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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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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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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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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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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French Applause for Obama Missile Non-Deployment

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Readers of this weblog – a smallish, hard-core elite, to be sure, but we’re trying to do something about that – will have known the news already, but last Thursday President Obama came out in public to announce that his administration did not intend to proceed with the planned deployment of anti-ICBM missiles to Poland and supporting radar to the Czech Republic. Reaction to the decision was swift and vociferous, both for and against, domestically and internationally. Presseurop has a good survey of that reaction in the Eastern European press, although I feel that it tends a slight bit too much to the alarmist side. It seems many of those newspaper headline-writers have forgotten how fundamentally unpopular the American deployment was among ordinary Czechs and Poles; in this light, Obama’s cancellation of the program per se is not so regretable, but rather the considerable trouble both governments had to take to gain the political approval for their participation, now all achieved for nothing.

Not to worry, though, because French president Nicolas Sarkozy praised Obama’s move as an “excellent decision,” and the editors at Le Monde make it clear that they agree (Hand extended). Yes, the proposed deployment was going to be expensive, for a weapons system about which there remained significant doubts that it ever would actually be able to do what was designed for. But don’t forget the diplomatic dividends, either, Le Monde reminds us. These mainly involve Iran, which is supposed to start multilateral talks with a range of western countries starting on October 1; Obama’s action sends them a message of “good will and realism.” And Russia? Obama’s gesture was directed there to an even greater extent, but Le Monde’s editors unfortunately do not expect to see any corresponding gesture from the Kremlin anytime soon.

By the way, mention should also be made of the announcement by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, noted in Le Monde’s news coverage of the American announcement, that the “SM-3” missiles which are now to be the replacement anti-missile system will be deployed in turn from 2015 in Poland and the Czech Republic. First of all, that is a bit over-determined: mainstream US news reports put it instead that deployment of those missiles to those countries is but a possibility. And that’s a good thing, too: recall that the original ten defensive rockets that were to be intalled in Poland were designed to counter Iranian missiles of intercontinental range. Poland presumably is a good spot to deploy those – just take a string to your globe to check out the great circle route from Iran to the USA – but that is probably not also the case for defense against the short- and medium-range missiles which are now assumed to be the only Iranian threat for many years to come. In light of this, these suggestions that Warsaw and Prague will eventually get their missiles after all have to be regarded as sheer political bull-headedness – “We won’t let anyone tell us we can’t station missiles in Eastern Europe!” – rather than anything based on considerations of military effectiveness.

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End of Czech EU Presidency: At Least They’re Very Euro-Friendly!

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Tomorrow, 30 June, marks the formal end to the six-month term of the Czech Republic as European Union president, as Sweden takes over the next day for the second half of 2009. In reality, though, the Czech presidency effectively came to an end a bit earlier than that, namely on March 24, as Kilian Kirchgeßner points out in his analysis of that presidency for the Frankfurter Rundschau (Well, it wasn’t a complete flop). For that was the day that the Czech Civic Democratic (ODS) government, headed by premier Mirek Topolánek, was booted out of office in a vote of no-confidence by the lower house of the Czech parliament.

Check out that article title again (with whose translation I promise I took only very slight liberties), though: could someone kindly e-mail to me the German expression for “damn with faint praise”? Kirchgeßner’s purpose here is clearly to bend over backwards to cast the Czech presidency in the best-possible light. His piece’s very first sentence (i.e. after the lede) is “Probably no country has encountered such hostility during its EU presidency as the Czech Republic,” going on to cite all the EU and other national officials (especially the French) who cast doubt on the Czechs’ very competence to handle the assignment, and who continued to cruelly snipe at them thereafter – mostly behind-the-scenes, of course. What is more, it turned out to be a tough time to take up the job, what with the world financial crisis, Israel’s attack into Gaza, new disputes about ratifying the Lisbon Treaty, etc. – oh, and also the latest installment of the perennial Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute, which actually gave the Czechs the opportunity to mediate effectively and so chalk up an early success to their credit. (more…)

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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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Poles Down the River?

