Press Review

"A land of devastation and despair" is how the Czech papers describe the west Indian state of Gujarat following India's worst-ever earthquake on Friday. Monday's papers report on a weekend of unimaginable horrors as more and more dead bodies piled up, to be burnt in the streets for fear of disease, and desperate survivors used their bare hands to sift through the rubble in the hope of finding missing family members. The papers report that the Czech Republic is partaking in the international effort to alleviate the plight of survivors by dispatching emergency aid and financial donations.

On the domestic scene, it is the new leader of the four party coalition Cyril Svoboda who has stolen the show. The fact that a politician who was not even in the running upstaged the three hot candidates has given commentators a field day speculating about the power struggles within the right of centre alliance. Mlada Fronta Dnes notes that Svoboda's election is all the more surprising because he has never hidden his preference to cooperate with the Social Democrats rather that Vaclav Klaus' Civic Democratic Party. Given that the four party coalition has in recent months profiled itself very much to the right of centre one wonders where the new shadow prime minister intends to lead the four party alliance -and what that might do to its integrity, writes Mlada Fronta Dnes.

Jiri Leschtina reminds readers that Cyril Svoboda twice lost the battle for the top post in his own Christian Democratic Party, beaten on both occasions by political rival Jan Kasal. Svoboda's was a lacklustre candidacy on both occasions - no inspiring vision and weak-to-outright-dull rhetoric, Leschtina notes. The fact that he went on to bigger and better things over Jan Kasal's head shows that he triumphed for other reasons that his own qualities as a politician. However, one should not write him off in advance, Leschtina concludes, some politicians "grow with responsibility" and Svoboda may show us all, yet.

Lidove Noviny's front page story is another message from Fidel Castro. " Cuba has Pilip's "confession" on video" reads the front page headline, Ivan Pilip being one of the two Czechs jailed by the Cuban authorities for alleged "subversive actions" against the Castro regime. According to the paper, the alleged "confession" is some fairly innocent information Pilip imparted during his first interrogation at police headquarters. Lidove Noviny's commentator Frantisek Sulc suggests that Havana really has very little to go on but is milking the international publicity.

Castro has managed to kill two birds with one stone, Sulc says; he has rapped the Czechs on the knuckles for daring to support a resolution condemning his regime and he has got himself on front pages around the world. However, Cuba's stance is counter-productive, the author notes, Czechs are already calling off planned holidays on the island, whose income depends primarily on tourism, and the rest of the world can see for itself what Castro's alleged "island of freedom" is really like.

On a different topic, the Czech foreigners' law has been subject to heavy criticism, but there is good news in the papers today for foreigners residing permanently in the Czech Republic. The Lower House has finally moved to amend a law which hereto prevented the children of foreigners with permanent residence permits from claiming medical insurance, in spite of the fact that their parents were paying taxes and had health insurance. The bill still has to be approved by the Senate and signed by the President but its passage is expected to be a smooth one.

On the other hand, there is bad news on a different count. A new traffic law instructs driving schools not to accept applicants who do not have a Czech citizen's ID, which leaves foreigners who want to learn to drive a car effectively out in the cold. "This stipulation is ridiculous" one instructor told Pravo, twenty foreigners took the course last year, and we are already having to turn away foreign applicants. No doubt, Parliament will get onto that as well sometime, but readers may well ask themselves why nobody notices these things during the three readings that every bill is given in the Lower House.