi Arabia’s face seen only by female jury-members,” respectively.

Naturally, both Czech papers ultimately refer back to the Saudi press for coverage of this marquee event, but have to report that no Saudi paper was actually able to state what it was about Ms. Mulla* that catapulted her to victory. It was easier just to report what she won: an amount in riyals that, from the Czech-crown equivalent that is cited, seems to be just under €1,000; a pearl necklace; some diamonds (mounted on what, is not revealed); a wristwatch; and a paid vacation to Malaysia, which, although of course another Islamic land, is a pretty nice place to visit, I’ve heard. There’s also further detail here on one of the event’s key competitions, the “How much do you respect your mother?” event: apparently contestants each spend an entire day out “in the country” with their own mother, under the observation of one of the jury-members (wielding a clipboard, no doubt). I say, get coverage of that on the X-Games channel, pronto!

The Czech papers are able to contribute some added detail, perhaps somewhat wistfully, about another beauty pageant held in the Arab world that does actually conform a bit more tightly to what most of the rest of the world understands by the concept, namely the one for Miss Lebanon, where the girls do actually appear in swimsuits (one-piece only, though) and in evening gowns, and are interviewed in front of an audience. In contrast, returning again to Saudi Arabia, the LN article states “Beauty competitions there only have to do with goats, sheep, camels, and other animals” – despite the considerable effort required each year to get the camels into their one-piece bathing-suits!

[Cymbal crash] No, that last part I made up myself . . .

*Quite a suitable name, eh? No, I’m not making it up, click through above to the articles and see for yourself if you want. But don’t be fooled when you see the winner’s last name as “Mullaová”: that last “-ová” part is added routinely in Czech, Slovak, and some other Slavic languages to women’s last names.

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North Korea Tests Poison Gas on Handicapped Children

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

I was at first going to add this to Hillary Clinton’s dossier of insults to hurl back at the North Korean authorities – but all joking here needs to be put to one side, this is much too serious and horrible. According to reports from escaped North Korean refugees, that totalitarian government actually takes mentally- and physically-handicapped children away from their parents for use as expendable human guinea pigs for testing involving the country’s stock of chemical and biological weapons, including experiments designed to find out how and how long it takes to die from exposure to them.

I first saw word about this from an on-line article of the Czech daily Lidové noviny (North Korea tests weapons on handicapped children, claim refugees), but that article in turn refers to a report by the Arabic TV network Al-Jazeera, which you can read in English here. A quote from one defector: “If you are born mentally or physically deficient, the government says your best contribution to society . . . is as a guinea pig for biological and chemical weapons testing.” As they say, Dulce et decorum est . . .

While I appreciate Petr Pešek’s item there in LN for spreading the word more widely about this – which indeed is my own intended function here, although I daresay my circulation is somewhat smaller than LN’s – I can assure you that it includes little that you can’t read in English over at Al-Jazeera. (All I could find was an additional reference Pešek makes to how it has already been known that North Korea was willing to sacrifice prisoners for these purposes.) Note however that he is notably more journalistically cautious, scattering his piece thickly with “alleged” (údajný) and “it is said” (prý) and pointed references to the Al-Jazeera account.

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Pirates Reborn

Friday, July 10th, 2009

If you’re into peer-to-peer downloading of large files (e.g. movies, music) from the Internet, you know already know all about it; if you’re not, here’s a quick summary. The most popular program for doing so is called BitTorrent, and for quite some time The Pirate Bay, a site based in Sweden, was the most popular place to go to get the files you might be interested in (you know, like Hollywood movies still in general public release – or even yet to embark upon public release). Naturally, The Pirate Bay came under some considerable legal pressure for its activities, until this past spring the main personnel behind it were sentenced to jail and to the payment of a hefty SEK 30 million fine. (They are appealing the verdict.) In the meantime, the Swedish advertising company Global Gaming Factory X AB has announced its intention to buy The Pirate Bay next month and give it a “new business model” that makes the site’s activities strictly legal. In the meantime, though, some of the people behind The Pirate Bay have formed The Pirate Party – with chapters not just in Sweden but other countries as well – to advance their free-file-sharing political views, which already won one seat in the European Parliament in the early-June elections.