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

The big news the past week on the international relations front was President Obama’s “secret letter” he had hand-delivered to Russian president Medvedev last month. In it, he supposedly suggested – or at least hinted at – a possible deal whereby the US would stop the planned deployment of an anti-missile system with the radar installations in the Czech Republic and the actual anti-missile missiles in Poland, in return for Russia’s assistance in stopping the alleged drive by Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Even if nothing ultimately comes of it, this move certainly denotes some new thinking being applied to both Russo-American and Iranian-American relations. Then again, what about the Czechs and the Poles? As is so rightly pointed out in that NYT article (the one I link to above), in those countries “leaders invested political capital in signing missile defense cooperation treaties with the United States despite domestic opposition.” (more…)

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Bookworm Champs

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

So how are you going to spend your upcoming Christmas holidays? Curled up with a stack of books? Yes, it’s true that Xmas customs vary widely from culture to culture, but if you’re Czech it seems pretty likely that that’s exactly what you have planned, if we can go by an interview just published in Mladá fronta dnes (If Czech, then book-lover: According to survey Czechs are among the most-active readers).

The interview is with Prof. Jirí Trávnícek of Prague’s Charles Univerity, who was heavily involved with a recent survey about Czech reading habits carried out jointly by the (Czech) National Library and the Institute for Czech Literature of the (Czech) Academy of Sciences. And sure enough, that survey (termed the “most extensive so far” even as the good professor reveals towards the interview’s end that the sample was but 1,500 people) shows that the Czechs are among the top readers in the European Union, and indeed in the entire world. (more…)

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Sarkozy Longer as EU President?

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

The leading Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad had an interesting item over the press conference given by Minister of Finance (and Cabinet chairmen in the absence of Dutch premier Jan Peter Balkenende, who is visiting China) Wouter Bos, which we can see in the article’s headline: Bos alludes to extension of French EU chairmanship.

From the very beginning of the European Union (i.e. from 1958; it was then known as the European Economic Community) the member-states have taken turns, at six-month intervals, at assuming the “EU presidency,” although the role is more-accurately described as the presidency/chairmanship of the Council of the European Union, which is the legislative forum for the member-states and usually the most-powerful of the EU’s component institutions. Naturally, the queue of countries waiting to serve their turn as president includes all EU member-states, and it was in the first half of this year that the first country from the great 10-country EU enlargement of May, 2004, had its turn as president, namely Slovenia.

The thing is, the second half of 2008 has proved to be far-from-normal times. First there was the diplomatic crisis over the conflict between Russia and Georgia, and now we have the international system of finance seriously in need of some restructuring. France is now EU President, and French president Nicolas Sarkozy has by all accounts done a credible job in responding to the worldwide financial panic. (His intervention in the Russian-Georgian conflict to secure the cease-fire was subject to rather more mixed reviews.) The comfort the EU has had with Sarkozy as point-man on that crisis may have much to do with the French president’s own personal qualities, but it also stems from France’s status as one of the EU’s major powers and its deep and capable governmental machinery. What if one or more of these grave problems had arisen during the Slovenian presidency: could President Danilo Turk and the Slovenian government have effectively handled the task of leading the EU response? (more…)

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Good-Bye Putin

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

The hostilities in Georgia seem to be dying down now. Russian forces are withdrawing – or at least they are supposed to withdraw, under the terms of the cease-fire they signed, but there is considerable doubt as to whether they are actually fulfilling that obligation.

In the meantime, the countries of the NATO alliance struggle to come to terms with the new ruthless military face Russia has shown in this crisis. Germany now stands central in that military alliance, in the same way it has stood central for some time now within the European Union, again because of its sheer weight of population and economic power (and, who knows, maybe also its reputation for military ability in the past), which makes German commentary on these recent developments particularly interesting.

