Five things to know about the Czech Republic

Prague (AFP) –


The Czech Republic, which on Sunday saw its largest protest since the collapse of communism in 1989 over calls for embattled PM Andrej Babis to step down, has been an EU member since May 1, 2004.

- EU, NATO, Schengen -

The first ex-Communist country to join the OECD in November 1995, the Czech Republic became a NATO member in 1999 before joining the European Union in 2004. It is also a part of the Schengen free travel area, but it has resisted adopting the euro, favouring its own koruna currency.

- Communist echoes -

The president of this parliamentary democracy is elected directly for a five-year term.

The first president elected this way is current head of state Milos Zeman, a pro-Russian, pro-Chinese former communist with strong anti-migrant views. He was re-elected for a second consecutive term in January 2018.

Andrej Babis, the second wealthiest Czech according to Forbes, leads the centrist populist ANO movement, which, despite uproar surrounding his previous business dealings, won May's elections to the European Parliament.

ANO took office after winning the 2017 general election campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket in the country plagued by graft.

It teamed up with the leftwing Social Democrats to form a minority coalition with tacit backing from the Communists for a parliamentary majority.

Babis, a former Communist, is the first politician since the 1989 fall of Communism in former Czechoslovakia to let the Communists have a role in government.

The Slovak-born 64-year-old is facing charges over EU subsidy fraud after allegedly taking his farm out of his sprawling Agrofert holding to make it eligible for an EU subsidy.

The EU is probing his dual role as a politician and entrepreneur, and Babis also faces allegations that he served as a secret Communist police agent in the 1980s.

- Economic recovery -

Heavily dependent on car production and exports to the eurozone, the Czech economy recovered from a long crisis in 2013. In 2017, its economy grew by 4.4 percent, followed by 2.9-percent growth last year. The European Commission predicts an expansion of 2.6 percent for this year.

In 2018, the country's three car plants -- Volkswagen's Skoda Auto, South Korea's Hyundai and TPCA, a joint venture of Japan's Toyota and France's PSA Peugeot Citroen -- produced a record 1.437 million vehicles.

- Independence in 1993 -

In 1918, Western Slavs shook off Austro-Hungarian rule, establishing Czechoslovakia, a new country comprising Czechs and Slovaks. But by 1938, Nazi Germany annexed its borderland regions called Sudetenland and a year later it took over the Czech territories of Bohemia and Moravia, while Slovakia became a satellite state of the Third Reich.

Czechoslovakia regained its autonomy in 1945. In February 1948, a Communist coup brought the country into the orbit of the Soviet Union.

The "Prague Spring" of 1968 was crushed by Moscow and its allies, but in November 1989 the Velvet Revolution ended four decades of Soviet domination, propelling dissident playwright Vaclav Havel to the Czechoslovak presidency.

Czechoslovakia split into two states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in 1993. Havel became the first Czech president in February 1993.

- Prague, architectural gem -

With no access to the sea, this country of 10.6 million people borders Poland, Slovakia, Austria and Germany.

Its capital Prague is a popular tourist magnet, boasting a picturesque historic centre put on the UNESCO heritage list in 1992. Under the dominant Prague Castle, the old town split by the Vltava river is rich in architectural gems, Renaissance and Baroque palaces, Gothic cathedrals and art deco buildings illustrating its thousand-year history.