Twenty years ago this Tuesday, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary became the first former Eastern Bloc countries to join NATO, with Slovakia entering five years later, when all four joined the EU. The anniversary will be marked with pomp and circumstance, honours for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and debate over how to face new threats to collective security.
Ahead of Tuesday’s anniversary, to be marked at Prague Castle by the Visegrád Four heads of state, the countries’ heads of government and military brass met in Warsaw at the weekend. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš (ANO) spoke to reporters beforehand of the many sacrifices made and challenges that lie ahead.
Czech soldiers have been deployed for 16 years in Afghanistan, he noted, where four were killed in the line of duty last year. Mr Babiš stressed Czechs had never sat on the sidelines and said the country must work with NATO partners to meet emerging threats.
“We are commemorating 20 years since our entry into the NATO military alliance. NATO is, of course, the pillar of our security in Europe. We can be proud of our Army, of our soldiers, who have an excellent reputation not least for their participation in foreign missions…
“We face a wide variety of threats today. We must take a long-term view of ensuring security and not just militarily. There are issues of food security, energy security, cybersecurity. We must fight disinformation and fake news, and in the framework of NATO, we must increase our defence spending.”
In his Warsaw speech, Mr Babiš noted that even before joining NATO in 1999 and taking part in the Kosovo War mission as alliance members, Czech soldiers had served in foreign missions from Kuwait to the Balkans, contributing specialised anti-biological and chemical units and field hospitals.
He also expanded on the nature of collective security today and expressed his “strong opposition” to any move to create a European Army to one day supplant NATO, instead calling on members to better coordinate their arms purchases towards meeting the needs of the alliance.
Determining what exactly those needs are is certain to feature front and centre in discussions on Tuesday, when several hundred VIPs will convene at Prague Castle for a full-day security conference and separate ceremonial events, closed to the public.
Perhaps the best-known among the dignitaries in attendance will be the Czech-born former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – a leading voice in advocating early expansion of NATO to central Europe.
On Monday, she is due to hold a public discussion with former diplomat Michael Žantovský at Charles University. Following the Prague Castle forum on Tuesday, she is among 14 people set to receive the new Medal of Merit Award for Diplomacy, handed over by Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomáš Petříček (Social Democrats).
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