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Central/Eastern Europe: NATO Pleased With Accession Talks

Prague, 24 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- NATO officials say the talks on the accession of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary to the alliance are going very well.

Czech representatives met in Brussels yesterday with a NATO team led by Assistant Secretary general Klaus-Peter Klaiber for their first round of accession talks. Polish and Hungarian teams have held similar, separate meetings with Klaiber in the last few weeks.

Officials at NATO headquarters in Brussels told RFE/RL today that in each case the initial encounter had dealt with political and legal aspects of alliance membership. The obligations imposed by NATO membership, such as the acceptance that use of force must be avoided as a means of settling disputes, were explained to the prospective members. The terms of NATO treaties, including the Washington Treaty founding the alliance nearly 50 years ago, were formally brought to the attention of the delegations.

The officials said that the talks with all three countries had gone very well, and that all responses offered by them were fully convincing.

In Prague, Czech Defence Ministry spokesman Vladimir Lukovsky echoed these comments. He quoted Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Karel Kovanda as saying yesterday's talks had taken place in an excellent atmosphere. The Czechs will be back in Brussels for the second round of their talks on October 3.

Second-round talks will deal in each case with issues of defence planning and participation in military structures. Hungary is the only one of the prospective members which has taken part in this second round so far. A third round will deal with the question of NATO resource allocation.

NATO has just sent to the three countries a thick questionnaire on a wide range of issues relating solely to military matters. It's expecting these questionnaires to be returned for detailed analysis by mid-October. The aim is to establish where the weaknesses lie in the military forces of the three countries, so that NATO can give advice on improving the situation.

As former Warsaw pact members, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary have equipment mostly dating from the Soviet era, and much of this is in need of replacement or drastic modernisation.

But NATO says that there is no pressure on the prospective new members to re-equip with expensive Western arms. Officials say they realise the great expense involved in modernisation and that this will be a long-term project, and that countries are free to make their own choice of arms. What is crucially important, they say, is the principle of inter-operability: meaning that all the different member states must be able to work together in common defence. Inter-operability takes in practical issues like compatible systems of command, reconnaissance, and identification of forces. Alliance officials point to the success of the NATO-led stabilisation force for Bosnia, which groups troops from some 30 countries, as a shining example fo inter-operability.

As to questions of hardware modernisation, the Czech Defence Ministry spokesman Lukovsky says that his country will be upgrading using locally-made equipment where possible. The gain is two-fold: local industry is supported, while re-equipment costs are kept down. He notes that the Czech Air Force has ordered 72 subsonic combat/training aircraft from Aero Vodochody. And he says the army's Soviet-designed T72 tanks will be modernised locally, at a military-industrial plant in Moravia.

Lukovsky said the military hopes and expects that despite the Czech Republic's present economic troubles, the defence budget will rise annually as foreseen by the government, from the present 1.7 percent of GDP (some 30,000 million crowns) to 2 percent of GDP by the year 2000.

Lukovsky also said the Czech military is enthusiastic about the propects of NATO membership, and that the troops had already participated in training exercises in the United States, Great Britain and France under the NATO partnership for peace program.