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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Black Entropa

Friday, January 16th, 2009

The funniest sort of scandal erupted this past week in Brussels, in connection with the brand-new (and first-time) Czech presidency of the European Union. Have you heard of this? The New York Times has its account here. It had to do with a huge sculpture that the Czech government commissioned for erection at the building that houses the European Council, one that – as you would expect – was supposed to reflect in some way upon on the EU and its member-states. But the Czechs made a key mistake in entrusting the task to the (Czech) artist David Černý. As the sculpture was set up over the weekend, for completion by Monday, it soon became clear that there was something very wrong; by the time the dedication ceremony was supposed to happen on Thursday, yesterday (and it did), controversy was flying thick and fast.

What were the Czech authorities in charge of EU relations thinking? Černý, after all (whose last name simply means “black”), has always been notorious, it’s accurate to say, rather than just “famous” within the Czech cultural world, bursting onto that scene in 1991 by painting the tank constituting a Soviet war-memorial in Prague a shocking pink color in one daring night-time raid. Although he was briefly arrested for that, that pink tank became a metaphor for the wacky, world-turned-upside down ambiance of the Czech Republic, and Prague in particular, in the years immediately after the 1989 “Velvet Revolution.” Barely pausing to catch his breath, Černý went on to produce a series of additional eye-catching works of sculpture, a few of which you can appreciate on his Wikipedia page. Those “tower babies,” for example: you can pick them out crawling all over the gigantic TV tower, itself located in the Prague 3 district, from much of the rest of the city. And that “riding a dead horse” statue is mighty big and impressive in its own right – look for it at the internal shopping-and-movie-theater-area located within the Lucerna building at the corner of Wenceslas Square and Vodičkova Street (a magnificent building once owned by Václav Havel himself, built by his father – also named Václav Havel). (more…)

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Queen Elizabeth Big Financial Crisis Loser

Saturday, October 18th, 2008

Word comes here from Hospodárské noviny, the Czech Republic’s leading business newspaper, that Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II has found herself to be poorly served – poorly served indeed! – lately by her government’s financial ministers, to her considerable and personal cost. HN’s article (no by-line) reports that the value of Queen’s stock market holdings has recently plunged by 37% “in the past days.” That corresponds to a value lost of 1.2 billion – but fans of the Queen should not freak out too much, since that’s 1.2 billion in Czech crowns, corresponding these days to around £37 million. It’s still a considerable sum, though, I have to admit.

And why is this being reported in a Czech, rather than a British newspaper? Well, the HN report does cite as its source the Daily Express. But I could not find anything on this subject on its site, even by entering “Elizabeth II” in that search-box up-top there. (Yes, I did subsequently click on the “SEARCH” button over there on the right. Nada.)

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Georgia = Czechoslovakia?

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday, speaking of the recent Russian actions in Georgia, that “This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten a neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed.” Examining her words carefully, one could conclude that her point is essentially that Russia is attempting a repeat of what it accomplished with its Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia – exactly forty years ago this month, as it happens – but should not be able or allowed to succeed this time.

But are the two military undertakings, separated by four decades, really comparable? You could ask the Czechs themselves about that. (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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Stags and Hens in Prague

Friday, December 31st, 2004

I’ve little more to say about the ongoing tidal wave tragedy around the eastern Indian Ocean basin. Is it poor taste to move on now to other subjects? Now, I certainly agree with the proposition that the fancy parties scheduled around the upcoming Bush II inauguration (specifically, the money budgeted for them) should yield to the Asian tragedy. But closer to home, tomorrow’s the start of a brand New Year, and some celebration of that fact should still be in order.

Prague is a good place to celebrate that fact. (So is, for that matter, Amsterdam, although it’s a bit more expensive.) And right on time, in its last-edition-of-the-year, the main Czech business newspaper Hospodárské noviny features a trio of articles on its homepage about the foreigners flocking to visit the Czech capital – whether for New Year’s celebrations or more generally – under the collective headline “Do Tourists Come to Us Mainly for the Cheap Beer?” (more…)

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Europe on Five Demonstrations a Day

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

Is the ongoing post-9/11 slump in the worldwide tourist industry getting you and your country down? Those canny business-writers at the Czech Republic’s leading business newspaper, Hospodárské noviny, have an idea for you: cue a massive public protest against your government! That’s what has done the trick for the Ukraine, a land which prior to last month’s second-round presidential election ranked among desirable tourist destinations somewhere around Upper Volta, but which is now experiencing a tourist boom, as HN reports (Crisis in Ukraine As Advertising Trick). (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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Americans, Cuddle Your President!

