Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg visited Benghazi on Wednesday for talks with members of Libya’s National Transitional Council, the first direct contact with the rebels since the start of the anti-Qaddafi uprising in February. Mr Schwarzenberg, who was accompanied by the head of the lower houses’ foreign affairs committee, David Vodrážka, and deputy interior minister Jaroslav Hruška, also delivered some 2.5 million crowns worth of humanitarian aid destined for a field hospital near the city of Misrata. On his return, the Czech foreign minister will bring a number of children patients from Libya for treatment in Czech hospitals.
The Czech government approved on Wednesday another three healthcare reform bills. If passed by Parliament and signed into law by the president, the legislation will change the rules for assisted reproduction, sterilization, and castration; it will also overhaul the emergency rescue system and its funding, as well as rules governing the handling of patients’ records. The bills are part of a broader healthcare reform that, among other things, introduces standard healthcare covered by public insurance and extra care paid for by the patients themselves. The bulk of the reform bills were approved by the lower house last week.
In related news, the Czech government on Wednesday approved bills that will allow the establishment of private pension funds. Beginning in 2013, people will be able to transfer 3 percent of their pension insurance from the state-run pay-as-you-go system to the private funds on condition they will add another 2 percent out of their own pockets. Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek told reporters the bills would provide sufficient protection of the funds’ clients by strictly distinguishing between their savings and the property of the funds’ shareholders.
The planned creation of private pension funds has been criticized by the opposition and the country’s trade unions who are concerned people might lose their savings should the funds go bankrupt.
The Czech president on Wednesday singed into law an amendment to the Czech Foreign Exchange Act which will formally end a ban land sales to foreign nationals. The ban, a part of a Czech opt-out from EU law incorporated into the country’s accession treaty to the bloc, expired in May. The new amendment is expected to enter into force in mid July, a spokeswoman for the Finance Ministry said. However, foreigners have long been able to buy land through Czech intermediaries.
Martin Roman, the CEO of the Czech state-owned power giant ČEZ, told members of the lower house’s budget committee on Wednesday that Germany should pay up seven billion crowns a year for electricity transfers through the Czech Republic. Mr Roman said electricity produced in northern parts of Germany from renewable sources is transferred to the south of the country through the Czech power grid, adding that a Czech refusal would lead to a collapse of the German power network. The ČEZ CEO also said he expected Germany authorities to pressure the Czech government to phase-out nuclear power.
The Czech Republic’s external debt decreased by 54 billion crowns to 1.73 trillion crowns, or 47.1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, the Czech central bank said on Wednesday. The decrease was caused by lower liabilities of the Czech private and public sector abroad, the bank added. An analyst for the ČSOB bank said long-term liabilities represented a majority of the Czech external debt which posed little risk for the Czech economy and the exchange rate of the crown.
German and Austrian firms operating in the Czech Republic complain about the lack of German-speaking workers, according to a survey by the Czech-German Chamber of Commerce released on Wednesday. A mere 15 percent out of the 222 companies polled said the availability of Czech workers with a command of the German language was good while more than half said it was insufficient. The Czech-German Chamber of Commerce therefore plans to promote the teaching of German in Czech schools.
There are some 4,000 German, Austrian and Swiss firms operating in the Czech Republic, providing more than 100,000 jobs.
Ticket fares on Prague public transport are set to increase by six crowns as July 1st while their validity will be prolonged. Beginning on Friday, the basic ticket will cost 24 crowns, or 1.2 US dollars. However, it will be valid for 30 minutes and it will also allow the passenger to transfer freely between trams, busses and the metro, which was not possible before. The extended ticket will cost 32 crowns and will be valid for 90 minutes. The price of the daily pass will increase from 100 to 110 crowns while monthly, quarterly and yearly passes will cost the same. On Friday, the prices of Prague’s park and ride facilities will double from 10 to 20 crowns per day.
Parts of Prague city centre suffered a power cut on Wednesday afternoon due to a substation failure. For about 45 minutes beginning at 5:15 PM, electricity supply to the area of Wenceslas Square and parts of Vinohrady was cut, bringing trams to a half-hour standstill. A spokesman for the city’s energy supplier, Pražská energetika, said the problem might have been caused by hot weather.
The Czech Republic’s national football team dropped by four positions to the 36th place of the latest FIFA ranking, second worst position in history, due to the Czech team’s poor showing at a tournament in Japan earlier this month where the Czechs played two goalless games. The team now ranks 23rd among European nations; that means they will be seeded in the third pot at the draw of the 2014 World Cup qualification in July, with little chances of avoiding the strongest teams.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have offered Czech hockey veteran Jaromír Jágr a one-year contract to return to the NHL. Pittsburgh’s GM Ray Shero said the team had offered a fair price and had been impressed by the star Czech player at this year’s World Championships in Slovakia. Jágr - who has played in the Continental Hockey League over the last three years – is expected to reach a decision soon. Jágr began his NHL career with Pittsburgh 20 years ago and won back-to-back Stanley Cups. The Detroit Red Wings have also expressed an interest in acquiring Jágr, while at one point a potential move to Montreal was also highlighted in the media.
The next few days will be mostly overcast with rain and storms. Daytime highs should range between 22 and 26 degrees Celsius.