AT night, much of the beautiful baroque and art nouveau architecture in Prague's old town is bathed in light, underscoring this nation's rich Western traditions and honoring President Clinton's arrival here.
Mr. Clinton's stopover - for talks with Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Hungarian leaders - follows the two-day NATO summit in Brussels. At that meeting, Western leaders formally approved the ``Partnership for Peace'' concept, a program that aims to gradually integrate former Warsaw Pact members, including Russia, into the West European security system.
Some East European nations - particularly Poland - have been severely critical of Partnership for Peace. They say it does not go far enough to promote economic reform and maintain stability in the region. The rise of ultranationalists in Russia, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has raised concern in East European capitals about a revival of Russian imperialist tendencies.
But in the eyes of the Czech Republic's leaders, the Partnership, while not all that they wanted, nevertheless meets their immediate needs.
``It's a step in a good direction,'' Czech Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec told the Monitor on the eve of Clinton's arrival here Jan. 11. ``We want to be part of NATO because we feel we share the same values. For us, it is impossible to accept that we could be outside the European system of security.''
Czech officials say they will enthusiastically participate in the Partnership, and expressed confidence that the Czech Republic could gain quick admittance to NATO. The priority for Czech leaders now will become convincing the West, especially the United States, that the Czech Republic is well prepared politically, economically, and psychologically to bear the burdens and responsibilities of NATO membership.
Mr. Zieleniec spoke of the Czech Republic enjoying a ``1,000-year Western tradition, including the literature of Franz Kafka and the music of Dvorak, which had been obscured by the building of the Iron Curtain during the cold war. Clinton's visit provides Czech leaders with the opportunity to dispel any lingering cold-war-era notions.
``These 45 years - they were an exception in our history,'' Zieleniec said, referring to this nation's post-World War II membership in the Soviet sphere of influence.
``We stress here in this country the importance of our own responsibility for changing our country,'' he said. ``This project [Partnership for Peace] I hope opens space for our own activity. This is important for us.''
As for Clinton, it is important for the president to provide a clear sign that the US is committed to the success of economic reform throughout the region, Zieleniec says.
``For 45 years, we viewed America as a large, friendly country that had a great interest in changes taking place here,'' Zieleniec says. ``There is a need for the United States to send a signal that, after we have achieved these changes, it remains interested.''
Reforms here have gone more smoothly than in some other nations attempting to make the move from communist command economies toward a market economy. The transition has been especially tough in Russia and Ukraine.
``We should understand that the difficulty of the transition could open the way for very different politicians and political movements,'' Zieleniec says, referring to the rising nationalism in Russia.
Keeping Russia on the right track toward a market democracy is not only in the vital interest of the West, but of Eastern Europe as well, Czech officials say. But that means Eastern Europe must walk a fine line.