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Czech Republic/Russia: Ambassador Draws Ire In Prague And Abroad

Prague, 19 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russia's Ambassador to the Czech Republic Nikolai Ryabov warned two days ago that Czech membership in NATO could harm economic relations with Russia. This warning has unleashed a furor in Prague and abroad.

Ryabov made the comment in a prerecorded interview broadcast Sunday evening on Russian NTV's popular news program "Itogi."

NTV correspondent Yevgeny Revenko reporting from Prague quoted unnamed "official Russian representatives" as "openly admitting that for Russia the biggest danger posed by NATO's expansion is not the military threat but the loss of the European arms sales market." Ambassador Ryabov responded that the decline in arms sales to the Czech Republic "is already a definite blow against the Russian economy."

Revenko then told viewers, "Moscow cannot and will not accept the weakening of its influence in Central Europe." He then said that "the Czech Republic says once it joins NATO its relations with Russia will almost surely be spoiled." And Ambassador responded: "This concerns such fundamental agreements for the Czech Republic as deliveries of gas and nuclear power engineering; it is already causing problems for the future between our countries."

Czech Prime Minster Klaus was among the first to respond to Ryabov on Monday morning, saying he is shocked and expects the Russian government to dissociate itself from the remarks. "If not," he said, "this would only strengthen our resolve to join NATO."

The Russian Foreign Ministry has refused to comment officially on Ryabov's remarks. Spokesman Vladimir Andreev said that the opinions expressed by the Russian Ambassador should not contradict the Ministry's official statements.

Czech President Havel said Ryabov's comments are those of a "cold warrior" and "a voice from another era." Czech Industry Minister Vladimir Dlouhy termed Ryabov's remarks counterproductive and warned Moscow that the Czech Republic is an important transit country for Russian natural gas.

In an attempt at spin control, Ryabov told ITAR-TASS Russia is by no means trying to link NATO's expansion to the East with the development of bilateral cooperation. Rather, he said, his NTV interview was intended for a domestic audence in Russia and was devoted to general problems and apprehensions that Russia faces in connection with the prospect of NATO expansion.

Russian liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky, while on a visit to Prague two months ago, warned that future unfavorable comments by Russian politicians about NATO expansion would be generally intended for domestic consumption by a public wary of any territorial advance by NATO.

But in an interview on Czech television Monday evening, this time clearly directed at a foreign audience, Ryabov said "Russia respects the Czech Republic's decision to enter NATO." He added "the problem lies elsewhere -- Russia is affected by NATO expansion, the West's worst mistake of the end of the 20th century."

Ryabov reiterated that Czech preparations to join NATO are "already harming" the Russian economy. But he said neither he nor the Russian government "intend to threaten anyone with sanctions -- this would be silly."

Ryabov said his interview for NTV had been intended to warn against possible consequences. But, in words reminiscent of Leonid Brezhnev's warnings to Prague Spring reform communist leader Alexandr Dubcek in 1968, Ryabov said that "the Czech Republic cannot do well without Russia, but Czech politicians keep silent about this" adding that "Russia too cannot do well without the Czech Republic."

In a telephone interview published yesterday in the left-wing Czech daily "Pravo," Ryabov said he does not believe his remarks on NTV contained threats addressed to Prague.

"I cannot understand, why everyone is interpreting it that way -- it is the exact opposite." Pravo quotes Ryabov as saying "Russia in no way, let alone its ambassador in Prague, can threaten the Czech Republic."

Czech Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec summoned Ryabov to the Foreign Ministry yesterday to tell him his recent statements have "seriously harmed" Czech-Russian relations and to repeat Prague's resolve to join NATO.

Zieleniec told Ryabov, "expressions such as yours in no way contribute to our attempt to develop Czech-Russian relations on the principle of mutual benefit and respect for the sovereignty of both nations." He also said "years of experience in the Warsaw Pact have made Czech citizens particularly sensitive to such remarks and one cannot be surprised by the outrage they have touched off in Czech society."

Zieleniec later told Czech TV he did not find Ryabov's explanation convincing that his remarks on NTV had been molded for the Russian public. Turning to Ryabov's mention of bilateral arms trade, Zieleniec said Russian arms sales to the Czech Republic are "small" totalling $34 million for the last four years.

Czech Interior Minister Jan Ruml has drawn perhaps the most far reaching conclusions of any cabinet member from Ryabov's remarks. He said yesterday in a statement that "the Czech government will have to consider carefully, for security reasons, which entrepreneurial subjects will be allowed to participate in the strategic branches of Czech industry;" these include the oil and gas industries.

Ruml said that Ryabov's comments contain what he termed "attributes of big-power state terrorism" and show the "existential importance for the Czech Republic of the Czech government's decision to diversify the country's sources of oil and natural gas." Ruml said the refusal of Russian authorities in Moscow to dissociate themselves from Ryabov's remarks is a clear signal that the only possible solution for the Czech Republic is the speediest possible membership in NATO.

Ryabov's comments have also had repercussions abroad. U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Monday there is no place in the new Europe for such kinds of public threats.

Austria's leading conservative daily, "Die Presse," commenting yesterday on Ryabov, said such remarks provoke justified concerns about what it called "Moscow's blind lust for power" and create the impression that Moscow's interest in its security concerns in Europe is forcing the formerly "fraternal" states to knock desperately on the gates to NATO.

And the independent Slovak daily, "Sme," in an editorial today said that Ryabov's comments confirm the wisdom of Czech diversification of energy imports since as the paper says, "it would be very dumb to trade with a country that abuses its trading position to limit its customer's rights through 'mafia tactics'." Sme said also that Ryabov's comments are a "warning signal for Slovakia's defense."