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Attitude shift toward NATO after 10 years

I'm not sure what surprises me more — that Czech enthusiasm for NATO is now so strong, or that it was so lukewarm when they joined the alliance 10 years ago. Back then the main hesitation was that they had 'just' left one military alliance — the Warsaw Pact nearly 10 years earlier — and many didn't feel inspired to join another military club, even if membership was only voluntary.

Back in 1999 Vladimir Putin was still a relatively unknown prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, and Russian aggression seemed a thing of the past. So fears of Russian militarism were diminished, but still they existed — and no one who opposed NATO membership offered a coherent alternative to the country's security needs.

It was ironic to hear Czech President Vaclav Kaus's seemingly unabashed enthusiasm for NATO this past week. In 1999, a few weeks after the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians joined the alliance NATO began a punishing air attack against Serbia. The aim was to protect ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo who were targeted for discrimination and worse by Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian army.

Czechs consider themselves Slavic brothers with Serbs, and look down their nose at the non-Slavic Albanians as an inferior, uncultured, people. Czech hostility to the NATO bombing was, perhaps, best illustrated by Klaus, who was then chairman of the parliament. On the day the NATO bombing began Klaus held a book reading at the Serbian embassy here.

The public was incensed, too. Waging war, or a bombing campaign, was not what they were signing up for when the joined the alliance. As one example of the outrage here — I remember seeing the letters N.A.T.O. distributed among the four quadrants of a swastika scrolled on a building column.

Perhaps more than any other public official — and certainly with more clout than any other official — President Vaclav Havel insisted the future of the country's security lay in the NATO fold. Today it seems that 75 percent of his countrymen agree with him.