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