The lower house has passed a bill banning the country's regional authorities from transforming hospitals into private companies, overturning earlier approval from the Senate. Regional governors and the opposition Civic Democrats have strongly criticised Friday's vote, saying they may take the matter to the Constitutional Court.
Support for the opposition Civic Democrats has risen to 36%, the party's strongest ever backing, suggests a poll just released by the STEM polling agency. Last year the right-of-centre party came first in European Parliament, regional and Senate elections. Second in the latest poll were the Communist Party with 17 percent support, followed by the ruling Social Democrats with 14 percent.
The lower house has voted to extend the mission of a Czech military police unit in Iraq. If the decision is approved by the Senate next week, the Czech unit will remain in Iraq until the end of the year; they had been due to return at the end of February. The Czech soldiers, around 90 in total, are training Iraqi police officers in the south of the country.
It will take Czechs, Poles and Hungarians decades to reach Western European income levels, according to a study by the Economist Corporate Network quoted in the Czech paper Lidove noviny on Friday. The report suggests the new EU member states will never catch up with Germany in terms of wages, but should reach the same levels as the Spanish and Portuguese in 14 to 18 years.
A diplomatic row has erupted between the Czech Republic and Belarus; on Friday the Czech authorities expelled a Belarusian diplomat, soon after the expulsion of Czech diplomat Pavel Krivohlavy from Minsk. He had been arrested and briefly detained on Wednesday evening, reportedly while drinking alcohol with a 17-year-old boy. The Czech Foreign Ministry said the authorities in Belarus had contravened international law by failing to respect diplomatic immunity. The Czech charge d'affaires in Belarus, Vladimir Ruml, has also returned to Prague, at least temporarily.
Former health minister Marie Souckova has been charged with abuse of office, in addition to earlier charges of breach of public trust. Both accusations follow a controversial contract Ms Souckova signed with a lawyer who represented the Health Ministry in an arbitration case. If found guilty the former minister, who recently quit the Social Democratic Party, could face up to ten years in prison.
An Olomouc regional court has rehabilitated former counter intelligence agent Vladimir Hucin clearing him of charges of illegal possession of weapons that he was to have committed almost thirty years ago. The judge ruled that since the weapons in his possession were not fully functional Hucin did not commit any crime. Hucin said he was satisfied with the verdict but described it as a Pyrrhic victory. In 1977 Hucin was convicted to nine months in prison by the communist authorities for allegedly collecting weapons and explosives to be used against the regime. He denied the allegations.
On a one day visit to the Czech Republic, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel warned Czechs against rejecting the EU Constitution in a national referendum. He said such a move would harm the small and medium sized members of the EU and would be a major step back for Europe. His Czech counterpart Stanislav Gross agreed that putting the Constitution in question would be a big mistake which would isolate the Czech Republic from the EU mainstream. Czech politicians are divided over the EU Constitution. Although the Czech coalition government supports it, the country's main opposition party of right-wing Civic Democrats as well as President Klaus are opposed to it.
Parliament's Committee for Foreign Affairs has criticized the government for allegedly giving too little humanitarian aid to developing countries and tsunami devastated south-east Asia. The head of the committee Vladimir Lastuvka said that the sums earmarked for humanitarian aid did not correspond to the country's economic means. He did not specify how much higher the donations should be. The Czech Republic contributed 700 million crowns to the EU Development Fund last year. In the wake of the tsunami disaster the government earmarked 15 million crowns for humanitarian aid and another 200 million for reconstruction. Czechs have collected over 269 million crowns in public donations.
During talks with the Czech Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, the Austrian Chancellor also said his country would welcome a gesture of reconciliation from the Czech government towards the ethnic German minority which was expelled from Czechoslovakia after WWII. Mr. Schuessel said his country was still learning from the painful experience of the war and that it would value a similar approach from the Czech Republic. Not all members of the German ethnic minority were necessarily guilty, and it would be fair to recognize that, the Chancellor said. The Czech Prime Minister failed to respond to the appeal. The expulsion of some 2.5 million ethnic Germans after the war remains a sensitive issue on both sides of the border.