The (eventual) metamorphosis of The Pirate Bay to legality is especially good news for the French government, which has been busy since the beginning of the year trying to come up with legal measures to pass to outlaw the sort of free downloading of copyrighted commercial material that The Pirate Bay did so much to facilitate. After modifying their legislation to meet the objections from France’s Constitutional Court, which had first thrown it out, the French Senate has recently passed it, so that it is close to becoming law. It would empower a state agency – called Hadopi – to detect this sort of activity and, if two warnings to desist are ignored, pass on to French judges information about the offense for them to assign penalties, including fines, jail, and disconnection from the Net.

Ah, but can anyone ever stop truly determined Internet “pirates”? Le Monde reporter Maël Inizan now reports on another site now arising like a phoenix from The Pirate Bay’s ashes to save the cause of free downloading (Illegal downloading: a new site takes up the torch of The Pirate Bay). (more…)

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Yum Yum – Camelburger!

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

It’s summer now, tourist season – and maybe some of you are even dietary wayfarers, perennially off (when you get some vacation time) in search of new and interesting culinary experiences. Perhaps you have already sampled the renowned horseburger served up at the Hot Horse burger-stands in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, a country where horsemeat is a normal part of the national culinary culture. Myself, I’m no sort of dietary tourist, but I’ve done that; I can recommend it, and the delightful city of Ljubljana generally.

Now the Czech daily Lidové noviny brings word today of a new gastronomic challenge along this line: camelburgers! A fast-food restaurant in Saudi Arabia’s own capital, Riyadh, is now offering its customers hamburgers made from camel-meat, and owner Saleh Kuvaisi is happy to explain to the press why he thinks this will be a big hit. “It’s all about the love people here have for camel meat,” he declares, and indeed the article notes that upper-scale restaurants in the Kingdom have long offered their customers camel “delicacies” (pochoutky) such as livers. Still, the article does give the impression that this rather has more to do with the regard Saudis have for camels per se, namely as fond tokens of the Bedouin existence from the good old days that they harken back to as the origin of their Arab culture, even as at present they are much more likely to get around in some sort of Toyota pick-up.

In any event, camel burger (that is, ground camel-meat), is still something new, but you wonder how it is that nobody ever thought of it before. The meat is said to be particularly low in fat compared to other animals (the same goes for camel milk, by the way); one camelburger customer is quoted in the article as approvingly noting that aspect and also praising the meat’s “refined taste.” And a certain Walid Sanchez, who according to the article runs a popular Internet guide to Saudi Arabian restaurants*, asserts to the reporter that camelburgers are bound to be popular, because Saudis generally are open to new things gastronomic – but then again, of course they will like them all the better if these things have local origins.

There you have it, then, another gourmet experience to put on your personal bucket list. This one might pose a particular challenge, though: there’s no such thing as a tourist visa to Saudi Arabia, you either need to be a Muslim going there on pilgrimage to Mecca or else have some other practical reason to be allowed inside the Kingdom – and I don’t think “having a camelburger at Saleh’s joint” will cut it!

* I have to note with disapproval here that this LN article mentioned Sanchez and his website, but only generically and without providing the URL; that I had to go find for you, dear readers, using the power of Google.

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“He Kissed Me – and My World Started to Spin!”

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

The popular Czech daily Mladá fronta dnes shows how determined it is to stay on top of key events, wherever they might be occuring in the world, with its recent article Pow to the nose! And where’s the ring? Pair from New York wed in a state of weightlessness.

Yes, it’s the story of that wild-and-crazy guy-and-gal from Gotham who recently set a mark of some sort by becoming the first (known) pair in history to marry in zero-gravity. They achieved this by arranging for the ceremony to go down (so to speak) in the 27-meter cargo-cabin of “G-Force One,” the Boeing 727-200 owned by a company that enables people to experience weightlessness – for more-extended periods than, say, on a roller-coaster – by constantly diving while in flight. Apparently the bride, one Erin Finnegan (“Erin Finneganová” in Czech) had been to too many boring weddings and so let her imagination take flight when it came to contemplating the details of her own.

