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Health in Central Europe

Same-sex registered partnerships to be introduced after deputies override presidential veto
17.3.2006 - Dita Asiedu, Chris Jarrett

The Czech Republic has become the only country in Central Europe where gays and lesbians will be allowed to enter into registered partnerships. The lower house of Parliament on Wednesday narrowly overturned an earlier veto by President Vaclav Klaus. Dita Asiedu was there:

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK
It was indeed a close shave - just one vote less would have spelled the end of the bill on same-sex registered partnerships. But instead gays and lesbians celebrated upon the news that they will now be able to enjoy many of the rights that married heterosexuals in the Czech Republic simply take for granted. One of those celebrating is Katerina Benova:

"We are, of course, very happy and we are a bit shocked as it was quite unexpected because when we came here today we first heard that there were 110 votes [in favour of the law], then they told us that there are only 97 votes and we just didn't know how many people would vote for the bill. So, we're having a little celebration right now and there will probably be a big party on Friday and Saturday."

Among other things, gays and lesbians will now be allowed to enquire about their partner's state of health, inherit their partner's property, and refuse to testify against their partner in a court of law. Homosexual couples will also be allowed to raise children but not adopt them.

"My name is Slavomir Goga and I am the spokesperson for the gay and Lesbian League. I'm now a little euphoric after all of the day's events."

So what's going to happen next?

"The law has been passed but it will be another three months before it takes effect. We will use these three months to get the public acquainted with the law. This means that mainly those couples who would like to enter in the registered partnership will be told what their rights and responsibilities will be. Then, in mid-June, the first couples will be able to enter the registered partnership."

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK
Have any of the couples approached you already?

"Several couples have already contacted us. One couple, for example, asked us whether the law will include a couple where one of the partners is a foreign citizen. So, they were practical questions that we faced and had to answer."

What's the answer to the question about the foreign partner?

"The condition is that at least one of the partners has to have Czech citizenship. But the problem is that the law does not include some rights that married couples enjoy. So, the person who is a foreign citizen will not automatically gain Czech citizenship and his citizenship procedure would also not be shortened. So he would still have to apply for citizenship as if he were not a partner."

But it was a long and hard battle. Six previous attempts failed over the last decade. The bill on same-sex registered partnerships finally passed through both houses of Parliament in December, only to be vetoed by President Vaclav Klaus a few days later. Mr Klaus' main objection was that the state "would interfere too much in the private lives of residents". The bill was then sent back to the lower house, where a majority of at least 101 votes was needed to override the presidential veto.

But with a bill as controversial as this one, on which deputies would not vote strictly along party lines but according to their own conscience, it was unclear whether the majority in parliament would vote for it. The second-biggest party in the ruling coalition, the Christian Democrats, strongly opposed the bill arguing that homosexual partnerships would be placed on an almost equal footing with traditional heterosexual marriages, undermining the importance of the family as an institution. It took Social Democrat Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek a great deal of lobbying for his party colleagues to support the bill. And, some opposition Civic Democrats, who originally supported the bill, threatened to vote against it: they accused Mr Paroubek of turning it into a party political issue. In the end, 101 votes and not a single vote more were what the bill got.

Civic Democrat Ivan Langer opposed the bill:

"Well, it's democracy and I have to accept is as a reality. I don't think we need a special law. We can improve the lives of these people with an amendment to the Civic Code that will give them their rights."

But Social Democrat MP Jan Kavan was delighted of the outcome:

"I'm glad at the result, although I admit that it was touch and go. This legislation, although far from being perfect, at least reduces the certain unfavourable conditions and certain form of discrimination of this four percent minority. I don't think the legislation contains any seeds of the kind of apocalyptic future, which many of the e-mail messages that many of us received during the last few weeks contained when we were told that this law will undermine the whole role of the family, which is the basis of the society that we live in and that it would lead to the break down of interpersonal relations that will be the beginning of Sodom. I think all of this is exaggerated, including the warning that this is the first step towards the right of such couples to adopt children."

