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Czech Deputy PM: Obama's Dinner with European Leaders A 'First Step'

Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra
U.S. President Barack Obama will seek to address the concerns of Central and Eastern European leaders over dinner in Prague tonight following his signing of a new strategic nuclear arms agreement with Russia. RFE/RL correspondent Gregory Feifer asked former Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra about his hopes for the discussion and his views about the treaty.

RFE/RL: What would you like to see during President Obama's dinner with Central and Eastern European leaders today?

Alexandr Vondra: I see this dinner as the first step of a response to the letter that a group of Central and Eastern Europeans sent to Washington last summer. President Obama promised two things in Prague a year ago. [He promised] the beginning of a new era of nuclear disarmament together with the reset of America's relationship with Russia. But he also promised not to abandon his allies, in particular the allies in Central and Eastern Europe.

President Obama has delivered in the first area. So this dinner is the first opportunity to discuss the delivery on the second point. But this is just a dinner. It's the first step, but a dinner is not enough.

RFE/RL: Can't accusations of possible abandonment by Washington from politicians in Eastern and Central Europe be seen as a convenient way to distract from their own actions? Russian companies are making lucrative deals with energy companies in the Czech Republic, for example, amid worries that the Kremlin is using energy as a tool of political influence.

Vondra: We have a policy of being careful with regard to Russian companies that are dominated by the state or where the state has significant influence. Certainly Russian policy is to promote their own interests by various means, including those state-run companies. We are, for example, constantly calling for the need to diversify the energy sector, the natural gas transit route to Europe, to support projects like the Nabucco [a European Union gas pipeline project]. This is an area in which the United States could support us more.

RFE/RL: How significant is the nuclear weapons treaty signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague today?

Vondra: It's an important treaty, as any of that type of agreement signed by the U.S. and Russia [would be]. But the full importance or historical meaning of the treaty will be judged in the future. From the U.S. perspective, I see this as a kind of attempt to start a certain process, to lead by example. But the most serious question is whether the other actors -- the serious players, like Iran with its nuclear military program -- would follow this lighthouse. And here I think we're far from certain.

Another serious question is whether the Russians will really cooperate in this area, in bringing Iran into the mainstream. I noticed [Iranian] President Mahmud Ahmadinejad yesterday smiling into the faces of the two presidents. And today the Russian president simply stated there's a difference between what he's called smart sanctions, on one hand, and Russian interests on the other. It's an important treaty, but the true meaning will be judged in the future.

RFE/RL: Are you concerned about Moscow's threat to withdraw from the new treaty if it sees U.S. plans for a missile-defense system as a threat to Russian national security?

Vondra: I'm not worried about Russia. Russia is defending its own interests. But a year ago in Prague, President Obama openly promised that the United States will not abandon us if the threat from Iran, for example, persists. Here we're speaking about defensive systems. The American people will be protected, indeed are already protected by the defense shield, from that threat.

If we want to keep the alliance strong, and I want to keep NATO strong, then the European allies have to have the same level of protection. Iran is closer to Europe than the United States. It's a must to continue building the defense system and I'm very glad President Obama clearly stated during the signing today that the treaty itself does not limit the right of the U.S. and NATO to develop the defense system.