Naturally, it’s not like MFD got any sort of scoop here; a wacky human-interest story like this one is sure to get its share of English-language press-coverage as well, as the wedding ceremony duly did in other places like the New York Daily News, the Telegraph (UK), and the Daily Mirror (also UK). But comparing the coverage, I’d have to say that the (unattributed) Czech reporter/rewrite-man did a very good job indeed. Regarding that “Pow to the Nose!” (Bum do nosu! in Czech) from the title, for example, the MFD article (only) quotes Finneganová about the climactic kiss at the ceremony’s end as follows: “Noah rather socked me on the nose. I thought I was going to bleed.” It also exclusively adds the interesting detail that the bride relied, not on heavy hairspray, but actually on wires for her coiffure to keep it well-behaved during the ceremony’s twists and turns. (Props to the Telegraph, though, for this vital detail: “His wife [i.e. Finneganová] wore a designer wedding dress with trousers to protect her modesty during weightlessness.” I was wondering about that.)

Oh, and MFD has three excellent photos of the ceremony on the article’s webpage itself, accompanied by this excellent supplementary photo-series.

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An Interrupted Presidency’s Cost

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

The Czech government of Mirek Topolánek – having lost a vote of confidence in the lower house of the Czech parliament at the end of March – is now on its way out the door. The new caretaker government headed by the former head of the Czech National Statistical Office, Jan Fischer, has submitted all the names of its ministers to Václav Klaus, the Czech president, and so is ready to take over. But what of the EU presidency, which after all the Czech Republic has had entrusted to it ever since the beginning of this year? That has largely been given up for lost, according to the Washington correspondent for the Czech Republic’s leading business newspaper, Hospodářské noviny, Daniel Anýž (Sad end to the presidency, USA summit postponed).

Let me take care to note here that that “sad end” cited in Anýž’s title does not refer to now, i.e. the first week of May, but rather indeed to what was supposed to be the “end” of the Czech presidency according to the calendar, namely the end of June. Anýž already knows that that is going to be sad, mainly because that was when the usual semi-annual US-EU summit was supposed to happen, this time in Washington, but the Americans have now let it be known that they want to postpone it to sometime in the fall, when the Swedes will be EU president. Now, you might well say that the Czechs already had their US-EU summit, and in Prague, which happened over the weekend of 4-5 April, following on from the London G20 summit during President Obama’s European trip. But that was officially an “informal” meeting; the US-EU get-together in Washington was really supposed to happen, as it always does, in June. But it won’t.

Meanwhile, Anýž notes that the phrase “Czech EU presidency” seems to have disappeared entirely from the American media. And he quotes an analyst from the German Marshall Fund (in Washington) that the Czechs basically lost three months off of their presidency by the change-of-government, and that leaves hardly enough time for any member-state to accomplish the desired EU agenda with which it would have started its presidency. At least the Czechs did take the ratification process for the Lisbon Treaty all the way up to the point where it only needs the president’s signature; this ensures at least “sad might-have-been” status in the eyes of fellow EU citizens, whereas a failure of ratification would have marked them as something considerably worse.

UPDATE: Here’s another cost of switching your government in the middle of your term as EU president: you stage summits and hardly anybody important bothers to show up.

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Czech Reputation on the Line

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

Notice anything different today? Do you feel that edginess in the air? OK, those of you reading this from outside of Europe are probably too far away to get the full effect, but what about all you Europeans? After all, as the Czech daily Lidové noviny writes, “All of Europe is following along today with tension to see whether the Czech Senate ratifies the Lisbon Treaty which is supposed to reform the EU.”

OK, maybe the local Czech press is overstating somewhat the general interest in what the Senate has before it (although the Czech Senate Press Office does report the presence today of seventy journalists and eleven foreign film-crews, including one even from Hong Kong.) Still, the fact remains that, three months after the lower house of the Czech parliament approved the Lisbon Treaty, today the vote is to be held to see whether the upper house does the same (which is required, of course, along with the presidential signature, for the Czech Republic formally to approve it). (more…)

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Dry Presidential Groupie

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

After Barack Obama finished up his speech on Sunday to the tens of thousands present on Prague’s Castle (Hradčanské) Square, he decided to wade into the crowd a bit. In the process, one enthusiastic Czech got so close as to pat the head of the Most Powerful Man on Earth.

