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New interim Czech prime minister named

PRAGUE – Little-known economist Jan Fischer was named Czech interim prime minister Thursday to shepherd the country through the rest of its troubled European Union presidency and to early elections in October.

Fischer, the non-partisan head of the Czech Statistical Office, will replace outgoing premier Mirek Topolanek, whose centre-right coalition cabinet was toppled in March, midway through the Czech EU presidency that ends 30 June.

"I am aware the situation is not easy, but I am convinced you will handle your role well and I’m ready to help you in this," President Vaclav Klaus told Fischer after appointing him at a ceremony.

Under a political deal, Topolanek will remain the head of government until 8 May, while Fischer puts together his team which he said "will not be a cabinet of visions, it will be a cabinet of hard work."

The 58-year-old Fischer will step in on 9 May and lead the government until early elections expected by mid-October.

"This cabinet will have to fulfil with honour all tasks stemming from the (EU) presidency. It will also have to minimise the impact of the economic crisis on Czech population," he said after the ceremony.

Fischer also said he had no further political ambitions and that he would return to his job at the statistics office once the mission is over.

The decision to appoint Fischer follows weeks of talks between the three centre-right governing coalition parties and the senior opposition Social Democrats, whose no-confidence vote toppled Topolanek’s cabinet on 24 March.

Klaus on Thursday praised the deal hammered out by the political rivals who agreed the coalition would propose eight cabinet members and the Social Democrats seven, and that none of the current ministers would keep their seats.

For his part, Fischer said the EU presidency was a top priority.

Still his appointment has reopened the question of who will actually steer the 27-member bloc after Topolanek – who was in charge of most presidency talks and events – is gone.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership summit with six former Soviet countries, scheduled to take place in Prague on 7 May, will be Topolanek’s swansong in the post.

After that, the staunchly eurosceptic Klaus may well eclipse the internationally inexperienced Fischer and take over summits with China and Russia, as well as the EU council meeting in June.

A source close to the government who wished to stay unnamed told AFP Klaus’s role may grow as "the president will probably lead the summits because of continuity".

The EU council meeting in June will deal with issues linked to the bloc’s reforming Lisbon Treaty, which Klaus fervently opposes and which the Czech Republic voted on only in February, the last EU member state to do so.

The treaty, designed to streamline the body’s decision-making, must be ratified by all 27 member countries to take effect.

The text approved by the Czech lower house of parliament now awaits a vote in the Senate scheduled for 6 or 7 May. If approved, it must then be signed by Klaus for ratification to be completed.

Klaus said at Thursday’s ceremony he and Fischer had not discussed the division of presidency roles yet, "but we undoubtedly will."

"None of us will have a monopoly, that’s certain," he added.

Klaus, who described himself as a "European dissident" late in 2008, also told the Radio Cesko station earlier this week that his role in the country’s EU presidency may grow.

Referring to a meeting with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso after the EU-US summit last Sunday, Klaus said: "I assured him… that I’m ready to get involved in some way, if necessary."

AFP / Expatica