News Saturday, JANUARY 23rd, 1999

Hello and welcome to Radio Prague. I'm Ray Furlong and we begin with a bulletin of news. First the headlines:

Those are the headlines - now the news in more detail.

The latest trade figures show that the Czech Republic posted a deficit of almost 18 billion crowns in December last year, making for an overall yearly deficit of some 79.5 billion. This is around 60 billion crowns less than in 1997 - a statistic which the central bank has welcomed. However, bank spokesman Martin Svehla said external factors in the first half of 1998 had helped Czech exporters, and it was not clear whether these would be repeated this year. Deputy prime minister for the economy Pavel Mertlik said Czech exports suffered what he called "a crisis of competitiveness" resulting from the early years of economic reform. Meanwhile, independent analysts said high interest rates and falling demand for imports in the European Union also contributed to the problems faced by Czech exporters.

More economic news - a consortium is being set up to rival SPT Telecom when its monopoly on fixed-line telephones runs out. TeleDenmark and Czech Radiocommunications are behind the joint venture, and hope to start operating its phones in 2001. Two other companies have also announced plans to challenge SPT Telecom.

Croatia has offered to provide the Czech Republic with its own holiday resort - as a way of re-paying its debt. The initiative was announced after talks between Croatia's Foreign Minister, Mate Granic, and his Czech counterpart Jan Kavan. It's not clear exactly what the deal would look like - but the issue will be discussed further next month, when deputy ministers meet in Zagreb. Croatia is a traditional destination for Czech tourists, and hosted around half a million of them last year. After his talks with Kavan, Granic was received by Czech President Vaclav Havel.

The Prague Municipal Court has been at the centre of media attention as a highly publicised libel case has opened. Leading opposition politician Miroslav Macek, of the Civic Democratic Party or ODS, accuses the Prime Minister, Milos Zeman, of damaging his reputation by alleging that the privatisation of a publishing house in the early 1990s - in which Macek was involved - was a clear case of asset stripping. Macek said Zeman's remarks made him afraid to go out in public, because people whispered behind his back and spat at him on the tram. He is demanding both an apology and financial compensation - but after hearing testimony from Macek and Zeman, the court postponed further deliberation of the case until March.

Meanwhile the ODS has agreed to pay a fine of 90,000 crowns for placing a large billboard with a picture of its leader - Vaclav Klaus - on Prague's Letna common during last year's Senate elections. The case was a great controversy at the time, with opponents of the ODS saying the party had broken the law by placing the billboard there without planning permission. They also noted with irony that Klaus's portrait was adorning a spot where an enormous statue of Stalin had once stood. ODS spokesman Lukas Herold said the party had lost its appeal against the fine and would pay it next week.

And finally the weekend weather - Basically we can expect overcast skies, drizzle, and overnight frost. Temperatures will be between zero and five degrees Celsius, falling to as much as minus five during the night. And that's the news.