Opinion polls suggest that just over 60 percent of Czechs approve of gay marriages. However, less than a third of them would be in favour of a homosexual couple adopting children. So how do ordinary citizens feel about the new same-sex registered partnership law? Radio Prague's Chris Jarret took to the streets of Prague:

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK
Woman: "I think it's quite a good thing, yes. I have many friends among these people and I think it's very good."

Man: "I agree with this. I am not a homosexual but if they asked for this registration then why not. I'm not against it."

Woman: "I think if two people are together and are of the same sex, they have a right to be together."

Man: "I agree with this law. I think that gays must have the same freedom as the majority of the population."

Poland's bank scandal turns into political conflict
17.3.2006 - Slawek Szefs

A controversy over the Polish government's refusal to authorise the merger of Polish branches of two major international banks has escalated into a full blown political conflict. At the centre of the conflict is National Bank of Poland president Leszek Balcerowicz, the architect of the country's market reforms, who has found himself under attack for opposing the government line on the bank merger. The conflict has attracted the attention of the European Union, which is concerned over what it regards as the Polish government's attempts to tamper with the independence of the central bank.

The ruling Law and Justice, supported by its political allies from Selfdefence and the League of Polish Families, is pushing through parliament a motion to set up a House commission to investigate the privatization process of Polish banks, in other words, the decade and a half long history of the banking system in free and democratic Poland.

The actions are conducted on two planes - regarding, what might be called, a current dispute and a wide flung historical inquiry.

The government is trying to put pressure on the Banking Supervisory Council to overrule the Central Bank president's decision. Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz said the State Treasury has petitioned the Council on the matter and is expecting a reply still before its next sitting on the bank merger requested by the Italian UniCredito Group.

"We are confident of assuring that the State Treasury will be a party in this conflict situation and shall be able to present its stand during the Banking Supervisory Council meeting. This is what we are driving at and I'm 100% sure we will succeed."

Prime Minister Marcinkiewicz has invited UniCredito chairman Alessandro Profumo for talks, possibly even on Thursday. What is the aim of the meeting is subject to anyone's speculation.

Craig Otter from the London based Business Monitor International says the attack on Leszek Balcerowicz, the icon of free market transformations in post-Communist Poland, had been anticipated by many, especially that the Central Bank president has always had high marks among politicians of the Civic Platform, the strongest opposition party. Hence, financial circles have not reacted dramatically.

"It's not a new issue. This is something, which first flared up around October last year when the new (Polish) president began to speak about NOT re-appointing Balcerowicz. So, the fact that he's making his tenure more difficult towards the end is a negative thing, but not entirely unexpected. Investors will interpret that as a negative sign, but you're not going to see any great outflows of capital."

Meanwhile, the anti-Balcerowicz campaign has been gaining momentum. It took Law and Justice barely two days to call a parliamentary session devoted solely to procedural matters on green lighting and defining the scope of a House commission to investigate the very roots of the entire Polish banking system. Independent commentator Piotr Mroczyk says the action has purely political connotations.

"Law and Justice suggested on the very outset that they intend to create the Fourth Republic, claiming the Third Republic was corrupted and a lot of deals were made under the table. In this sense, they are consistent with their program. And, of course, when it comes to money that upsets a lot of people. But the way they are going about it is not very convincing. Whether this is urgent is a different story - they had to start from something. One can claim that there were some wrongdoings in the privatization of Polish banks. On the other hand, it is also true that the situation in Polish banks is not bad. All this talk about foreign capital is pretty much obsolete. Capital is capital. The issue is overemphasized on the part of the government. It's all political, consistent with their plan. Whether it's going to work is a different story."

The clash between the government and the Central Bank or the ruling Law and Justice with its political opponents from the Civic Platform, if you prefer, is making waves on the Polish financial market and could be spreading, notes Craig Otter from Business Monitor International.

"The more this government goes on pursuing policies which are obviously not to the liking of the international investment community, then you're going to see further currency weakness."

