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Czech Republic: Coalition Parties Haggle Over Changes

Prague, 27 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Czech Republic's shaky center-right coalition government is finally starting to make personnel changes, more than a month after failing to do so because of the inability of the three coalition party leaders to reach agreement.

Czech President Vaclav Havel said two days ago in a nationwide weekly radio program that it is his prerogative to appoint cabinet members. He raised the specter of asking the entire government to resign, saying this would "perhaps be constitutionally the cleanest solution to the currently tense domestic political situation." But he also said that "from another perspective this solution might not be the most practical."

Havel criticized the public haggling among the coalition partners over which ministers should go as "extremely unseemly." He called for considering people who understand the sector they would manage and have an opinion on how their ministry should be run. Havel said that although new appointees must be able to think politically, "the question remains whether this person really has to come from the womb of a political party."

The coalition partners agreed last week to accept the resignations of Finance Minister Ivan Kocarnik, Interior Minister Jan Ruml and Industry and Trade Minister Vladimir Dlouhy. Ruml, a former anti-Communist dissident, has been saying for nearly two years that he would like to leave the government. Dlouhy, a member of the Communist Party until December 1989 and together with Klaus the longest serving cabinet member, in recent weeks has spoken of his intention to leave the cabinet after nearly seven and a half years.

Kocarnik's resignation had been demanded by the Social Democratic opposition over the collapse of eight banks in recent years and the current free fall of the Czech crown. Klaus nominated his chief economic advisor, Jiri Weigl to take over as Finance Minister. He also nominated the chairman of the parliamentary defense and security committee Petr Necas a former deputy Defense Minister to be Interior Minister.

But Havel said Sunday he will not accept cosmetic changes to the cabinet. This suggests that Havel could reject Weigl, whose nomination ensures continuity rather than any tangible changes in financial policies.

Havel, speaking through his spokesman yesterday, said he wants to know the reasons that led the ministers to announce their intention to quit. He met briefly today with all three.

Ruml told reporters afterwards a resignation by the entire cabinet would be premature. He quoted Havel as saying cabinet changes would only make sense if they increased public confidence. Kocarnik said his resignation should make the cabinet work more effectively.

Ruml and Kocarnik are members of Klaus' Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and, according to the coalition pact, their successors should be members or at least nominees of that party.

Dlouhy belongs to the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), which has not yet named a replacement, in part because the party's chairman, Michael Zantovsky is not a member of the cabinet. Zantovsky, a sexologist by training, worked variously as a translator, author and journalist before the November 1989 Velvet Revolution. Subsequently, he served as presidential spokesman from 1990 through 1992 . He then served for five years as Czechoslovak and then Czech Ambassador to Washington until his election to the Czech Senate last November.

Zantovsky is interested in posts of Foreign or Defense Minister to use the experience he gained in Washington and help guide the Czech Republic into NATO. But these two posts were denied him in coalition talks yesterday, since these two ministries remain in the hands of the two other coalition partners.

Zantovsky told reporters he has five options -- to take over one of the four cabinet seats his party occupies, that is Industry and Trade, Justice, Environment or Minister Without Portfolio, or else postpone joining the government for the time being. Analysts agree that early elections are inevitable. The only question is how early.

Klaus today ruled out his own resignation. As he put it, what is needed is for the government to try to pull through and deal with issues that currently constitute a threat, an apparent allusion to the rapidly sinking crown (quoted at 35 to the dollar today, down from 30 last week) which the central bank yesterday allowed to float freely and last week's move to double interest rates to over 25 percent. Klaus says his Civic Democratic Party (ODS) rejects the possibility of participating in a possible interim government. In his words, "ODS is simply not going to take part in any non-political government or a government composed in some other way".

After meeting Havel this afternoon, Klaus told reporters he agrees with Havel that it is important to wrap up the coalition discussions as quickly as possible both in terms of personnel changes and in terms of working out conclusions and goals for the government. He says this has also been discussed by Havel earlier today with Zantovsky and Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Christian Democrats-People's Party (KDU-CSL) Josef Lux.

Lux told reporters today Klaus' resignation would not resolve the current situation. He said that economic problems must be tackled first to prevent political destabilization.

Lux and Zantovsky agreed with Havel on the need for further budget cuts. Lux says the coalition partners are also discussing the possibility of introducing an import surcharge. In his words "we now have only hours, not days at our disposal."

Havel said that, while he supports the current government, if the coalition talks fail the government should resign.

For weeks, coalition leaders and Havel have argued that the country was not in crisis. After his talk with Havel today Zantovsky told reporters "it is now possible to speak about a crisis."