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Conflict over tank export highlights intr-coalition tension

A recent conflict between the two junior coalition parties--Michael Zantovsky's Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) and Josef Lux's Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL)--over a planned sale of some one hundred T-72 tanks to Algeria highlights the tension that continues to grow in the Czech ruling coalition. It also highlight serious shortcomings in defining and pursuing both a coherent national defense policy and a concept of army restructuring.

The sale of the tanks, currently in the possession of the Czech army, has been advocated by the ministry of defense and the KDU-CSL. Defense Minister Miloslav Vyborny is a KDU-CSL member. It has been vigorously opposed by the ODA. Zantovsky has argued that the sale would decrease the country's defense capabilities and that a private arms-trading company, Omnipol, which has negotiated the deal with Algeria, should not be selling tanks belonging to the Czech army.

The KDU-CSL's and Vyborny's initial responses to Zantovsky's criticism were angry. Lux said Zantovsky did not have enough information on the deal. He even threatened to leave the ruling coalition after the government voted down the deal. Omnipol and the KDU-CSL have argued that the government's rejection of the sale seriously harms business interests of the Czech Republic. Zantovsky has said in response that it was strange that the Czech army found one hundred spare T-72 tanks only a few weeks after the government ruled in April that the army had about the right number of tanks it needed to defend the country.

He has argued that the country's defense policies lack a long-term concept and that any such sale should take place in a reverse order: the government should first rule it has found spare weapons in the army stockpiles and only then it should possibly ask a private company to find a buyer for such weapons. In the T-72 tanks case, Omnipol first found a buyer for 100 tanks and then "convinced" the army it did not need them.

Political commentators have suggested that the real issue behind the marred sale is party finances. The KDU-CSL-controlled defense ministry has been in charge of both army procurements and sales of weapons from army stockpiles. And KDU-CSL opponents have alleged that the party coffers have benefited from such a situation. In fact, Zantovsky is now proposing the creation of a new non-partisan institution that would control arms sales and procurements.

While the charges that the KDU-CSL has financially benefited from indirectly controlling arms sales and procurements are difficult to substantiate, the conflict highlights the fact that party financing in the country is non-transparent. Major Czech parties have in the past repeatedly received substantial financial "gifts" from anonymous donors, whose identities were not revealed even under pressure. Efforts to reform the system of party financing have so far failed.

Some commentators have also suggested that Zantovsky--who is not a member of the government and whose expertise is in foreign affairs and security policies--has his eyes set on Vyborny's post. Although Zantovsky's motives may in fact be more noble, the ruling coalition is--clearly--increasingly disjointed. Zantovsky has repeatedly criticized the defense ministry. Lux has, in turn, complained that he finds it much more difficult to communicate with Zantovsky than he did with his predecessor, Jan Kalvoda. He has even accused the ODA and Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party of trying to build "a coalition within the coalition."

The ruling coalition has been under great pressure to come up with solutions to mounting economic problems as well as to deal with recent floods. Lux has made it clear that his party, although going along in the end, is unhappy about some austerity measures announced by the government in April and May. He has been seen by the two civic parties as being unreliable and possibly positioning his party for a coalition with the Social Democrats (CSSD), whose preferences have been growing.

The conflict over the tank sale shows once again how suspicious and jealous the coalition parties are of each other. The problem could have been solved quietly, behind the closed doors. Instead, it was allowed to explode into yet another, highly visible intra-coalition squabble, which politically benefits only the CSSD.

But it may also be beneficial on a different level in that it has focused attention on a lack of a long-term vision and a clearly-defined set of priorities for the Czech army. The fact that the army could be saying in April that it needs all the tanks it has, only to be ready to spare one hundred of the most modern tanks it has a few weeks later is clearly disturbing and raises serious questions.

Zantovsky's revolt, regardless of its real motives, thus may in the end improve the way in which the government oversees addresses the problems of the Czech army. The restructuring of the army, and the overall improvement of its performance, will be watched closely by NATO member countries during talks on the Czech Republic's NATO membership and during the ratification process.

Reuters - 4. 8. 1997