...something which has already been clearly felt in Warsaw and what can create negative consequences in attracting foreign direct investment.

Slovakia's medical staff protest at salary cuts with demonstration in Presov
17.3.2006 - Martina Grenova

Health protests are sweeping across Europe. German doctors are dissatisfied with extra work and Polish doctors are demanding higher salaries. A year ago, the law on pay rates for health care workers was changed in Slovakia. Slovak medical employees started to be paid according to rates defined by the Labor Code. That has led to a significant fall in salaries for some health workers. Since last year, there have been regular protests by medical staff.

Following a call from health sector unions, about 1,000 health care workers gathered in Presov, east Slovakia, on March 15 to protest against cuts in their salaries.

Protests against the government's health care reforms started in Slovakia back in 2003. While Slovak patients were angered at having to pay for part of their stay in hospital, doctors, nurses and technical staff protested against cuts in salaries. Health Minister Rudolf Zajac says there is no choice, as hospitals are in serious debt.

Unions accuse the Minister of using salaries to solve the debt problem. The Presov hospital health care workers have been wearing a blue ribbon as a symbol of their strike alert since mid January this year. Stefan Hudacko, the head of the protest committee explains:

"The management unilaterally applied the payment measure as of January 1 and thus changed the remuneration system. This has resulted in a real decrease of salaries."

According to Hudacko, the strike alert was called in this hospital as a way to force dialogue. Unions refused a hospital management proposal to divide salaries into two parts, one combining fixed and flexible components separate from other bonuses. According to Peter Biros, the manager of the Presov hospital, no other health institution in Slovakia has provided its staff with such a generous offer.

"We have come up with a proposal for a 100% increase in the hourly rate for doctors on duty. We included it in the basic wage and thus the average salary in the Presov hospital is just over EUR 400 as opposed to almost EUR 350 in the rest of Slovakia."

Despite the management offer, most of the hospital staff have refused to sign up, and are going about their work wearing the blue ribbon in protest.

[nurse] "I wear it because we are not treated well and our work is underrated. Our wages are decreasing compared to the growing amount of work we are required to do."

[doctor] "The blue ribbon expresses our solidarity with the fight for a decent salary for doctors. It is not only about our wages but also about our social status."

[nurse] "We are expressing our discontent with the behaviour of our management. They have decreased our salaries, increased the number of duties, we are not paid for night shifts or for extra work on holidays."

Peter Biros, the manager of the Presov hospital and an MP in the Slovak parliament agrees that the wages in the health sector in Slovakia are disastrous. While other EU countries allocate up to 7% of their GDP to the health sector, only 5.3% of the GDP goes to the sector in Slovakia.

"In Slovakia, the health sector is the only one with no formal agreement between the employer, the unions and the government. This would solve the problem of salary rates."

According to the head of the strike committee at the Presov hospital Stefan Hudacko, the March 15 protest was not just a pre-election political game. Unlike their colleagues in other EU countries, Slovak doctors are not demanding a decrease in overtime, as they do not want to lose bonuses. In order to be paid better a lot of Slovak medical staff are going abroad. Although overall public opinion concerning health reform in Slovakia is positive, the drain of the qualified workers will remain a serious drawback.

Ljubljana's Cankarjev Dom documentary film festival
17.3.2006 - Ksenija Samardzija-Matul

The Cankarjev dom cultural centre in Ljubljana hosts an international documentary film festival every year in March. This year it is the eighth in a row and the organizers are showcasing different approaches and trends of contemporary documentary production.

Jelka Stergel is the Film Programme director of Cankarjev dom. She is responsible for the selection of all documentaries screened at the festival. The opening of this year's festival started with a highlight - the screening of the Oscar winning documentary 'Emperor's journey'. This year, the choice is big with stories from entirely different environments as well as various historical and political contexts.

"We had two main criteria - one is the subject matter and the other is the author's formal approach - how the films were made, how they work aesthetically. Depending on that we have established several sections."

