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Solidarity - reflecting on a movement that changed the face of Europe
7.1.2005 - Michal Kubicki

It looks like 2005 will be a turbulent year in Polish politics. Poles will be electing a new Parliament and a new president. A national referendum on the European constitutional treaty also seems likely. But on August 31 in the city of Gdansk most are hoping that party politics will be put aside as VIPs from Poland and abroad celebrate the 25th anniversary of Solidarity.

Looking at Poland's current scene, with its many corruption scandals, it is hardly surprising that most people are distrustful of political elites and somewhat disappointed with the overall record of the post-communist transformations. A prominent writer Halina Bortnowska, who was one of the founding members of Solidarity in Krakow, recalls the formation of the union as one of the most memorable events in her life.

"The moment of the greatest public enjoyment I had in my life was when in Krakow, in the steelworks, somebody came back from Gdansk and told us all these things we are doing now, they will be called "Solidarity". And then the joy and tears. This is the right name for our hope."

The Gdansk Shipyard strike in August 1980, led by the charismatic Lech Walesa, gave birth to Solidarity - the Soviet bloc's first independent trade union. Over a little more than a year, it grew to an almost 10-million strong civic movement, which tormented the communists at home and infuriated their bosses in the Soviet Union. Journalist Robert Strybel.

"It happened to attract all the natural enemies of the regime. So, probably very few times in history, other than major revolutions, have we had almost all of society lined up against an oppressive governing regime. And this was what happened.

"The word Solidarity was not simply a slogan, it was actual reality because you had young people and old people, believers and non-believers, truck drivers, farmers, intellectuals, taxi drivers, artists, actors - the most incongruous bed-fellows you could possibly imagine - all had a stake in overthrowing the existing regime."

Even though Solidarity's self-limiting revolution of 25 years ago was followed by many setbacks, which included martial law, it is clear that the events in Gdansk were a catalyst for change in the whole of Central Europe. American publisher Robert Gamble has been living in Poland for almost three decades.

"To me there is absolutely no doubt - from Solidarity, from all Poles joining in with it - I think that's what made Gorbachow see that change was absolutely necessary."

Nine years after Solidarity was born, at the time when the Berlin Wall was still standing, Poland had Central Europe's first democratic government in over fifty years. As Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek stresses, from today's perspective the importance of Solidarity cannot be overestimated.

"Well, I can assure you that's one of the first associations Poland evokes in Solidarnosc. So, I don't think Europe forgets about what happened in Poland 25 years ago."

An honorary committee for Solidarity's 25th anniversary is headed by the union's founder, former president of Poland and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa. It brings together many prominent figures not only politicians. Invitations to come to Gdansk for the celebrations will be addressed to former presidents George Bush and Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Post-Communist Central Europe releases over ten million euros to aid tsunami stricken areas
7.1.2005 - Kerry Skyring

Governments of the four Visegrad countries, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have pledged around 10 million euros to the Asian tsunami disaster appeal.

Indonesia, photo: CTKIndonesia, photo: CTK
Poland, by far the largest of the Visegrad states, gave 760 thousand euros, while Hungary's government offered just under one million euros. The Czech Republic initially gave half a million, and then under public pressure increased this to seven million Euros - the largest from the region. Slovakia gave 174 thousand. Slovenia - a non Visegrad country - gave about 180 thousand. Appeals for private donations in Poland and the Czech Republic resulted in amounts initially exceeding those promised by their governments.

Poland was one of the first countries to get medical supplies into the stricken region - a plane carrying seven tons of medicines and equipment flew into Sri Lanka on December 29th - just 3 days after the tsunami struck.

At the end of the week Poland had one person confirmed dead and 13 still missing in the disaster zone. The Czech Republic also had one of its nationals confirmed dead and held grave fears for another 15 who are still missing. It appears that no-one from Slovakia, Hungary or Slovenia died in what has become the worlds worst natural disaster in more than a century.

Czechs using novel SMS donation system to aid Indian Ocean victims
7.1.2005 - Ian Willoughby

The Czech government this week significantly increased the amount it is sending to help the stricken Southeast Asia region, and has now pledged over seven million euros. Some suggested it had been shamed into doing so because the Czech public was sending so much money. And what's interesting is how Czechs have been donating - with mobile phone text messages far and away the most popular method.

Sri Lanka, photo: CTKSri Lanka, photo: CTK
Czechs are mobile phone crazy. Mobile penetration exceeded the population for the first time last year. That has been confirmed by the huge number of SMS donations in the wake of the Indian Ocean disaster: over one million sent in a country of 10 million inhabitants.

"The Czech Republic has the first complex system, called Donors Message Service, which is a system under which you can donate to various non-profit organisations over text messages."

Pavlina Kalousova, executive director of the Czech Donors Forum, oversees that complex system. But don't similar organisations exist elsewhere?

"It doesn't exist in such a way. You can find in other countries a system where the mobile phone operator organises a collection and donates the collected money to a selected NGO. However, the mobile phone operator does one to two collections a year. In the Czech Republic the Donors Message Service has already served over 35 organisations."