A very good contribution comes from Jochen Bittner, who writes a weblog, called Planet in Progress, that is carried off the Die Zeit webserver. (more…)

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Coming: A New Cuban Missile Crisis?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

“Is history about to repeat itself?” asks Clément Daniez of the French newsmagazine Le Point in his article published on-line today, Russians and Americans Replay the Cuban Missile Crisis. Vladimiar Putin has already explicitly spoken of such a thing: last October (2007) he warned that Washington’s plan to set up an anti-missile shield in Europe, with the radar in the Czech Republic and the interceptor missiles themselves in Poland, was setting the stage for a similar sort of serious confrontation between the two world powers as occurred in October, 1962. Of course, in the meantime the Bush administration has gone ahead anyway, as Condoleezza Rice was in Prague on July 8 to sign the agreement with the Czech government for setting up the radar. (more…)

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It’s the “Czech Republic” – Get It Right!

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Oops, he did it again: At a press conference last Monday, John McCain made reference to the Russian government cutting off energy supplies to “Czechoslovakia,” a country that has not actually existed since it split apart into the Czech Republic and Slovakia as of 1 January 1993. And it’s not like that was the first time he has made this mistake.

No, not at all – and you can be sure that the Czechs themselves are watching closely and keeping track, as we can gather from today’s article on the website of the Czech Republic’s leading general interest newspaper, Mladá fronta dnes (Even after 15 Years the World Confuses Czechs with Slovaks, Chechens, and Chess-Players). In fact, author Jan Wirnitzer crowns the presumed Republican presidential candidate with the “Greatest Endurance in Repeating a Mistake” award, recounting how he also mistakenly spoke of Czechoslovakia in his first presidential campaign of eight years ago, and then also three months ago. (more…)

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Coming Soon: Austerlitz Theme Park!

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Austerlitz: the very name is covered in glory for the French, as well as for anyone else with any knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars. For it was on this Central European battlefield in 1805 (a little less than two months after the sea Battle of Trafalgar, as it happened) that Napoleon Bonaparte faced down the combined armies of two great empires – the Austrian and the Russian – and beat them bloodily and decisively in a battle regarded as a tactical masterpiece. In the aftermath the Austrian Emperor Francis would sue for peace, acknowledging France’s previous conquests in Italy and Germany; what was left of the Russian army would be permitted to scurry back on home; and Prussia (non-participating) somehow would become annoyed enough with this result to shortly go to war against Napoleon itself (bad move). In today’s Paris you will find a Gare (i.e. train station), a Quai (i.e. embankment), a Pont (i.e. bridge), a Rue (i.e. street), a Port and a Villa d’Austerlitz – despite the name itself being about as un-French-sounding as you can get while still staying within the Roman alphabet.

In fact it’s a German name, of course, because back in those days of the very early 19th century German culture and the German language were dominant over Central Europe, as they had been since the Thirty Years’ War, and the major city outside of which the battle was fought was known as Brünn. (more…)

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The Klaus Anti-EU Constitution Pamphlet

Saturday, April 9th, 2005

As with most other weblogs, EuroSavant has had in the past certain topics to which it regularly returns. I’d like to keep that up, even though at least one of these, the “Poles In Iraq” series (last entry here, which deals appropriately enough with the prospect of withdrawal of Polish troops) has pretty much expired. But there remains the still-riveting tale of the EU Constitutional Treaty, now about to embark on the phase during which it is supposed to be ratified by all 25 EU member-states.

The key work to understanding what this “constitution” is all about, and so to make up my own mind whether I’m for it or not, is I think Peter Norman’s The Accidental Constitution: The Story of the European Convention, from EuroComment, which I previewed here. (Then I had long-running problems getting ahold of it, but those are finally solved.) I hope to report to you about this book shortly. In the meantime, though, the only EU head of state who has made it clear that he is against ratification – Václav Klaus of the Czech Republic, of course – recently turned up the volume on his anti-constitution agitation, as the French leading daily Le Monde reports (The Czech President, the Ultraliberal Václav Klaus, Campaigns for a “No”). (more…)

