Government approves plan to send troops to Macedonia

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has requested that NATO assist its government in demilitarising the National Liberation Army (NLA) and disarming the ethnic Albanian extremists operating in the region. The Czech Republic - itself a NATO member since March 1999 - already has troops in Kosovo and Bosnia Herzegovina, and on Wednesday, Czech Prime Minister, Milos Zeman announced that the government had approved a plan to send up to 120 soldiers to Macedonia if NATO decided to install peacekeeping forces in the region. Dita Asiedu has the story.

Some in the Czech Republic, however, believe that it is a move the Czech army cannot afford to make, struggling as they are with an inadequate budget and major structural reform. According to independent commentator, Jan Urban, though, the Czech Republic should face up to its new military responsibilities.

"I welcome it wholeheartedly. The Czech Republic should do things like this - take part in peace-keeping operations - simply because it's part of NATO and also because we are nearer than it may seem to the hotspots in South-eastern Europe. There are troops and equipment available in the region and the language similarity and good knowledge of the region makes Czech troops very suitable for this purpose."

But can the Czech Republic truly afford to send the soldiers?

"On the technical side of this issue, I think it is clear that the Czech government already has plans to end its involvement in the SFOR operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so price is not the issue. Once both sides in the dispute in Macedonia agree on the presence and the mission of NATO troops to help or service the voluntary disarmament of the Albanian partisans then I think it's a good thing that the Czech troops should take part in this."

To many, the Czech government's decision has come as a surprise, following its reluctance to send troops to the Balkans shortly after NATO air-strikes started in Kosovo in March 1999. Could it be that during its two years of NATO membership, the Czech government has finally realised the duties it has towards the alliance? Jan Urban, once more:

"We have to take this period as a learning phase and I definitely think that the Czech government learned and understands, much better than two years ago, the international obligation. Most of all, it realises that those who do not speak are not heard and those who do not act are not respected in international relations."