Monday, August 16th, 2004

There’s an interesting article in today’s Hospodárské noviny (Cuddle Your President), by Nad’a Klevisová, reporting in wonder about one aspect of American democracy that apparently has not yet percolated through to the Czech version: political knick-knacks and souvenirs. It begins:

Let’s imagine that presidential elections come around again and Václav Klaus once again stands as a candidate. So his supporters flood into the stores to buy him in miniature, in a suit with a proper tie, and with buttons where his solar plexus is located. Ridiculous? Not in America.

(more…)

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Time for a New European Commission!

Monday, July 12th, 2004

It may be getting into vacation season in the EU, but now that a new European Commission President has been agreed upon by the European Council (he’s Portugal’s José Manuel Barroso, of course) the horse-trading and dealing surrounding the question of just who will be on the new Commission (which takes office November 1) is starting in earnest. The leading Czech business newspaper, Hospodárské noviny covers the action (The Battle Begins Over the Composition of the European Commission), and notes that this time the issue is complicated by the fact that, with this transition, the Commission will go from a system where the five biggest lands get two commissioners and everyone else one (so that there have been thirty of these since the enlargement in May) to a system where every country gets one (thus there are twenty-five in total.) (more…)

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Ireland Takes Aim at Alcohol

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2004

This might not have been addressed directly in the Reader’s Digest-sponsored Euro-survey I reported yesterday – but when you’re asked to name a great partying nation, the Irish would be at least near the top of your list, am I right? But that would be before you remember that it was precisely Ireland where Europe’s first public-smoking ban was introduced at the end of last March, just barely three months ago. A successful public-smoking ban, too, at least successful so far, and that naturally starts people’s thoughts heading in the direction of whether such a measure can’t also succeed elsewhere. (Of course, Norway banned public smoking in turn just this very month.)

On the other hand, a recent report in the main Czech business newspaper Hospodárské noviny points to this anti-vice crusade spreading in another direction: still within Ireland, at least to begin with, but now with a view to throttling the consumption of alcoholic drinks (The Irish Go to War with Drink, Want ID-Checks, Higher Excise Taxes). (more…)

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Verhofstadt for Next EU Commission President?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2004

The Czech Republic’s leading business newspaper, Hospodárské noviny (yes, of all sources) has tipped the successor to Romano Prodi as President of the European Commission when the present Commission’s term of office expires at the end of this year: Guy Verhofstadt, currently Belgian prime minister. Described in the article’s lead as a “Euro-optimist and centralist,” Verhofstadt is said to have strong support for the job from both French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. (It helps that Verhofstadt, from the Dutch-speaking half of Belgium, also speaks fluent French. I’m not aware whether he speaks German.) In days gone by those two endorsements would have been all that it took to get the job, even in the teeth of what the article calls British “reluctance” towards him and even American distrust. But the recent addition since then of ten new member-states, who have shown themselves unwilling simply to blindly fall in line with the dictates of the Franco-German EU “motor,” may turn out to change this dynamic – although the article also reports that the new member-states have all uniformly had good experiences with Verhofstadt. (more…)

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American Viewed by Europe, Europe Viewed by America

Monday, May 31st, 2004

Yesterday’s posting (the one about Poland, not the one about Luxembourg) had something interesting in connection with that opinion article by George Soros, Victims as Perpetrators. You’ll recall that I first became aware of it from its publication rather outside the regular English-language precincts of the Internet, namely in the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita. Once discovered there, though, it only took Google to track down the even more obscurely-published original English version. Maybe this phenomenon is brand new for €S; I can’t recall anything similar happening, although I can’t be absolutely sure that it has not (and, sorry, I’m not inclined to search through my archives to find out).

In any case – what do you know? – it’s about to happen again. I was checking out the Czech press (since today, the last Monday in May, is no sort of holiday there – no Memorial Day, no bank holiday, no Pentecost or anything else) and ran across a very interesting opinion piece in Hospodarske noviny entitled (there) Europe in the Eyes of America, by Hans Bergstrom, lecturer in political science at the University of Goteborg (Sweden). Again, don’t bother brushing up on your Czech unless you were looking for an excuse: I pretty easily found what must be the original article in English (unless Bergstrom wrote the original in Swedish) here in (of all places) the Taipei Times. Or if you prefer “Your right to know: A new voice for Pakistan,” check out the same in the Pakistan Daily Times(!). (more…)

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Six of One, Half-A-Dozen of the Other

Wednesday, April 7th, 2004

Let’s continue today our “When Good Central European Electorates Go Bad” series in which, while defending to the death the right of voters there to choose the governments they want, we take out our spectacles, lean in for a closer look, and then blurt out “You want to choose that lot?!”

