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Czech Republic: Economic Problems Won't Harm NATO Plans

Washington, 2 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Czech Republic's ambassador to the United States, Alexandr Vondra, says the current crisis in his country will be of limited duration and will not affect plans to join NATO.

Vondra said the economic problems are short-term and will not restrict the Czech Republic's ability to fund modernization of its armed forces and meet other requirements for joining NATO.

"Integration with NATO is not at risk," he said, adding that Czech interest in joining the western alliance is a deep-rooted and lasting national goal.

He made the comment in a recent RFE/RL interview about his mission as the Czech Republic's new envoy in the United States. Vondra, formerly Deputy Foreign Minister, took up his Washington post two months ago.

He said NATO expansion is still the most important issue on his agenda, although early membership in the alliance is all but assured. It is widely understood that the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians will be invited to begin accession talks with NATO at a summit in Madrid next month.

Vondra noted that this is likely to intensify a public debate in America about NATO expansion that will influence voting in the U.S. Senate which is required to ratify NATO Treaty changes with a two-thirds majority.

"That means we will have to focus attention both on Senate members ... and the general public to make sure the approval process is as conflict-free and smooth as possible," Vondra said.

He said he expects to be doing some travelling in America, speaking to various groups to make the case for expansion.

Vondra said he also anticipates busy traffic this summer across the Atlantic, with increased travel by U.S. legislators to Prague and other Central European capitals on the business of NATO expansion.

Senators Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) and Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), both influential members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently went on separate trips to the region. And Senator William Roth (R-Delaware) is planning to go to Prague and other places next month after the Madrid summit.

Roth is chairman of the North Atlantic Assembly, NATO's political arm, and also heads a recently formed NATO Observer Group of 28 U.S. senators. It was established in April to monitor the NATO expansion process and make recommendations to the Senate leadership.

Vondra said that after the political decisions, the expansion process will focus more on military exchanges to modernize the forces of the new members and enhance their compatibility and inter-operability with NATO.

He said the Czech republic does not expect other countries to subsidize the necessary modernization of its military that would have to be undertaken regardless of NATO membership and will also shoulder part of the costs associated with NATO compatibility.

He said Czechs are not interested simply in joining NATO but want to help keep the alliance strong and flexible, adapted to new circumstances.

"We are not interested in making a collective defense system into some kind of political club, there is no sense in that," Vondra said.

He said his government wants the expansion process to continue after the first round to include other countries. Vondra said that stopping the process would draw another artificial line across Europe, inviting "the other side" to expand influence into the non-NATO part.

He said the Czech Republic has traditionally strong ties with Latvia and Lithuania, countries that are not expected to be in the first group of new NATO members, and hopes to expand those links.