Hawks and Doves Clash Over US Base in Czech Rep.

BUDAPEST – The new right-wing government of the Czech Republic, eager to prove its “prestige” as a reliable ally of the United States, last week started negotiations for the setting up of a military base in the Czech Republic. It will not be easy.

Czech neo-liberal Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek opened negotiations with the United States just a few days after his government, in coalition with the Christian Democrats and the Greens, passed a vote of confidence that ended an eight-month electoral impasse in this nation of 10 million.

The United States claims the base, a part of the controversial National Missile Defense (NMD), will protect Washington and its allies from long-range missiles from “rough” states. The program, which already has a component in Alaska, has also sparked speculation the United States is preparing itself for possible challenges posed by Russia or China.

With public opinion divided on the issue, the United States is also negotiating with Poland, the optimal scenario involving the setting of a radar in Czech territory and of defense missiles in Poland. Yet it is not excluded that the entire installation will be built in a single country.

The Czech base could be completed by 2011 and would be operated by approximately 200 US civilian and military personnel who, in Topolanek’s words, will also respond to Czech legislation.

Contrasting with the European orientation of the previous left-wing government, Topolanek’s Civic Democrats (ODS) are traditionally euroskeptic and pro-United States.

The opposition Social Democrats would only accept a radar approved by popular referendum. The communists, the third largest party, oppose any type of military installation and are pushing harder for a referendum.

The government opposes referenda on security issues. A qualified majority in parliament is necessary to call a referendum, while to approve the base a simple majority would suffice.

But the Greens are now endangering the government’s united stance on the military base. Green party member Ondrej Liska said his party will only support a facility “which is politically integrated into a multilateral security framework,” and passed in referendum.

Soft critics of the base have complained the United States and the Czech Republic are damaging plans to create a common European defense policy, and warn negotiations are occurring outside the framework of the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to which both belong.

Topolanek has reacted to criticism by insisting the base would be included in a future NATO missile defence system yet to be developed.

The Czechs, similarly to the Poles, are negotiating with the United States a number of conditions which would benefit the Czech Republic not only in economic and scientific terms, but also in what Topolanek called the country’s “prestige”.

Prague and Warsaw are also keen on influencing US visa policy towards their citizens.

Supporters of the base argue Iran and North Korea could pose a direct or indirect threat to the country’s national security, adding that the possibility of future attacks by militants from territories under no government control should be checked.

“The risk of our country being threatened by a ballistic missile in the foreseeable future is very real,” Defense Minister Vlasta Parkanova wrote in the newspaper Pravo.

But some experts have noted missiles from Iran or North Korea cannot reach the United States through the Czech Republic or Poland, and many share popular fears the base could antagonize Russia while turning the Czechs into a target for terrorists.

“In the event of a hot military conflict, the first strike aims at radar systems,” Social Democrat shadow foreign minister Lubomir Zaoralek reminded the public.

“Washington wants a missile defense installation that is situated closer to the Middle East,” John Reuter, fellow at Emory University in Atlanta told IPS. “Any of the new NATO states are attractive options, although it is not clear why Turkey wouldn’t be the best location for such an installation.”

Some voices were also raised arguing the setting up of a ballistic defense system should follow consultations with Russia. Russian officials are citing fears of a renewed arms race and express concern over the radar’s ability to monitor military movements in practically the entire territory of Russia.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who supports the idea of the base, will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in April possibly also to discuss the NMD program, but Reuters claims “Russian objections have more to do with international prestige and domestic pressures than anything else.”

The civic role in the opposition to the base has mostly been performed by the “No to the Bases” initiative, a group encompassing some 40 Czech and international civic organisations. Several hundred protesters gathered in Prague Jan. 29 under the initiative.

NATO approval would not satisfy the demonstrators, who are “against the base because it is an armament effort, not because it is a plan of the United States,” Jan Tamas, head of the initiative, told IPS.

“We believe that world peace and security can only be achieved through disarmament, not by creating new military bases and installing new military equipment,” Tamas said.

Read more by Zoltán Dujisin