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Equal Rights for National Defense in the Czech Republic

Friday, January 7th, 2005

With the new year a new national defense law came into effect in the Czech Republic – one that marks a change from most such regimes in the Western world in that it no longer discriminates between the obligations of men and women. This development is tracked in a handful of articles in the Czech press – here, here, and here – which soon all started to sound rather alike to me, until I realized that they are basically the same article from CTK, the Czech News Agency! So take your pick, although the first article (from MFDnes) has the best photo of uniformed babes, if you’re into that sort of thing. (more…)

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Klaus the Mouth

Sunday, November 21st, 2004

One thing you can say about Czech president Václav Klaus, he’s never loath to let people know his opinions. Perhaps that’s good for a head-of-state, you might say – we don’t want any slippery focus-group-pandering politician in that top office, even if it’s mostly ceremonial! – but there’s a better case to be made that, in fact, it’s not so good. Consider this: heads-of-state generally carry the title “president,” but only in that major subset of the world’s countries which call themselves (in one form or the other) “republics,” having at some point in their histories discarded the king/queen/prince/duke representative of the hereditary, unelected system of rule that emerged in most places out of the mists of history. But a lot of other countries have still kept their king/queen/prince/duke around; so they’re not republics, although by now the sovereign generally has only a fraction of the political power he/she once wielded. (more…)

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Czech Republic at Rear of Cigarette Pack

Wednesday, October 13th, 2004

A notable topic covered lately in the Czech press is one of that country’s chief vices: smoking. That coverage does not really concern the associated damage to one’s health and the fact that anyone who can quit really should – the Czechs know about all that already. Rather, what has occurred is two recent developments with seemingly opposite meanings for the country’s smoking classes, but which in the end still basically leave them gasping for air. (more…)

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The Czech Republic – From a Prague Point-of-View

Saturday, July 3rd, 2004

The “Europa XL” series carries on, and now it’s getting to the real interesting countries among the fresh member-states which joined the European Union only as of last May 1. But this time it’s not really “Europa XL” – it’s rather “Zelfportret Europa,” that is, the version of this series as carried by the Dutch newspaper Trouw. As I’ve written, I do prefer to deal with this series in its Danish form, in the webpages of the Copenhagen-based newspaper Politiken, but Politiken is showing disturbing signs of neglecting “Europa XL.” In the first place, that newspaper’s master page for “Europa XL” is what you could call “hidden,” i.e. it’s not accessible from the main homepage – i.e. the frontpage – that any visitor to the Politiken website would naturally visit first to see the customary summary presentation of the day’s news. Of course, you can get there easily via the links that I give you, but its being “hidden” does mean that it is probably impossible to run across for any visitor to Politiken who does not already know about it. (more…)

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Has the Stanley Cup gone missing?

Friday, August 1st, 2003

Summertime is here – and that’s not ice hockey-time anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, of course. (Its winter in the Southern Hemisphere, but there they simply don’t play ice hockey.) Instead, summertime is “Stanley Cup Tour” time, i.e. when each player on the NHL Stanley Cup-winning team (plus, apparently, “franchise staff”) gets to “take possession” of the Cup for 24 hours in his hometown, wherever that may happen to be. This year you can keep track of the Stanley Cup Tour (on a rather delayed and incomplete basis, I have to say) on the website of the Hockey Hall of Fame. For example, the Cup made the trek up to Anchorage, Alaska, on July 15, because New Jersey Devil center Scott Gomez hails from there. (This was not for the first time; Gomez was also on the Devils team that won the NHL championship back in 2000. You can read all about this year’s festivities here.)

