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NATO Official Says Czech Republic Won't Be in Alliance Soon

Brussels, Feb. 14 (RFE/RL) - The Czech Republic's Defense Ministry has announced it is planning to send special teams to NATO countries to tell them of Prague's plans to join the Alliance. A top-ranking NATO official told RFE/RL in Brussels that NATO believes the Czech Republic is "just eager to get in - and they would do it tomorrow if they could."

In addition to the special teams, the Czech Republic's Deputy Defense Minister Petr Necas this week said Prague is considering drafting what he called "discussion documents" on NATO enlargement.

NATO officials say they have not been officially informed of the Czech Republic's intentions, but they assume Prague's initiative falls into line with the Alliance's own intentions to hold bi-lateral talks with each country expressing a desire to join.

Membership in the European Union and NATO are top policy priorities for both Poland and the Czech Republic. Warsaw and Prague recently have been speaking about the probability of attaining NATO membership first. But NATO officials told RFE/RL that neither the Czech Republic, nor Poland can hope to comply with NATO standards soon.

Czech Deputy Defense Minister Necas asserted that his country had already met "600 of the 2,200 NATO standards." But the NATO official said: "I don't know where he's found these figures. There's no list of standards for our part."

The NATO official says the alliance has not delivered a checklist of criteria because it is still too early. In any case, he said, "there would be more than 2,200 standards to be reckoned with." But he also said the standards - whatever their number - do not have to be met at the exact moment of accession.

Spain joined NATO in 1982. But as recently as last year it was still signing necessary agreements. The official explained: "The adhesion procedures are very slow." If it took so long for the Spanish, he said, "the Eastern European countries couldn't expect a quicker procedure."

The NATO official notes that Prague once had a highly profitable arms industry - the world's seventh biggest arms manufacturer in the 1980s. But when Vaclav Havel was elected President, he condemned the indiscriminate sale of weapons to suspect regimes, such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea. Arms exports were further reduced by the disunion of Czechoslovakia.

The NATO official explained that the Czech Republic must now bring its weapons industry up to Western standards. But for now, the Republic's Defense budget is insufficient to accomplish this. And the official notes that the question of how much NATO will contribute to help those aspiring to join, and how much applicants will have to contribute, is something which no one has yet grasped.

Necas said this week that he believes the most important part of the integration process concerns personnel. He stressed that not only do military personnel need English-language skills, but they also need to be familiar with NATO procedures.

Several countries aspiring to NATO membership have noted their participation in the NATO-led, peace-implementation force in Bosnia as a "laboratory" for future NATO membership.

Czech Army Chief of Staff General Jiri Nekvasil is scheduled to visit Brussels this week. Czech troops in Bosnia formally came under NATO command this week. Nekvasil will also hold talks on the Czech Republic's participation in NATO's "Partnership for Peace" program.