News in Brief: December’s Headlines in the Czech Republic

Brno, Jan 8 (BD) – A round-up of Czech news headlines from December and the New Year.

Controversy Related to EU Subsidies Paid to Babiš’ Firms Continues

Andrej Babiš came under renewed pressure at the beginning of the month, following the leak of an EU legal document saying that his company Agrofert’s receipt of EU subsidies constituted a “conflict of interest”, and recommending reimbursement of the subsidies paid, and for Babiš and his family to sever ties with the company. The document was a legal opinion published on 19 November intended to provide information to the European Commission (Reuters, 3 December, “Billionaire Czech PM faces more legal trouble over use of EU funds”).

The European Parliament debated the issue on 12 December, with EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger announcing during the debate that subsidies paid to Agrofert would be halted until more details of the case were established (Prague Monitor, 13 December, “MEPs debate Babiš’ conflict of interest”). MEPs passed a resolution endorsing this position the following day, by a vote of 434-64 (Radio Praha, 13 December, “Subsidies to Agrofert suspended after Babiš conflict of interest vote in Brussels”). Babiš subsequently stood down from the Council for Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF), a government committee that deals with EU subsidies (VOA News, 17 December, “Czech PM, to Avoid Conflict of Interest, Steps Down from Govt. Body”).

Row Over Russian and Chinese Espionage Activities in the Czech Republic

The Czech intelligence agency, the Security Information Service (BIS), issued a report at the beginning of the month warning of increased Russian and Chinese espionage activity in the Czech Republic (Prague Monitor, 4 December 2018, “BIS says Russian and Chinese spies are increasing activity”), following a report from the same organisation the previous week that it was “obvious” Russia had been behind recent cyberattacks on Czech government targets (Radio Free Europe, 3 December 2018, “Czech Spy Agency Blames Russia For Cyberattacks On Foreign Ministry, Diplomats”). In response, President Milos Zeman described BIS as “amateurs” and accused them of being ineffective (Prague Monitor, 7 December, “Zeman criticizes BIS, calls them amateurs”), but other politicians from both coalition and opposition parties spoke in the agency’s defence through the course of the following week (Prague Monitor, 10 December, “Maláčová and Stanjura support BIS”).

Methane Explosion in Coal Mine Kills 13 Miners

On 20 December, a methane explosion at the CSM coal mine in Karvina, in the east of the Czech Republic close to the Polish border, killed 13 miners and left 10 injured, in the worst mining incident in the country since 1990. Twelve of the miners killed were Polish citizens (Reuters, 20 December, “Worst Czech coal mine blast in decades kills 12 Poles, one Czech”).  

Regional Development Minister Implicated in Corruption Probe

Klara Dostálová (ANO), Minister for Regional Development, was named as a prime suspect in an ongoing police investigation into suspected corruption at Czech Tourism in 2016, when she was the Deputy Minister responsible for the organisation. The case relates to alleged impropriety in the awarding of CZK 38 million of government contracts, which were overseen by Dostálová. In response, the leaders of opposition parties TOP 09, STAN, ODS and the Pirates called for Dostálová’s resignation (Prague Monitor, 7 December, “Opposition calls for Dostálová’s resignation”).

President Zeman Speaks to the Nation in Christmas Address

President Milos Zeman gave a televised speech on 26 December, in which he thanked ANO, CSSD and the Communist Party for providing a government. He also used his speech to restate his opposition to “uncontrolled immigration”, and called on the government to consider compulsory voting to address low voter turnout in Czech elections (Prague Monitor, 27 December, “Zeman talks immigration and mandatory voting in Christmas address”).

Parliamentary Leaders Address the Nation in New Year’s Day Speeches

A week later on New Year’s Day, the former traditional date for political leaders to address the nation, Senate Chair Jaroslav Kubera (ODS) and Radek Vondráček (ANO), Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, also gave televised speeches. Both called for more civility in public discourse, and Kubera also used the opportunity to criticise the European Union and the ban on smoking in public places (Radio Praha, 2 January 2019, “Czech Parliamentary Leaders Use New Year’s Day Addresses to Call For Greater Civility”).

ANO Maintains Lead in National Opinion Polls

December opinion polls conducted by the Public Opinion Research Centre (CVVM) indicate that ANO would come out on top in a general election, with 33.5%, ahead of ODS (14.5%) and the Pirate Party (14%). According to the poll, the number of parliamentary parties would be reduced from nine to five, with only the Communists (10%) and CSSD (9.5%) also passing the threshold for representation. Current parliamentary parties TOP 09, STAN, KDU-CSL and SPD would all receive below 5% and be excluded (Prague Monitor, 21 December, “ANO would win general elections with 33.5% of the vote”).

Changes in Leadership of Czech Political Parties

Petr Gazdík, head of the opposition Alliance of Mayors and Independents (STAN) announced that he would be stepping down as leader in April to spend more time with his family (Prague Monitor, 14 December 2018, “Gazdík to finish term as STAN chief in April”). Petr Mach, founder of the Party of Free Citizens (Svobodní) and a former MEP, announced that he would be quitting the party and not leading them into the European Parliament elections as planned (Prague Monitor, 17 December 2018, “Petr Mach quits SSO, will not lead European Election campaign”).

Prague Enters Top 20 Most Visited Cities in the World

According to new data released by Euromonitor International, Prague is now the 20th most visited city in the world, with 8,806,700 visitors in 2017. The city is placed fourth in Europe, behind London, Paris, and Rome (Prague Monitor, 10 December, “Prague breaks into Top 20 worldwide most visited cities”).

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