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Czech Republic has to work hard to join the EU and NATO

In being invited to negotiations on NATO membership on 8 July and in being recommended by the European Commission for talks on admission to the European Union 16 July, the Czech Republic has in the past two weeks achieved its two biggest foreign policy successes so far. But in both cases, the country will need to work hard to convince the Western organizations that it deserves membership.

NATO invited the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary as the three countries that have reached the levels of democratic economic developments that satisfy the alliance. But it is no secret that all three countries still have to work hard to upgrade their armies. The Czech Army, in particular, is said to have been criticized by various NATO officials as being poorly prepared for membership in the alliance. The army has had to ground a number of its MiG-21 jets, as many of them are too dangerous to fly. Only several high-level officers in the army are reported to speak good enough English to be able to communicate with their Western partners.

In general, the army has suffered from both a lack funding and an overall blueprint for its development. Various plans for the army's restructuring have been presented by various defense ministers but have always been rejected by the government as either too expensive or as ill-conceived. As a result, the army continues to exist in a conceptual vacuum. The government has often treated it as a Cinderella, whose needs can wait until other problems are solved.

In various public opinion polls, the army is frequently rated as an institution that the public does not trust. Such an attitude may partly be rooted in Czech history, in which the army has not played a major role for several hundred years. Anti-militaristic attitudes of many Czechs clearly do not help the image of the army. But the negative stances toward the army on part of many people have also been caused by the government's lax approach to security issues. There has been very little public discussion of the country's national security priorities, including NATO membership.

As a result, less then 50% of respondents in various opinion polls actively support NATO membership. Such low support may pose a problem when NATO countries' parliaments start the ratification process. Some U.S. Senators, in particular, may ask why they should endorse NATO membership of a country whose citizens appear to be lukewarm, at best, about prospects of NATO membership.

The Czech government will simply have to do a lot in the next year, or so, to begin modernizing the armed forces, improve the army's image, and to convince more people than is the case now to actively support NATO membership.

The European Union's admission criteria are even more complex than those of NATO. In recommending the Czech Republic for expansion talks, the European Commission (whose recommendation will almost certainly be respected by the European parliament in December, when the final decision is to be made) listed several areas in which the country needs to make more progress. Most important, the commission criticized the state administration system, insufficient or flawed pieces of legislation in some areas (such as the citizenship law, press law, or the so-called lustration law), and some economic problems (such as a lack of transparency of capital markets and a lack of restructuring on the company level).

In some estimates, the Czech Republic will need to change hundreds, if not thousands, of laws before it can admitted to the union. And it will have to correct laws that the EU sees as discriminatory or contravening some basic democratic principles. For example, the country--although its media are free--still does not have a new press law that would guarantee journalists access to information. Instead, the old communist press law--amended in 1990--is still in use.

Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus has said that his government respects the commission's assessment but that it will try to explain to the commission the Czech positions on some of the criticized pieces of legislation. He has, for example argued, that the lustration law, under which thousands of the communist secret police's collaborators and communist officials have been barred from holding government posts, represents a relatively mild form of punishment. He has said that Western democratic countries do not always seem to appreciate the intricacies of transition from a communist to a democratic system.

The commission is, however, likely to have little patience with such arguments. The lustration law, based on the principle of collective guilt, simply violates some established principles of the rule of law. The Czechs will, in the end, have to listen and adjust, rather than argue. In fact, the amount of work ahead is so staggering that the government needs to set to work immediately. Perhaps it should consider as an example the neighboring Poland, which has named special government representatives who will coordinate the country's efforts toward joining both NATO and the EU.

Reuters - 21. 7. 1997