Czech trade with Arab countries not jeopardised by Zeman's remarks

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Following Prime Minister Zeman's remarks about the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat last week, two of his official visits to Arab countries have had to be postponed. As a consequence, it seems that Mr Zeman's lack of diplomacy might cost Czech companies a lot of money and Czech ambassadors will have a lot to explain. Pavla Horakova has more.

Prime Minister Zeman's statements comparing the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler drew a wave of protests and not only in the Arab world. On Tuesday, Mr Zeman issued a press release in which he strongly denied having compared the two men. However, reacting to Mr Zeman's statements, Egypt and Tunisia have requested that the Czech Prime Minister's planned trips to the respective countries be postponed. Mr Zeman was to be accompanied by the Trade and Industry Minister Miroslav Gregr and twenty Czech businessmen who planned to sign important business contracts in the countries. However, the conclusion of these business deals is now highly uncertain. Martin Tlapa is the director of the Czech government's trade promotion agency, CzechTrade. I asked him whether he thought these contracts were in jeopardy.

"What is happening is that the meetings will be postponed and I'm not worried too much about the output of the trade between the Czech Republic and Arab countries. What was presented in the newspapers definitely did not help business. It depends on the companies - I don't know the details of that - but what I know from some of them and from the press, I think there will be no such dramatic output."

What is the volume of Czech trade with Arab countries and will anything change due to the latest diplomatic scandal? Mr Tlapa of CzechTrade again.

"By the way, our exports reached only 15.7 billion Czech crowns last year, that accounts for about 1.5 percent of total export. I think it is needed to explain that the Czech foreign policy on the Middle East remains unchanged and also to do more active policy generally to increase trade with Arab countries."

The Foreign Minister Jan Kavan has instructed all Czech embassies, particularly in EU and Arab countries, to explain the Czech Republic's position on the conflict in the Middle East.

In its statement, the Foreign Ministry says that "the Czech Republic recognises the election of legitimate Palestinian representatives and considers Palestinian self-rule a necessary part of the Middle East settlement negotiations."

Eva Filipiova, the Czech ambassador to Lebanon, was the first Czech diplomat to set about smoothing relations - she presented documents from the Czech Foreign Ministry along with a statement by President Havel and Prime Minister Zeman to the Lebanese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday. While EU countries seem to have accepted the Czech explanation of the affair, the Czech Foreign Ministry believes that diplomatic efforts still need to be made in Arab countries in order to improve the Czech Republic's damaged reputation.