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Germany

Schröder Opts to Keep Out of Czech Controversy

The German Chancellor has cancelled his upcoming visit to Prague. The latest in a string of diplomatic spats between Berlin and Prague is a row over controversial ethnic laws passed by Czechoslovakia after World War Two.

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Schröder will be forgoing the quaint old town centre in Prague as diplomatic tactics take priority

When German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer visited Prague last week amid strained relations between the Czech Republic and Germany, one of his unofficial tasks was to test the waters for Chancellor Schröder's visit in March.

Obviously he didn't submit a glowing report as Chancellor Schröder finally called off his visit to Prague on Thursday amid a growing regional row over controversial ethnic laws passed by Czechoslovakia after World War Two.

Schröder has showed himself unwilling to be dragged into the dispute which has flared up between Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia over the post-war Benes Decrees, which stripped Germans and Hungarians of Czechoslovak citizenship and land.

The Benes Decrees, formulated by exiled Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes during the Second World War, led to the expulsion of 2.5 million Sudeten Germans from the Czechoslovak federation after the war and punished thousands of ethnic Hungarians.

The issue of the Sudeten Germans, a taboo topic from the troubled past has been rekindled in Germany after the publication of Nobel Laureate Günther Grass's latest book, "Im Krebsgang" or "Crab-wise". The book deals with the unacknowledged misery of 13 million ethnic German refugees from the Czech Republic and Poland.

Benes Decrees - an obstacle in EU accession?

Schröder told ARD television that he had cancelled the trip because of a "heated debate" and he did not think a "rational discussion" was possible ahead of Czech parliamentary elections in June. No mention was made of the Benes Decrees.

"It will not have any kind of negative influence on the relationship as a whole, but we found it better in the current situation to keep our distance", he said.

To make matters more complicated, the Speaker of the Czech Parliament, Vaclav Klaus has called on the government to negotiate an agreement with the European Union to leave the decrees untouched after Czechoslovakia joins the 15-nation EU bloc by 2004.

His demand has kicked up another furious row at a time when all three countries (Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) are gearing up to join the EU.

Many Czechs fear that if the decrees are cancelled, foreigners might return to claim confiscated property.

EU quells fears of decrees playing a rule

But the German government remains confident that the EU commission will refuse Klaus's demand.

The EU commissioner responsible for the enlargement of the 15-nation bloc, Guenter Verheugen has confirmed that the decrees will not be a factor in Czech accession talks. But still there are widespread fears that the decrees might still prove a stumbling block for enlargement talks.

The latest diplomatic flurry between Berlin and Prague is also aimed to calm Germany's strained ties to the Czech Republic after explosive remarks made by Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman.

He angered Germany last month after being quoted in a German magazine describing the Sudeten Germans as Hitler's "fifth column". Hitler annexed the Sudetenland in 1938.

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