Jelka Stergel explains how the 8th international documentary festival is divided into four sections:

"One is topical, the protection of nature, and social and political documentary. Then another section is made up of films that are reporting on the creation of works in different fields of art, from dance to music and TV, and of course the alpine and adventure film section is very popular. But we have to stress the tribute that puts into focus Joze Pogacnik, a well known Slovene Film director with his short documentary films."

Traditionally, the topical section covers issues of contemporary society, problems of the globalised world and hunt for profit. The setting for the Swedish film 'Three rooms of Melancholia' is the Chechen war showing how the inability of the two conflicting sides are reflected in children and the way they grow up. The film Grizzly man explores the life and death of amateur grizzly bear expert Timothy Tradwell. Current labour struggles in North Carolina and the relationship between Balkan nations are other topics dealt with in the documentaries. However, the only competitive category of the festival is the section of alpine and adventure films in which 12 films from various countries were depicted. They speak of surviving in the mountains, the questions of guilt and the mysteries of Bhutan.

The film makers are mostly from Europe but also from Bhutan, the United States and Brazil. This year's program in this section is the most varied so far. The organizing team of the festival is very proud that they succeeded in attracting four full-length films, which is a rarity even at festivals that are bigger than this one. Documentary films rarely find their way to the cinemas and last year the Ljubljana Festival was visited by around 2600 viewers.

Is there enough public interest for documentary films?

"I am rather optimistic regarding this matter, because the size of the audience is growing. We started with a few hundred and now there are a few thousand people visiting this event, which takes place in March every year. We present 35 short and full length films. It is not such a small number for this kind of film, for this genre that is meant to be more for television or DVDs rather than cinema release."

Thousands of music lovers flock to Hungarian capital for Budapest Spring festival
17.3.2006 - Gyorgyi Jakobi

The Budapest Spring Festival opened on Friday night. First launched 26 years ago in the off-season to see whether world famous performers and audiences would be willing to visit the Hungarian capital in March, the Spring Festival now attracts tens of thousand of people. In 2005 it won the European Cultural Prize.

This year's festival coincides with the first birthday of the Palace of Arts, a new landmark in Budapest. Gyorgyi Jakobi spoke to Judy Pwetranyi, a spokeswoman for the Palace of Arts and who opened the Budapest Spring festival:

"I think the first year was extremely successful. Perhaps even more successful than was expected. This is a place in which you have a huge concert hall with a capacity of 1,800 people and truly fantastic acoustics, a theatre, and a large five-storey exhibition area, which houses Hungary's Museum of Modern Art. So, it's a very complex establishment that attracts many visitors, especially with concerts. With 400 concerts, there were many more concerts than there are days in the year."

The 'birthday' concert marked the beginning of another highlight of our cultural life - the Budapest Spring festival...

"Yes and one of the important venues is the Palace of Art. But there are many more, of course. Concerts and classical music have always been important at the Spring Festival. Now it is especially so, with the festival based on two birthdays - the 125th anniversary of the birth of Bela Bartok and the 250th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Some of the highlights include a guest performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who play Mozart, the Swiss Romande who play Bartok, the Mozarteum Orchestra from Salzburg under Ivor Bolton, and one can go on and on."

We should mention a grand event at the palace, which is the opening of the new organ...

"Now the organ is a very traditional and conventional instrument, of course, but digital technology does wonders nowadays. It is an extremely important addition. The first concerts will take place in early April and will produce wonders."

What events of the Spring Festival would you recommend to those who will be in Budapest?

"First of all, they should go and see the Ludwig Museum of modern art. The museum itself as a building is extremely interesting. They should also take a look at the concert hall, when either the organ is being tested - you can actually experience this in these days, or go to any of the concerts because the acoustics are just wonderful. I should also add that the concerts will not only feature Bartok or Mozart. There will be many other concerts too. For instance, conductor, pianist, and all-round musician Daniel Barenboim will play a Bach recital. I am certainly looking forward to that one."

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