While mobile phones have been an integral part of Czech life for some time now, SMS donating is a relatively new phenomenon, beginning just last year. But Pavlina Kalousova says it didn't take long to catch on.

"It was surprising to us that the people really got used to it very easily. Because the first collection Help the Children already collected over three million Czech crowns over SMS, which was launched in April. I think that's because it is really so easy to donate to a good cause - you can be in your living room watching television and when you get an appeal to send money you just send an SMS."

Czech Prime Minister Stanislav Gross responded to growing public pressure this week, saying the Czech state would not profit from the SMS campaign; instead it will donate the 19% tax imposed to relief in Southeast Asia. Was there any increase in donations after the government announcement?

"There was not a decrease! Which means that still, so many days after the disaster, people are still sending SMSes. Yesterday we received the millionth donating SMS for Asia. The number is still around 100,000 a day."

The Czech Donors Forum is currently in talks with the Finance Ministry to secure tax exemptions for other collections. And more Czech charities are also planning to join the innovative, and thoroughly modern, SMS donation scheme.

Deloitte survey shows Slovakia has lowest labour costs within EU
7.1.2005 - Dita Asiedu

A new survey by the accounting and consultancy firm Deloitte has shown up a dramatic difference in pay packets between the old EU member states and the new ones of Central Europe. The survey took into account tax and social security costs and average pay and found Slovakia has the lowest labour costs in the European Union.

We spoke to Dana Trezziova from the tax and legal department at Deloitte Czech Republic:

"The survey not only covered salary levels but also other expenses related to the total definition of labour costs like social security contributions payable by the employer, recruitment fees, redundancy payments, training expenses, or training needed by already skilled or less skilled labour."

The survey shows that Slovakia has the lowest labour costs. Could you tell us why?

"The social security contributions payable by employers is very low in the Slovak Republic not because of the rate but because of capping - the maximum limits from which the social security contributions are paid."

How much competition is there among post-communist Central Europe to attract international investors?

"I would say there is very large competition and you can also see how the governments of those countries are trying to attract those investors using various ways. These include providing various investment incentives, establishing a very low corporate income tax rate, staring from 16 percent in Hungary and 19 percent in Slovakia and so on. So, yes, there is competition."

But the Czech Republic has 26 percent...

"Yes, it's one of the highest in the new EU countries. The Czech Republic is doing extremely well in offering investment incentives, providing a lot of support and assistance to foreign investors and I believe that one of the biggest advantages of the Czech Republic is offering a well skilled labour force."

Low labour costs are surely attractive for companies but what exactly does it mean for workers?

"The workers or the labour force definitely benefit from the situation because they are being offered new jobs and they are offered to work in a new environment of multi-national companies and they are trained on the job in using new processes, products, and new ways of production."

The gap between Central Europe and the rest of the EU really is significant. How long do you think will it take before the gap is closed?

"It's hard to say. In 1989, I thought that it would take five or ten years to get to the same salary levels or a similar labour situation like in Western Europe. Fifteen years later, now that I'm not so naïve anymore, I think it will take at least another fifteen years. The old EU countries are definitely trying to support the new EU countries. You know that the European Union and the various funds are releasing extremely large sums of money to support the new EU countries. But if you compare the support to the need, the main focus would be that the new EU countries need to help themselves."

World's first sparkling Ice Wine?
7.1.2005 - Michael Manske

Many will be familiar with the wonderful sweet Ice Wine which is produced in parts of Central Europe. Now, there's a new Ice Wine - a Slovenian winemaker says he has successfully created the world's first sparkling ice wine.

Stanko Curin, from the small town of Kog in the wine region of Styria, recently announced that he had successfully made the first ever sparkling ice wine. The wine contains over 200 grams of sugar and an alcoholic content of 10%, which allows for unique results during fermentation. We recently talked to Mr Curin, who admits he first had doubts about his new creation:

"In the beginning I wasn't very optimistic, especially because it initially looked like the specific measurements would be too high, and this made me sceptical to the point that I thought the project would fail. But everything turned out okay in the end."

Trying the wine led to interesting results:

"When I tried the first drops, I noticed that every bottle tasted noticeably different, depending on the effect of the yeast. For my tastes, though, the wine is really something special.

"Ice wine is made using frozen grapes, and is usually very sweet. They are usually enjoyed as so-called "dessert wines."

Four hundred bottles have been made of Curin's sparkling ice wine. Each bottle contains two and a half decilitres of wine, and will sell for roughly 40 euros a bottle. Thanks to their uniqueness, they are expected to disappear very quickly.

Marta Bombek, head of the wine store "Vinski Ambient Bombek" which premiered the wine, describes her delight at being part of the historical moment.

"This was the triumph of my long-term efforts in the world of wine. It was a high point, because we managed to introduce a brand new wine to the world. For the first time, we tasted a sparkling ice wine, and we did it among family and friends and with journalists who are knowledgeable about wines. It was also a special event because Mr Curin was also with us, the creator of this project."

According to Stanko Curin, the sparkling ice wine needs to sit for five years, but will only show its true flavour after a period of ten years. Those eager to try it will therefore have to be patient for just a little bit longer.

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