An article in the largest-circulation quality Czech daily, Mladá fronta dnes (I patted Obama on the head. He hugged me.), has the details about this character, as well as a couple of pictures of the incident in question so you can decide just how outraged you’d care to be. That guy’s name is Jaroslav Suchý (a fairly common Czech last-name; it means “dry”), and he’s no stranger to the Czech security service. But hold on, it’s not what you think: as the head of that organization, Lubomír Kvíčala, told MFD:

That person who lightly touched the president on his hair I know. We already encountered him a couple of times at previous visits of the American president Bush and at a visit by Mrs. [Condoleezzaa] Rice. He is just enthusiastic about such visits and loves them. He’s definitely not dangerous.

According to Suchý himself, he was waiting at the checkpoint offering access to Castle Square from midnight Saturday, i.e. seven hours before the gates were opened for the public, and other on-the-scene MFD reporters confirm that he was among the first to be admitted by police, which enabled him to rush up to grab a prime position up front (into what generally would be termed the “mosh pit” in a rock-concert context – here, it turned into the “press-the-flesh zone”). As one such reporter states, “[f]or a whole three hours he loudly let people in his vicinity know how he was looking forward to the speech.” And Suchý himself also told MFD that “although I don’t really speak English, I clapped at every one of Obama’s sentences. Despite the fact that I was mainly looking at the president rather than the [translated] sub-titles.”

The article goes on to note that, when Jaroslav Suchý is not tracking down and applauding high-ranking American officials, he is pursuing a case in the Czech courts seeking compensation for being forced to attend “special schools” (i.e. schools for the handicapped), which he claims he was forced into solely because of the color of his skin. Perhaps some of you, examining the article’s photos again, may think this is some sort of joke, but it likely is not: the Czech Republic does still have an ethnic-discrimination problem, although it is not directed against black people (who are exceedinly rare) but against the Romany, or “gypsies.” So apparently the authorities where Suchý grew up kept classifying him as a gypsy.

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EU Nightmare Coming True

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

That nightmare is having Václav Klaus, noted euroskeptic, functioning as president of the EU. His country, the Czech Republic, does indeed hold the six-month rotating EU presidency until the end of June, and with the fall of the Czech government of prime minister Mirek Topolánek in the last week of March through the passage of a no-confidence motion in the lower house of the Czech parliament the props were kicked out from under the Czech politician who most people assumed was actually responsible for conducting that EU presidency. Now that Obama has left Prague so that inter-government discord need no longer be swept under the carpet, Klaus has announced a plan to do away entirely with Topolánek as head of the government by stating that he is in favor instead of having a caretaker government of non-political experts installed to run the country until early elections can be held next October. That is perfectly within his right – in fact, in these circumstances it is his very function – as Czech president, and the new prime minister he prefers is Jan Fischer, who currently is chairman of the Czech Statistical Agency. Tereza Nosálková and Petra Pospĕchová of Hospoářské noviny have an excellent analysis of what all this means, especially to the EU in their article Fear of Klaus transforms Europe’s timetable. (more…)

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To Prague, With Reluctance

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

hradcanskaIf this is Saturday, and you’re the American president, then that countryside you see down below, outside of the windows of Air Force One, must be the Czech Republic. Yes, today Obama and entourage flies on to Prague, and Dan Bilefsky in the New York Times already has the details about how he has the tricky task before him of visiting a country’s capital while taking care to have very little to do with top leaders of the government there – and pulling all this off without seeming impolite or ungrateful for the hospitality. The first trick involves invoking a presidential desire for a night off in scenic Prague, to grab the chance for an intimate dinner with Michelle at a “secret location,” in order to avoid any extended encounter-over-a-meal with either Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek (who publicly labeled Obama’s domestic budget plans a “road to hell”* only a few days ago; is a rather stolid, apparatchik-type guy anyway; speaks little English – and, most vitally, is now but a “caretaker” prime minister after his government fell this past week) or President Václav Klaus (speaks excellent English, now is in whip-hand position to determine composition of the next Czech government – but who could also bring on an attack of extreme presidential indigestion, no matter how excellent the food served, with his outspoken and negative opinions about the EU and climate change; for more about this in English, from the Economist, see here). (more…)

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Gorby: West Deceived Us

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

It’s Friday, 3 April – do you know where your American president is? I’ll give you a clue: today he is generally in the area of the French/German border where it is demarcated by the Rhine: in Germany at Baden-Baden and a village called Kehl, but mainly at French Strasbourg for a combined NATO summit and celebration of that alliance’s 60th anniversary. That organization may even get a new secretary-general as a result of this gathering; current Danish premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen is the favorite to the Dutch Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who has held that position for five years now.

