It has been six years since the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO. Since then, the Alliance has changed significantly. Before its expansion, it had never fought a war. But less than two weeks after the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, joined on March 12, 1999, the NATO launched a 78-day military operation in Kosovo. Two years later the terrorist attacks on the United States led to the adoption of the collective defence "Article 5", which suddenly gave NATO operations a worldwide dimension. So how has the Czech Republic fared in the course of these six dramatic years as a NATO member?
"The Kosovo campaign started twelve days after we became members of the alliance and I think the manner in which NATO makes its decisions took our politicians in Prague somewhat by surprise. And so, in the first days of the Kosovo campaign, our leadership found itself in two difficulties. One was the unfamiliarity with the decision-making process and the other difficulty was public opinion, which was reflected in the view of some of our politicians: public opinion, which for a variety of reasons, was staunchly against the bombing and in favour of Belgrade even if it was the Belgrade of a Milosevic."
What would you say has been the toughest decision the country has had to take?
"The reform of the armed forces. This is something that is tough because it is murky, it is subject to significant political pressures, financially rather taxing, and it is controversial among the experts. I think we can congratulate ourselves that now, as best as I understand, it is on a firm footing and with a very firm perspective. But this is the result of many years of twists and turns and trial and error, of personnel changes, and so forth."
The Czech Republic's anti-chemical unit has been enjoying much praise. How do you feel about the specialisation of smaller forces?
"The fact of the matter is that the defence battalion that we have against various weapons of mass destruction is at the very forefront, at the cutting edge, of the Alliance's capabilities. As such, it is in great demand for whenever there is some potential danger. But when it comes to smaller countries specialising in this and that, it is not my view that one can throw all one's eggs in one basket. What is necessary is that armed forces attain a certain level in most of their defence needs, and in one or two things that they work more intensively than is just required for the defence of a single country, so that they can fit in with the capabilities of the entire Alliance."
Now, it must have been difficult for the country to decide whose fighter jets it should buy to replace is aging fleet of Soviet-made MiGs. There was pressure from the United States to purchase their F-16s but in the end, the Gripens proved more attractive to the defence ministry...
"NATO is interested in the country being able to manage a certain job, such as the protection of its own air space, for example. How the country does it, is up to the country itself. So, the decision concerning the fighter jets was a decision involving financial, technological, military, and offset economic aspects, and was done, as best as I know, very carefully and very conscientiously. It is not a result, which in any way, shape, or form would be a matter for the Alliance to judge."
How do you see the country's future role in the Alliance? How would you like its role to develop?
"I would say that as long as the country manages to give the necessary attention to the further development of our armed forces, as long as we are determined to assist within our means, wherever it is necessary, and as long as we have the public's support for the Alliance - a factor, which has been very much on the increase, certainly since the dog days of Kosovo, I think we would be holding our own very, very nicely."
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