From the Weeklies

The Czech Republic's historic regional elections presented a sorry picture. Why did two thirds of Czechs turn their backs on local government? Scientists are now able to decipher our genetic code, but do we really want to know what the future holds? And women in the army: a reality which many Czechs still find difficult to accept. Those are some of the interesting stories in this week's magazines.

,Tyden's topic of the week is the establishment of regional parliaments "a revolution in the country's division of power" that will cost taxpayers 3 billion Czech crowns. The fanfares have sounded but nobody's cheering. The majority of Czechs--over 65% to be exact--have turned their backs on regional reform.

Why are Czechs scoffing at this chance to take matters which concern them into their own hands? In describing how local administration is going to work, Tyden magazine may have touched on the answer. Czechs have undergone too many changes lately and if they were to support further change it would have to be aimed at reducing the number of bureaucrats rather than expanding their ranks.

Right now all they know is that a middle tier of regional government is to be established between national government and local administration. In other words, more red tape and more salaries to be paid out of state coffers. If the decision-making is to take place at regional level, what exactly will the overstaffed Czech ministries in Prague do all year round? Freedom Union leader Karel Kunl admits that they will not have a great deal of work on their hands. Eventually some should probably be closed down, for instance the Ministry for Regional Development, possibly the Education and Environment ministries as well, he told Tyden magazine.

But the general public has good reason to be sceptical and will wait to see it to believe it. Deputy Interior Minister Yvonne Streckova, who is an ardent supporter of regional parliaments, admits that most ministry employees fought tooth and nail against the planned reform. They realize it will take work away from them, and some might be asked to move out of Prague if they want to keep their job. On the other hand, Streckova says she sees no reason to close down ministries. "Maybe they can finally focus on doing their job, which is conceptual and legislative work," she told the weekly.

Another reason why some towns had a voter turnout as low as 5% was that they are unhappy with the border delimitation which puts them in a different region than they would have wanted. A regional division enforced by the former communist regime did not go down well and people tend to draw parallels. The popular Czech film My Little Village, which was nominated for an Oscar a few years back, pokes fun of how things worked--or rather did not work--under that administration. "This will be different," Streckova told Tyden.

Under the communists small villages were forced under one administrative centre. The present law allows each village no matter how small to decide whether it wants to link up with others under a local administration umbrella. The more activity we get at grass root level the better, she says. However Czechs will have to learn to do that, and first and foremost they have to start believing that they are finally in a position to influence their way of life, instead of "dancing to the tune of the big shots in Prague."

Going to a fortune teller gives some people a nice thrill. The good things fill you with anticipation and the bad things may not come true anyway. But how about getting your future told for real? asks Mlada Fronta Dnes magazine. Like being told you will get Alzheimer's disease or cancer in ten years' time? "Do we really want to know what will kill us?" The weekly's attention-grabbing headline is one readers are not likely to miss and if they did they'd find the topic covered elsewhere.

A Brno conference entitled "Genetics - the Possibilities and Implications" has launched a feverish debate about possible abuse of recent discoveries in the field of genetics. While science is progressing in leaps and bounds, human ethics is still lagging far behind, the weekly says, and a process has been launched that will prove difficult to control. In mid-October the British government gave British health insurance companies the right to take into account the results of their clients' genetic tests. In other words, someone who has Huntington's disease in the family may get a clean bill of health from a genetics laboratory and the insurance company will cut his insurance bill.

The argument is that at the present stage the arrangement is helping those who are healthy and is not harming those who are not. After all, the results of a genetic-code test are absolutely private and insurance companies have no right to demand them. Yet these things tend to snowball and what if, in a few years' time, employers start asking for a clean bill of health? the weekly says. Everyone is prone to some health problems and what would the world come to if our genetics report were to decide our job, insurance and mortgage? From the medical angle the discovery is fantastic: close surveillance and early treatment will doubtless save many lives. Yet from the human and business angle, the implications are frightening. Pavel Calda, an expert at diagnosing defects in unborn babies, has likened the discovery to dynamite. It helps some and hurts others.

Czechs have gradually got used to seeing female police officers in the streets of Prague. True, many people feel that they should be doing administration work or at most directing traffic. And many men who see a good-looking young girl in a traffic officer's uniform try to flirt their way out of paying a fine. Still women's presence in the Czech police force has become generally accepted.

What many Czechs find somewhat harder to accept is seeing women in the army. In particular the middle and older generation raise their eyebrows and suggest that a girl in the army must be plain, in need of a good husband-hunting ground, had failed to get accepted to any other academy and would most likely get pregnant before she had a chance to finish it.

Armed with this list of prejudices Tyden visited the Military Academy at Vyskov, to find that most of the girls were knock-outs, grade-A students, and ambitious young women who had no plans at all to get pregnant before etching out a career for themselves in the army. As one of them pointed out, the army does not discriminate against women in terms of salary, which cannot be said for many employers in the Czech Republic. And there is definitely potential for growth and career opportunities.

Eight percent of the Czech armed forces are made up of women, which puts the country on par with states such as Denmark, the Netherlands or Belgium. In the USA or Canada the percentage of women in the army is double that number. The majority of girls who enter the Czech military academy specialize in chemistry, economy and finance, logistics, or environmental protection.

A number of successful graduates are now platoon commanders in the internationally respected Czech anti-chemical unit, which served with the allied forces in the Persian Gulf war. And they expect to go where their work takes them. Many have disclosed that serving in the army is a family tradition, and if their brothers and fathers can do it, why shouldn't they?

One had an even better story. She sat for entrance exams because her boyfriend wanted to be a professional soldier. He failed to pass the exam but she did, with flying colours. She was accepted, together with 23 other girls out of over 240 female candidates. Today she couldn't be more pleased about her future career. "It must have been fate," she told the weekly.