Today’s subject is one I mentioned in passing in this weblog’s last post, namely the seemingly unstoppable ascent of Vladimir Meciar to the presidency of the Slovak Republic. I took a closer look myself, and while the crisp, succinct, bottom-line summary of what’s going on that I’ve just given you is bad enough, in fact the situation viewed more broadly is even worse – not that there aren’t plenty of comic elements that can’t be extracted to put a little sugar on the bitter pill. Or at least that’s for those of you who are not Slovak and so will not have to live through the next few years with the results of what is about to happen. We’ll do our best to do this in the following, so get yourself in tune for some bittersweet humor. (more…)

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Into the New Year With Fear and Trembling

Friday, January 2nd, 2004

You would really think the Czechs would be looking forward to 2004. After all, this is the year when, on May 1, they finally enter the European Union. True, there’s no new-and-improved Constitutional Treaty in place yet to adjust the EU to the reality of ten new members, but that’s (hopefully) just a matter of time; in any case, at least Vladimir Spidla’s government (no matter what the opinions of President Václav Klaus may be) can’t really be blamed for the constitutional hold-up.

But that’s not the case, as a pair of articles by Petr Holub in today’s Hospodárské noviny reveals. As Holub points out at the beginning of one (The More the Union Approaches, the More Czechs Are Afraid), “Half of the people think that they will have it worse [in the coming year], and the cause is what they themselves approved in a referendum – May’s accession into the European Union.” (more…)

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Countdown to the Brussels Summit III: Unborn EU Constitution Already Has First Prominent Rejector

Wednesday, December 10th, 2003

As we’re all painfully aware, the Constitution (or, properly, “Constitutional Treaty”) for the European Union is still only in draft form. It awaits final approval (in whichever mutually-agreed altered form) from the governments of twenty-five member-states (present, and the ten of the immediate future) which is supposed to come out of the summit of heads-of-government starting this Friday in Brussels – “supposed to.” There will then follow ratification processes in all those twenty-five states, lasting through the first half of 2004, and themselves by no means assured of resulting in approval in all cases.

There’s a long road yet to go for the Constitution, then. Nonetheless, one EU head-of-state has already come out against it – or perhaps “future EU head-of-state” would be more accurate, since that was Czech President Václav Klaus, who on Monday declared Byl bych radsí, kdyby zadná taková ústava nebyla prijata, or “I would rather that no constitution of this sort be accepted.” (Sorry, Czech purists: as usual, some diacritics have had to be omitted.) He uttered this after a meeting at which Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla briefed him on the negotiating mandate the Czech delegation (headed by Spidla) will take into this weekend’s EU summit.

On the subject of Czech press coverage of this, I would like to start off with where there isn’t any, namely in Lidové noviny, which skipped Klaus’ declaration entirely. (Could this have to do with the fact that LN is the paper closest to Klaus – he wrote a regular column for it in his pre-presidential days – and that this anti-Constitution declaration might be viewed by some as embarrassing?) (more…)

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Of Gloom, Expensive Hotels, and Transport Problems

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2003

We’re back to Euro 2004 Group D: “Group of Death” analysis today, and it’s the turn of the Czech press, featuring an interview with Czech national team coach Karel Brückner, plus one with Czech team captain Pavel Nedved – plus more individual quotes from various figures. But the thing that I really wanted to show you I can’t, because it’s a copyrighted picture, capturing Brückner at the moment of last Sunday’s drawing, which appeared on the front page of Monday’s Mladá fronta dnes: He is shown there in Lisbon in his suit, with his FIFA badge around his neck, clutching his head in disbelief and amazement (although still smiling), and the caption reads “Ajajaj!” – which is Czech for Mexican, if you get what I’m saying. (more…)

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“Good-Bye, Lenin” – Hello, Communism?

Tuesday, November 18th, 2003

Today we return after a long absence to the Czech press and, once again, the timing is propitious. For yesterday was the last day of a three-day weekend in the Czech Republic, since each year 17 November is celebrated as the day, in 1989, of the brutally-suppressed student demonstration against the Czechoslovak Communist regime that set off the “Velvet Revolution.” This would topple that regime in short order, and replace it with a new government, most of whose key functionaries (including foreign minister – Jiri Dienstbier, formerly your friendly neighborhood window-washer – but of course topped of by President Václav Havel) were plucked either from jail or demeaning manual occupations.

