In a New Years address to the nation President Vaclav Klaus highlighted the fact that the Czech Republic is entering its 15th year of democracy. He said Czechs hold the future in their own hands and that they alone bear responsibility for the successes and failures that the new year will bring. Mr. Klaus noted the fact that in just a few months time the country would be joining the EU which he described as a new chapter in the country's history. The president said that the country would lose part of its sovereignty but that there would be advantages to make up for it. He expressed the hope that Czechs would avail themselves of all the opportunities opening up to them and that Czech representatives in Brussels would defend the country's interests well. Mr. Klaus appealed to all Czechs to make a wise and prudent choice when they vote both in local elections and elections to the European Parliament.
Czechs have entered the new year bracing for a series of tax hikes which will increase the price of alcohol, cigarettes, fuel, telecommunications and services. The tax increases, which are part of the government's fiscal reforms, prompted an end of year shopping frenzy with people stocking up on the respective products. A few large stores in Prague had sold out of the most popular brands of alcohol well before closing time on Wednesday and people packed their trolleys with cartons of cigarettes. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla has said that if the public finance reforms are successful, the Czech Republic could become one of the most developed nations of the ten countries which are to join the EU on May 1st.
The police report that boisterous New Year celebrations in Prague have resulted in a number of serious injuries. A 51 year old woman died of alcohol poisoning after drinking a half litre of vodka in a Prague restaurant and several people, including young children, suffered severe burns from firework explosions. Prague ambulances responded to 84 emergency calls during the night. Doctors reportedly attended to three children, all aged under 13, who were severely drunk.
Czech Railways struck a last minute deal with its trade unions just hours before the end of the year, averting a threatened strike by its 78,000 workers. Both sides compromised by agreeing to a five percent wage hike next year and the elimination of about 6,000 jobs. Union negotiators had sought a ten percent wage increase, Czech railways originally offered a three percent rise. Officials say that a combination of wage hikes, job cuts and previously announced route reductions should keep the railway's 2004 expenses at around the 2003 level.
It is a cold and frosty day here in Central Europe with scattered snow showers and day temperatures at around 0 degrees Celsius. Friday is expected to bring partly cloudy skies with more snow showers and a further drop in day temperatures to minus 7 degrees Celsius.
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