Prague halts planned cuts in armed forces

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The Independent Online
THE Czech Republic plans to stop further cutbacks in the size of its army in response to Russia's announcement that it is halting reductions in its armed forces, writes Adrian Bridge.

In an interview in yesterday's Rude Pravo, Antonin Baudys, the Defence Minister, said 'some parts of the new Russian military doctrine . . . have me very concerned . . . it is now quite possible that the role of the (Czech) army will begin to grow'.

Mr Baudys's comments follow the Russian government's decision last month to abandon plans to cut the size of its armed forces from 2.3 million to 1.5 million. The move followed a public admission from President Boris Yeltsin that he was worried by the level of army support in December's elections for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist politician, who has said he wants to revive the Russian empire.

Czechoslovakia's army once numbered 200,000 when it was one of the strongest in the Warsaw Pact, which was made up of satellite countries of the Soviet Union. Under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which Prague signed in 1990, the army was reduced to 150,000 men by the end of 1992. When Czechoslovakia split at the beginning of last year, the Czech Republic was left with 100,000 troops, to be reduced to 65,000 by the end of 1995.

Mr Baudys also said that the continuing war in former Yugoslavia and rising tensions generally throughout the Balkans were behind Prague's desire to halt troop cutbacks. In addition to maintaining numbers, he added that his aim was to improve the efficiency of the Czech army.

Although Prague is at odds with Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, the other countries of the 'Visegrad Four', over making a joint approach for membership of Nato, joining the military alliance remains one of its main goals.

To that end, it has already embarked on an extensive revamping of its armed forces to bring them into line with Nato structures.

Like his central European colleagues meeting in Warsaw yesterday, Mr Baudys has strongly objected to the idea that Russia could have a veto on his country's membership of Nato. 'In the Russian Federation, and also in the countries of the former Soviet Union, the idea still persists that Nato is some kind of enemy,' he said.

'This is schizophrenic. Nato is a kind of defence system which serves only to increase stability and safety in Europe.'