Regional News Update - March 9

Czech Republic

Students protest against education reforms

Last week, university students across the Czech Republic participated in a so-called „week of unrest“, which included protests, happenings, discussions and meetings. Between seven and ten thousand people came out onto the streets in Prague on Wednesday, to march to the government building where the cabinet was debating a new reform package on education. Students and univeristy staff criticised the Education Minister, Josef Dobeš, for planning to introduce tuition and enrollment fees and changing the governing structure of universities in a way that, according to the critics, would allow for more intervention from the government and businesses. Earlier that week, Dobeš announced that the introduction of tuition fees will be postponed. After the street protests, Prime Minister Petr Nečas admitted that there was not enough consultation with the academic community during the preparation of reforms, and claimed that he will enter into further talks with university deans and student government representativesFormer transport minister in court on corruption chargesOn Monday, March 5, district court  in Prague 5 began hearings in a corruption case against former Transport Minister and informal leader of the Public Affairs (VV) party Vít Bárta, who is accused of giving bribes to MPs from his own party to stregthen his position. Alongside Bárta on the defendants bench is Jaroslav Škárka (VV), who allegedly took 170 thousand CZK (6,800 EUR) in bribes.  Škárka  and former VV MP Kristyna Kočí both claimed Bárta had tried to bribe them. Škárka is accused of accepting the bribe and spending part of the money before reporting it to the police. He may face up to 3 years in prison, while Bárta’s sentence can be up to 6 years, if he is found guilty. Bárta has denied the accusation, and Public Affairs deputy chairwoman Karolina Peake supported his claim that the money were loans, in her testimony on Thursday.


Controversy ensues over upcoming election

In the weeks preceding the Slovak general, that will take place this Saturday, 10 March, a number of controversies arose regarding many of the parties hoping to win votes. Richard Sulík, former speaker of the Parliament and leader of the Freedom and Solidarity party, has recently faced much opposition because of his political association with the notorious businessman, Marián Kočner. Additionally, the new 99 Percent-Civic Voice party has been accused of falsifying two hundred signatures for its petition for candidacy. The party has responded to the accusation with a call to examine the petitions of all other parties. The Interior Ministry has decided to take no further action at this time.


EU moves forward with plan to suspend funds to Hungary

In an unprecedented move, the European Commission announced that it plans to freeze 495 million Euros of aid from Hungary’s cohesion fund. The decision to exercise financial pressure was made after repeated warnings to Hungary over excessive deficit and new legislation under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s conservative government that jeopardizes the independence of the country’s central bank and courts. Although Hungary has addressed some of the legal demands, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said Wednesday that further commitments will be necessary.


Volksbanken AG to be bailed

Vienna-based Volksbanken will be partially nationalized with the help of regional banks after significant losses in Greek debt and a failed EU stress test last year. Altogether, the state and contributing banks will be lending 480 million EUR, the second wave of contributions after a 1 billion EUR bailout in 2009. The bank’s minority stakes are to be sold by 2017. In the coming months, Austria is also prepared to inject money into Kommunalkredit in order to face Greece’s debt holdings.


Prospective energy independence

Romania is looking to take advantage of 3 trillion cubic feet of gas found in the Black Sea.  The deposit was found by a deep-sea drilling ship operated by ExxonMobil. Operations are not expected to begin until 2015. President Basescu has also stated that there are other potential gas deposits within the region. If more deposits of significant size are found, Romania could potentially be entirely energy independent, and even export to surrounding countries. This is the first deep-sea operation off the Romanian coast.
BulgariaNetherlands oppose Bulgaria and Romania’s entry into Schengen zoneThe Netherlands opposed Bulgaria and Romania’s entry into the Schengen zone last week, due to the two countries’ lack of progress against organized crime and corruption.  A vote from the Dutch representatives is necessary for a unanimous decision on joining the 25-nation Schengen area.  Last month, Romania received recognition for their progress against crime and corruption while Bulgaria was pressured to take stronger action. Both countries will receive the support from the Dutch, once the European Commission reports under the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism that the two meet EU justice and home affairs standards.  These standards were originally put in place after Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007.


Relations between Belarus and the EU worsen

Following economic sanctions placed on the country, Belarus expelled both Polish and European Union envoys. The EU then responded by recalling all of its ambassadors to Belarus. Each of these actions comes as a direct result of the leadership of Aleksandr Lukashenko, often called the “last dictator in Europe”. The EU has responded by freezing the assets of 21 of Lukashenko’s confidents and promising to maintain economic sanctions until the political prisoners are freed. This week, the head of the Belarusian Central Election Commission, Lidzia Yarmoshyna, suggested that representatives of EU countries should not be included in the OSCE observation delegation at the Belarusian parliamentary election in September.


Worker strikes shut down major public transit

Public sector workers held a strike in Frankfurt on Monday, putting buses and trains at a standstill in the financial capital. The protesters demanded a 6.5-percent wage increase for about two million workers, according to service sector union Ver.di. Employers rejected the proposed wage hike in negotiations last week, claiming the request is unrealistic. Discussions on alternative pay are set to continue on March 12.


Minimum wage increase one of the highest in Europe

Ukraine has increased its minimum wage by one-third over the past two years, making it one of Europe’s highest rates. Some European countries have frozen their minimal wage, including the Czech Republic, which has had the same minimum wage since 2007. The Cabinet of Ministers’ Secretariat’s liaison department has said the government makes social protection of its poorest citizens a priority.


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