(Actually, 17 November was an important day of commemoration even before 1989. That was the day in 1939 when the Nazi occupiers moved against university student agitators by executing nine of them, sending a further 1,200 to concentration camps, and closing down all Czech universities. The students of 1989 therefore had for 17 November a ready-made, “50th anniversary” pretext to gain from the Communist authorities license to hold demonstrations – except that it soon turned out that they were against the then-government, and the riot police moved in.)

The thing is, this year 17 November has for many a sad and ironic tinge to it, and that is because that same Communist Party is now the second most-popular political party in national opinion polls, and is openly planning its path into government again by means of elections that have to occur by 2006. But is it really “that same Communist Party”? That’s the Kc 64,000 question. For now, let it suffice to say that the KSCM (Czech initials for the “Communist Party of the Czech Lands and Moravia”) has never renounced the policies or the behavior of its totalitarian predecessor, the KSC (“Communist Party of Czechoslovakia”), beyond some grudging admissions that “it’s true certain mistakes were made.” This sets it apart from almost all of what used to be its “fraternal socialist” ruling-party counterparts elsewhere in the East Bloc – with the exception, of course, of the Russian Communist Party. (There’s also a similarly-unreformed Communist Party of Slovakia.) On the other hand, the Communist parties in Poland and Hungary, to cite but two prominent examples, have gone down another path since 1989: they have transformed themselves into true social democratic parties and are in fact both currently the party of government in their respective countries! (Not that either is having a very easy time of it, but that’s another story . . .)

It’s no surprise, then, that although the growing political power of the KSCM should be something of note regardless of the time of year, the November 17 holiday, a holiday of liberation from Communism, naturally helps to focus public attention on the issue. (That should probably also have been true of a recent incident in which the new memorial to the victims of Communism in Prague – dedicated only last year – was vandalized, but I didn’t pick up any mention of this in the articles that follow.)

The leading Czech business newspaper Hospodarske noviny was on top of all this as early as last Friday with a series of articles on the Czech Communists. (more…)

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Czech Press: “At a Dead End”

Monday, October 20th, 2003

The Czech on-line press has not paid too much attention to the recent Brussels EU summit. The exception is Hospodarske noviny, the country’s leading business newspaper. HN is no more impressed by the results out of Brussels than were the French or Dutch press; the headline reads International Conference Is As Yet at a Dead End. In fact, the article reminds us that things have bogged down this way despite four EU meetings intended to get things moving with the approval of the EU Constitution: There were the summits of heads of state/government in Rome and now in Brussels, yes, but each of those also had a meeting of EU foreign ministers attached to it, namely at Rome and Luxembourg. And so far – nothing.

As you would expect, a specifically-Czech tidbit is thrown into Hospodarske noviny’s reporting: Czech foreign minister Cyril Svoboda has been lobbying at these events to prevent the EU “Minister of Foreign Affairs,” envisaged in the draft Constitution, from actually having that title. According to Svoboda, much better would be something less grandiose, like “Foreign Policy Representative.” “Minister,” you see, implies a sovereign state – and we don’t want to give any support to the notion that this Constitution will in any way create a sovereign state. (Actually, within the Czech Republic it is primarily President Václav Klaus and his opposition ODS party who are sticklers on points such as this; Svoboda’s campaign reflects his government’s weak position in the Czech legislature, which forces that government to keep the ODS sweet by taking up its causes in this way at the EU level.)

The HN article speaks of a compromise “package” that EU President Silvio Berlusconi undertook at the Brussels summit to fashion, which would be examined by the EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Rome on 28/29 November, to prepare it hopefully for acceptance at the end-of-presidency EU summit of 12/13 December. It also mentions the mid-November “mini-summit” that Berlusconi wanted to hold to help him along with this; but that last bit has probably by now been overtaken by events, given the reluctance to meet yet again on the part of EU government heads that emerged in the French and Dutch press.

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Bison Beer Best

Saturday, September 27th, 2003

Today we’re again a bit on the parochial side. But not in the Dutch sense – rather, in the Czech sense, since I need to head to Prague again this evening for a few days. So naturally I’ve been heavily into the Czech press lately. What has been going on? On the one hand, the Czech socialist coalition government just (barely) survived a vote of confidence in Parliament, and the main governing party looks like it’s about to throw out a maverick within its ranks whose non-cooperation made the confidence vote so close. On the other hand, the results of the Czech Beer Competition for 2003 have just been announced. Which story would you rather hear more about?

I’m guessing the latter. Both Hospodarske noviny and Právo (registration required – in Czech!) have write-ups on the just-completed Czech Beer Competition, Právo being slightly more-informative. (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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