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Czech Republic: Transformation Of Military Progresses At Leisurely Pace

  • Jolyon Naegele

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic; 2 December 1997 (RFE/RL) - The banner at the Czech base for troops being sent to UN and NATO-led peacekeeping operations abroad reads, "UN - A GUARANTEE FOR WORLD PEACE AND SECURITY".

The base on a hilltop near the mediaeval town of Cesky Krumlov in southern Bohemia, currently serves mainly for training the Czech contingent of the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia. It also hosts joint exercises with NATO troops within the framework of the Partnership for Peace program. Czech officers say those exercises have repeatedly revealed that weak knowledge of English, German and French among Czech troops remains a stumbling block in the Czech military's hopes of integration with NATO. 334 carefully screened volunteers from a mechanized brigade, the first non-elite Czech unit to be trained for serving in SFOR's Czech contingent assemble at the conclusion of three months of training before departing for seven months of duty in northwestern Bosnia.

At the farewell ceremony, the first deputy commander of the Czech general staff, Major-General Rostislav Kotil tells the troops that the dispatch of their brigade to Bosnia is a clear signal that not only elite troops are capable of fulfilling SFOR's, that is NATO's tasks.

Kotil later told RFE/RL the changes which the Czech army has undergone in the nearly five years since its establishment after the break-up of Czechoslovakia are extensive but the whole transformation process is still far from being over.

"I think it is going to take us several more years after joining NATO, at least ten years, until we will be able to say that we have approximated NATO's structures," Kotil says, adding that the "language barrier" is the biggest problem confronting the Czech military as it integrates into NATO.

Kotil says the Czech military is also a victim of negative publicity. He says the army needs to gain the public's trust and shed the image created by the writer Jaroslav Hasek whose parody of army life in the First World War, the Good Soldier Svejk, is a classic work of Czech literature.

"When I go to the theater or see certain films I get the impression that regardless of what we do we can never shed the impression that we are the nation of Josef Svejk", Kotil says, adding the "Czech army is neither Svejk's army nor an army of "Rambos" but rather an army of soldiers ready to carry out defense tasks."

In Prague, Deputy Defense Minister Jaromir Novotny says the army is stuck with the Svejk label because, under communism, the public did not perceive it as a national army defending the country's independence but as a tool of the Czechoslovak and Soviet communist parties. As a result, Novotny says, whoever avoided military service was a hero.

This was the work of politicians and not the army, Novotny says, "in the history of this state, the army was never permitted to fight for the independence of the state or defend the state". He notes that during the Munich crisis (1938), Czechoslovak leaders in cooperation with the leaders of the western democracies forbade the Czechoslovak army from fighting. In 1968, Novotny says, it was once again the politicians who barred the army from fighting the invasion by Soviet troops. But, he adds, it is wrong to say the army never fought. It fought several times in this century but always outside of the country's territory.

But history is a double-edged sword. The Habsburg-era marching music, the blank stares of soldiers trying to march in time, the old camp buildings, they all seem straight out of Jaroslav Hasek's novel parodying Czech soldiers, the Good Soldier Svejk. In the middle of the Krumlov base are stables built by the Austrian army at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. They have a fresh coat of Habsburg-yellow paint but, with the exception of one building that now serves as a movie house, they are empty. The military has no need for them but local landmarks preservationists oppose their destruction.

Several wooden barracks dating back to the Nazi-German occupation are reminiscent of almost identical structures in former concentration camps. They are still in use.

The socialist-era command building boasts newly installed state-of-the-art pissoirs with infrared automatic flushing systems, but little else to remind one that we are on the threshold of the 21st century.

But off base, the story is different. In advance of the official farewell for the troops going to Bosnia, the Czech Republic's fourth largest non-parliamentary party, the Independent Erotic Initiative (NEI) organized an unofficial send off in Cesky Krumlov, with a stripper who not only tossed off her own clothes but also began undressing several of the 300 soldiers who attended. NEI hostesses distributed banana flavored condoms to the departing troops. Svejk, welcome to the 1990's!

The commander of the Cesky Krumlov training grounds Lieutenant Colonel Jan Krc argues that much has changed in the Czech military in the eight years since the collapse of Communist rule. Basic training has changed, active service time has been reduced, and large numbers of older officers, including all the political ones, have left the military.

"Changing one's way of thinking does not happen in the space of one year or five years, "Lt.-Colonel Krc says, adding, "it is a process which will continue."

Deputy Defense Minister Novotny says the need to change the way people think is not just a problem inside the army but throughout Czech society.

"The biggest problem not only in the army, is the (absence) of the ability to accept responsibility for one's decisions" Novotny says, adding "people were used to letting others decide for them and they merely carried out their orders. This is a problem of the whole of society and of all post-communist states."

What has not changed is the unwillingness of the many civil servants in the Defense ministry and elsewhere to accept responsibility for tardiness in making preparations for NATO entry -- regarding personnel, protection of secrets, adherence to previously agreed timetables for achieving interoperability with NATO forces, or opening a serious public debate to win over a skeptical public. The debate in the news media has largely been over the cost of joining NATO.

Defense Minister Miloslav Vyborny has publicly refused to confirm that certain NATO member states have criticized the Czech Republic's preparedness for joining NATO.

His deputy, Novotny, blames the news media for, for in his words, "making an elephant out of a mosquito" by publishing NATO criticism. He insists that the Czech Republic is no worse off than Hungary or Poland in its NATO preparations. But he refuses to say whether the Czechs are better than these two.

"For the first time in this century, the Czech Republic's geographic position is an asset rather than a liability; for the first time in history this nation feels safe and has only friends for neighbors; for the first time in history, this state does not border any crisis area," Novotny says. NATO, he says, is not a fair weather organization but one for bad times as well as good ones.

But with only about half the Czech public convinced of the need to join NATO, can the country's leadership pull it off?