From the Weeklies

Why do ailing foreign presidents have to go to Austria to escape the grim reaper? Who'll give the former head of the Czech Intelligence Service a job? And, how far do you have to travel to see a real Chinese paddy field? Not as far as you think. Those are some of the interesting stories in this week's magazines.

Having been a federation for over seventy years - right up until 1993 - the Czech Republic and Slovakia frequently take a look at each other to see how their former federal partner measures up. The inclination to play this 'comparison game' is now stronger than ever, says the Sunday paper. Within two years both country's presidents have been brought to the brink of death with the same health condition: a perforated colon. And both heads of state ended up in the care of Austrian doctors. Although it was natural that the Czech president, who was holidaying in Austria when the crisis struck, should have ended up at Innsbruck hospital, it is less natural that his two subsequent operations were also performed by Professor Ernst Bodner from Innsbruck at the Czech president's explicit request.

Last week the Slovak president, Rudolf Schuster, who nearly died following two operations in Bratislava, was transferred in a "very critical" condition to Innsbruck, where his condition has since stabilized. Indeed his recovery was so striking that his family allegedly wants to take the respective Slovak health authorities to court for negligence. Thus Professor Bodner, who had left the Czech president's bedside only a fortnight ago, was recalled from holiday to save the life of the Slovak president, the paper notes. In an article entitled "Why is Austria called upon to save the lives of foreign presidents?" it echoes the question that a great many Czechs and Slovaks are asking. Are their own hospitals and doctors incapable of providing adequate medical care? And if such care isn't available for their heads of state, what sort of care is the man in the street getting?

"Presidents have Bodner - but who do we have?" was how one journalist put it. Profesor Frantisek Antos, a prominent surgeon at Prague's Bulovka Hospital, admits that at this point Austrian doctors are in a position to provide better health care. The equipment they have surpasses our own, he admits. For instance the equipment that oxygenates the blood outside the body - which helped save President Schuster's life - is not available in Prague or Bratislava. Our mortality rate in cases such as this is around 47%, Austria's is at around 40%.

In its own analysis of the situation, Respekt magazine says that the incident has revealed how ill-prepared Slovak politicians are for such a crisis. Although the head of state was in a critical condition, the news was kept from the press for as long as possible - and even the Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda and Speaker of Parliament Josef Migas, to whom the president's powers are transferred in the event of a crisis, were not informed about what was happening in time. A sign that many of the old ways have not been abandoned, notes Radio Free Europe's commentator Milan Zitny in this week's edition of Respekt.

Nowadays you see all kinds of people at labour offices. Some are desperate for any kind of work, others only want something in their former field of activity and others don't really want a job at all - but they need to pretend in order to claim social support. They range from cleaners to university graduates. But what do you do when you're an out-of-work former head of the Czech Intelligence Service? Ever since Karel Vulterin, former head of the BIS, was sacked in January of 1999 he's been looking around for something suitable. But whenever he looks too closely, the papers are up in arms about what "the man who knows everything" might tell his future employer. After a brief sojourn in the PR department of a private TV station, the former intelligence chief went job hunting again and now he's got his sights set on the post of director of the Happy Day Casino. He claims there's nothing more suitable on the horizon.

Meanwhile, Frantisek Ondrus, a member of the Parliamentary Commission in charge of the BIS, is seriously concerned. "We can't have this man running around taking any job that's offered to him," he told Tyden. In such cases it is the accepted practice for the government to find the official in question a lucrative position, somewhere where he is unlikely to present a security risk. However, on the Cabinet, only Culture Minister Pavel Dostal has offered the former BIS chief a job - which he promptly turned down as inappropriate. The former laboratory expert, who worked in Prague's Institute of Criminology until he landed in high politics at the recommendation of an old schoolfriend, finds himself stuck high up the career ladder with few friends in the right places. He must, however, have plenty of aces up his sleeve and only time will tell whether he will resort to using them.

Challenged by Tyden magazine as to whether he really plans to accept the Happy Day Casino post, the former intelligence chief exclaimed "How on earth did you get wind of that?" He really should know better.

If you are driving in the vicinity of Uherske Hradiste in south Moravia, the last thing you'd expect to see is Chinese farmers toiling in paddy fields. Well, think again, says Kvety magazine. Sad to say, the field workers are not wearing the typical slanting straw hats, but baseball caps and jeans rolled up to the knees as they wade through muddy water barefoot planting tufts of rice. The man responsible for this incredible picture is 37-year-old Liu Shaojun. Liu first tried doing business in the Czech Republic shortly after the 1989 revolution, importing cheap Chinese-made clothes. When he had the necessary finances he opened a small Chinese restaurant - the Hua-xia - "the birth of China" in English. The food was good and the place soon became popular with the locals but as economic recession set in Liu noticed that 98 crowns for a dish of Kung Pao had become too much. People wanted it, but they couldn't afford it very often. It was soon clear what needed to be done. The only way to make his dishes cheaper was to grow his own rice and vegetables. The Peking authorities approved a loan and Liu promptly rented a field and went to work. Whoever heard of rice fields in Moravia? "The weather conditions in this part of Moravia are very similar to those of northern China," Liu says confidently. "If we keep the fields well irrigated there's no way we can get a bad harvest."

Liu is not the only Chinese who has confidence in his farming abilities. During the severe drought earlier this year, it was only the handful of Chinese farmers who make a living growing Chinese vegetables here in the Czech Republic, who didn't lament that their harvest was lost. "Chinese vegetables are good vegetables," one of them said. "Good and strong - they can withstand a lot." The only problem these isolated farming communities have is getting extra help. "Our gardeners work 18 hours a day - Czech gardeners won't accept this," one of them explains. Well, with 18 hours of pampering a day - maybe even Czech vegetables would do wonders!

But, back to Liu's rice field. Asked how his Czech neighbours have accepted this novelty, Liu says that they are watching with amusement and waiting to see how well the experiment turns out. "Many of our plum trees are dying of a dreaded tree disease, one of them says. If there are no plum-trees left maybe we'll all plant rice and replace our local plum brandy with some kind of rice wine." Czech saki?