Amid all the honor-guard reviews, meetings, and celebrations one prominent voice calls out forlornly from the sideline, like a jilted past lover of the bridegroom at a wedding. It belongs to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize, and a man highly “involved” (at least in terms of the measures he did not take) in the wave of revolutions in 1989-90 that took Eastern Europe out of the Soviet bloc. Both the Financial Times Deutschland (Gorbachev criticizes NATO expansion; no by-line) and the Czech daily Lidové noviny (NATO decieved the Russians, Gorbachev maintains, article by Petra Procházková) are now carrying reports of recent remarks he made to German media outlets accusing the West of breaking certain promises that were made to his government back at the time of German reunification in 1990. (more…)

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Czech Government Falls

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

The post-1989 Czechoslovak/Czech governmental system is a parliamentary one, with a (mostly) ceremonial president as head-of-state, and so there occurred yesterday in Prague that system’s occasional occupational hazard: the current government, headed by Premier Mirek Topolánek, was voted out in a vote of no-confidence. Topolánek’s coalition government had always existed with just a bare majority in the Czech chamber of deputies (lower house), made from three different parties, willing to support it, and this time it was apparently the defection of four such deputies from his own ODS party that sealed the government’s fate.

Of course, under ordinary circumstances few of us outside of the Czech Republic would care: the Czechs could just be left alone, as usual, to go forward under the terms of their constitution and find themselves a new government. And indeed, there was no mention of these events in Prague when I checked this morning (Central European Time) at the New York Times, the Times of London, or the Guardian, although the Washington Post did have a report. But these are not normal circumstances, among other reasons because the Czechs currently hold the presidency of the European Union. In fact this is a very bad time for such a thing to happen, for at least two reasons: (more…)

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Škoda Free-Trade Success

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

fabiaNeed a little bit of good recession-related news? Maybe even something with “rejoice” in the title? We get that from the mainstream Czech daily Lidové noviny, reporting on recent Škoda auto sales: Germans fall in love with the Fabia, Škoda rejoices. Yes, Škoda’s Fabia (pictured here) was the second-most-sold automobile in the German market in February, 2009, behind only that perennial favorite the VW Golf. At 9,190 units sold, Fabia sales were triple what they had been only the previous month, while sales of the Octavia also improved enough to push that sister Škoda model (more of a luxury auto, I believe) to 19th place on the auto-sales hit-parade of what is of course a very competitive German market. One important result of all of this is that Škoda has cancelled the plans it had to go to a four-day work-week until the end of June; the five-day work-week (meaning five-day pay for personnel) will stay. (more…)

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Klement, You Were the Weakest Link!

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Photo credit: che, from Wikipedia

Photo credit: che, from Wikipedia

All visitors to Prague will eventually encounter Vítkov Hill (pictured here), which forms one part of the boundary between Prague 8 (Karlín, on the south bank of the Vltava river, to the left side here) and Prague 3 (Žižkov). You can’t miss it because 1) It’s a massive, stand-alone hill near the center of town covered almost entirely by trees, and 2) At its western end (that is, closest to the city center, that we can see here), it features a massive equestrian statue – the largest in the world – of Jan Žižka, the one-eyed general of the Hussite Wars.
Just beyond that statue is another gigantic building, the National Mausoleum, intended to be the resting- (and exhibition-) place for the remains of Czechoslovakia’s leadership throughout the glorious thousand-year epoch of Communist brotherhood that was supposed to have been inaugurated by the coup d’état in Prague culminating on 25 February 1948. Much like Lenin in Red Square, the mummified body of the leader of that coup , Klement Gottwald, was in fact exhibited at the National Mausoleum from shortly after his death in March, 1953, until 1962 – when it had reached such an advanced state of decay due to the mishandled mummification process that it had to be cremated.
To the outside observer, there is an important clue there in the gaping contrast between the ostentatious facilities built to celebrate Gottwald’s legacy and the ultimate messy disposal of his remains – although the Czechs themselves long ago dismissed him as merely a stooge for Stalin, affording him little to no respect (unless required to by their position) even back when he was the country’s president. Now, just after the commemoration of the 61st anniversary of that coup, comes an article in the largest-circulation Czech broadsheet newspaper Mladá fronta dnes disclosing that things were even worse than most Czechs had assumed: for most of his presidency, Gottwald was in fact a serious alcoholic completely incapable of carrying out his presidential functions. (more…)

