New US ambassador takes office

The new US ambassador to the Czech Republic Craig Roberts Stapleton arrived in Prague earlier this week and on Tuesday submitted his credentials to President Vaclav Havel. Following the credentials ceremony Mr. Stapleton met briefly with Czech journalists, telling them how pleased he was to be here and admitting that as a businessman he had been surprised and honoured to be offered the position of US ambassador to the Czech Republic. Daniela Lazarova reports.

"I'm very close to the President, I worked on his political campaign but I did not have an expectation that I was going to be an ambassador. He called me up early in July, before he was sworn in, and said "You are going to the Czech Republic" and I said "Yes, Sir". One of the interesting things is that the President knew more about the Czech Republic than I did. He spoke to Secretary of State Colin Powell about it and he clearly thinks that this is an interesting and important post. That's what he told me when he asked me to come to Prague. "

For Mr. Stapleton, who has spent the past month being briefed about Czech-American relations in Washington, it will now be business as usual at the US embassy and the priorities are clear from the outset.

"I think the agenda is pretty well established. The US is supporting Czech efforts within NATO, it is supporting the Czech Republic's efforts to join the European Union and we want to continue to improve the strong bilateral relations we have with the Czech Republic. My background is in business and we hope to expand commercial ties between the US and the Czech Republic and improve and accelerate capital flows from the US to the Czech Republic."

Although the Czech Republic and the United States have traditionally good relations, dating back to the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918, there is occasional friction over foreign policy issues. The UN resolution condemning human rights abuse in Cuba, approved earlier this year, is a case in point. The Czech Foreign Ministry and the US State Department clashed over the effectiveness of the US led embargo against the Castro regime. The new US ambassador was asked to what extent such fall-outs damaged Czech-US relations.

"I think Czech-American relations stand on a very firm foundation . The Czechs have a major presence in the US. I just spoke to President Havel about that. Any number of friends of ours have relatives with a Czech background, there's a number of American university students and visitors who come to the Czech Republic and there is a very strong feeling between the two countries. There will be bumps on the road, disagreements on policy but I don't think there is anything that can undermine the fundamental goodwill between the citizens of the United States and the citizens of the Czech Republic."

Of course, sensitive political issues is not all that the new US ambassador to the Czech Republic is going to have to tackle. Czech grammar and vocabulary loom ahead but Mr. Stapleton showed a fighting spirit, in spite of having been warned that Czech is one of the toughest languages for a foreigner to learn.

"I am going to start learning Czech. Next week. I've been here for two days and I understand it's a struggle. But you have to start someplace."