One reason I have to add “delayed” to my description of the Devils’ Stanley Cup Tour site is that it is not on that site (nor, indeed, from any American on-line media I can find; no mention was made even on Google News) that one can read that the Cup has apparently gone missing – not in Alaska, granted, but on a trip it was supposed to make to the eastern Czech Republic/Slovakia. Instead, we’re tipped off about this in the Czech newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes; they take hockey – and I mean NHL hockey – very seriously in that part of the world, too. (more…)

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Václav Sphinx

Monday, June 16th, 2003

Indulge me just a little, as I leave the Czech referendum story with a bit of tidying-up: you know, the results, the reaction. Once again, Mlada Fronta Dnes splashes an over-sized headline on its front page: “ANO EU: 77,33%.” (That’s 77,33% “Yes” on a turn-out of 55,21%, so once again anti-EU spoil-sports can point out that an actual majority of eligible voters did not approve EU accession.) To which the headline adds: “Spidla rejoices; Klaus stays silent.” (more…)

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It’s Czech Referendum Day!

Friday, June 13th, 2003

The Czech EU referendum is very, very near. Sure, we know that already, but even if we didn’t, we’d know something was up from today’s front page of the leading Czech daily, Mlada Fronta Dnes. Check it out for yourself (you can download the PDF here): the whole above-the-fold area is dominated by a huge “ANO” – which, it won’t surprise you to learn, means “Yes” in Czech. Directly underneath is the caption “Historical referendum: the accession of the Czech Republic into the EU is to be decided.” For those newspaper-buyers who, nonetheless, are not so much into reading text, up above there’s a whole gallery of famous Europeans. Take your pick (now, who wouldn’t want to join their company?): Günter Grass, Luis Figo (the football player for Real Madrid, but he’s Portuguese), Antonio Banderas, Margarethe II (present occupation: Queen of Denmark), and Ornella Mutti – from Italy; anybody ever heard of her? Wow: Guess who the MFDnes editors chose in the inside article (click on “15 tvárí Unii”) to represent Britain: Rowan Atkinson, a.k.a. Mr. Bean/Johnny English! Below, you can see for youself how serious premier Vladimir Spidla is about accession: he’s shown huffing and puffing (and wearing black business socks with his shorts and sneakers!) and racing EU ambassador Ramiro Cibrian in a “Eurorun.” (more…)

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Václav Klaus: Which Way Will He Vote?

Tuesday, June 10th, 2003

The countdown is on for the referendum in the Czech Republic on EU accession, to take place over next Friday and Saturday (13 and 14 June). As most of the other candidate countries have done, Czech authorities are also making use of the tactic of opening the voting centers over two days to encourage as large a turn-out as possible (although referenda in the Czech Republic do not have any legally-mandated level of participation, below which they become invalid). And the Prague authorities enjoy a further advantage: their referendum is towards the end in the series of candidate country referenda (only a couple of the Baltic countries remain), and the script has gone according to plan – all of the other countries voting before have voted “Yes” (if in some cases with distressingly-low levels of voter turn-out), so that puts further pressure on Czech voters not to show themselves to be the odd man out. (more…)

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UN General Assembly President Caught Up in Security Scandal

Wednesday, May 28th, 2003

The referendum dates for EU accession for Poland (7-9 June) and the Czech Republic (13-14 June) are drawing near, and will surely provide ample grist for the EuroSavant mill – soon, if not right now.

Right now, I’d like to discuss an interesting scandal raging in the Czech Republic. Interesting, because it reflects an ongoing problem for former Soviet block countries which have joined the NATO alliance, or which have been invited to or otherwise would like to, and also because it happens to implicate the current President of the United Nations General Assembly, the former Czech foreign minister Jan Kavan. (more…)

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GI’s in Czech

Tuesday, May 6th, 2003

US military bases in the Czech Republic! There is now talk of that, and Czech politicians are now arranging themselves on either side of that issue.

The talk up to now has been not about the Czech Republic but rather about Romania and Bulgaria, which SACEUR chief General James Jones recently described as “extremely good candidates” for US military bases. Indeed, the Sarafovo airbase in eastern Bulgaria proved extremely handy during the recent war in Iraq as a location to base US refueling aircraft. But now it seems the Czech Republic is also in play – even though no official request or inquiry has yet been forthcoming from the American side. (more…)

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