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Harry, You Don’t Sound Like A Royal

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Prince Harry, third-in-line to the British throne, is going back to school. His record of non-PC utterances that have escaped to public scrutiny has now lengthened to the point that a place has been hastily reserved for him in the British Army’s “Equality and Diversity” course, designed to instill in its students some sort of self-restraint for when they otherwise might be tempted to use insensitive language when referring to (or addressing directly, for that matter) minority groups.

As you might expect, amused coverage of this latest stage in the young prince’s education can be found in a number of Europe’s on-line papers. I sort of like best, though, the treatment in the Czech Republic’s widest-circulation mainstream daily, Mladá fronta dnes (Prince Harry gains himself a behavior-course for his racist utterances). If you want to click on that link you can see one reason why right away: the photo there shows the prince on duty in Afghanistan, to be sure, but he’s revving through the desert on a motorcycle (wearing no helmet, naturally – but that’s just the old fart in me speaking), in front of two heavily-laden personnel-carriers and a couple of his soldier-mates who presumably must content themselves with such steerage-class transportation. Let me add now a couple more observations based upon having had the same sort of experience (i.e. deployed in wartime to the desert with armored vehicles) in my own life: what with the red coloring and what seems to be an abundance of other shiny metal, that motorcycle is for sure not “tactical,” i.e. does not belong in an environment where other people, somewhere out there, are authorized to shoot you and your companions if they can just find you, aim, and fire. Also, Harry lives fully up to his name (and I don’t mean “Windsor,” he’s not wearing a tie): the officer that I was back during my own desert deployment (1991) would immediately send him straight off to some sergeant to get a proper military haircut.

But the MFD article is a winner in a couple other ways, too. It turns out that this will in fact be the second time Harry is sent to such a course; the article notes that “the present course should however be more intensive.” And one’s curiosity is satisfied here about just how it is that you say “Paki” and “black guy” in Czech. (Respectively, it’s Pakoše and černouš; the latter stems from Harry’s remark of a few months ago to British comedian Stephen Amos, “You don’t sound like a black chap.”)

For the record, EuroSavant is much more on Harry’s case for his evident tactical shortcomings, as newly-revealed in this Profimedia.cz photo, than his remarks, which actually seem a certain cut above what we were used to hearing from fellow British and American officers back-in-the-day. But he’s a royal, a British state employee of a very unique sort, so he can’t be allowed to talk like any other 24-year-old British Army officer would be naturally inclined to speak.

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Sam the Koala Survives Australian Fires

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

The Czech daily Lidové noviny devoted an entire article yesterday (Miracle in Australia) to Sam the koala, who somehow emerged alive out of the devastating forest fires currently ravaging south-east (i.e. the most heavily-populated part of) Australia. The piece (by-lined to the Czech news agency ČTK) begins:

The little koala bear has become a symbol of the tragic fires in Australia. The entire continent has experienced the story of his rescue. The bewildered and heavily injured koala which emerged from the ashes of the Australian bush is only a small flash of hope after the days of devastation and the loss of more than 180 human lives.

The article includes an embedded YouTube video of volunteer fireman Dave Tree approaching Sam and getting him to drink some water out of a plastic bottle. (Understand that Sam did not introduce himself as such at the time – he was in no mood for such pleasantries – but was bestowed with that name after he was transferred to a near-by animal care center.)

UPDATE: I should have known that that YouTube video with Sam the koala and fireman Dave would turn out to be a worldwide hit, so that you hardly need to go to Lidové noviny’s pages anymore to access it. I’ve already seen it, among other places, on the Washington Post’s website.

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