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March 29, 2007

US Base Revives Cold War Feelings

by Jim Lobe

BUDAPEST - The U.S. missile defense system to be deployed in Eastern Europe is becoming a matter for concern in all of Europe. Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France are now worried and demand talks.

The missile defense system, allegedly aimed at protecting the West from missile attacks by "rogue states," would have two components by 2011: a radar in the Czech Republic and an antimissile base in Poland.

Right-wing cabinets in Prague and Warsaw are in favor of hosting the base and are now focusing on which terms to set Washington, whereas members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are divided and still considering its strategic and financial implications.

Major EU countries could end up reviewing their political role. France and other large European Union (EU) member states "had hoped until recently to act as mediators between Iran and the international community, as well as to continue exerting influence in the Middle East," Svetlozar Andreev, political scientist at the Center for Political and Constitutional Studies in Madrid told IPS.

"The basic problem is how to reconcile the interests of large countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain with those of the United States," Andreev said.

French President Jacques Chirac has warned the base could create "new divisions in Europe."

During her visit to Poland, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also insisted on "a solution within NATO," and "an open talk with Russia on the subject," whereas her foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier warned of the danger of a new arms race.

The Ukrainian parliament has also condemned the U.S. plans, but government officials believe Ukraine should actively participate in talks due to its position between the West and Russia.

According to Russian and Ukrainian analysts, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich could be the man who will manage to include Russia in the controversial negotiation process.

However, Western-leaning President Viktor Yushchenko said the base was solely a matter for the countries concerned, and implied the project would benefit European collective security.

Russia is reacting harshly to speculations, but Svetlozar thinks Moscow might be getting ready for a different Europe.

"Russians would very much like to use the build up of NATO and U.S. military capabilities near its Western borders as an excuse to upgrade their military defense systems, delegitimize the U.S. as a 'hegemonic power' and probably get concessions in the international arena," he told IPS.

The Polish, Czech and U.S. governments' failure to provide extensive information on the plans has also resulted in criticism, even among pro-base individuals.

In Trokavec, one of the West Bohemian villages in the Czech Republic in whose vicinity the radar would be placed, the population almost unanimously rejected the radar in a local referendum, citing lack of information, health risks and fear of becoming a target in case of war.

With public interest growing, polls indicate most Czechs and Poles reject the base, and in the Polish case researchers concluded that access to information was linked to opposition to the base.

For those on the center and the left, only a system within NATO could be approved, and by referendum. The right claims there are too many divergent views in NATO for that and that the system could be integrated later into the organization.

But Czech Green deputy head Ondrej Liska, a member of the ruling coalition, believes most Czechs want to involve NATO and is calling for postponing the decision on hosting the base until after the U.S. presidential elections next year.

Liska, who recently met with several Democrat and Republican politicians, officials and experts in the U.S., concluded there is no unanimity on the system's cost and effectiveness.

The deputy also noted the U.S. and the EU, to which the Czech Republic belongs, have different security strategies.

Nevertheless, a civic group comprising famous artists and former politicians recently sprung up in support of the U.S. base, saying the Czech Republic should repay the U.S. for its soldiers' efforts "defending freedom in Europe" in the past.

Many in the right see U.S. presence in the region in a positive light, balancing what they perceive as a German and Russian domination and partnership in the economic and energy fields.

But above all, when it comes to international matters the right tends to trust the 'active' U.S. rather than the 'passive' EU. The right also resents Western European governments for acknowledging Russian concerns.

Many have recognized that the radar in the Czech Republic could monitor movements of troops in much of Russia and that the base could develop into something larger in the future.

Russian analysts sees the base as upsetting the overall balance of strategic forces between the U.S. and Russia, and speculate its goal could be to drag Russia into an unnecessary and costly arms race.

The Polish and Czech right argue the base is defensive and dismiss the concerns as part of Russian domestic politics.

Moreover, statements by Russian generals saying Moscow would have the capacity to point its missiles at the U.S. facility have inflamed the anti-Russian right in Eastern Europe.

While denying the base could be used against Moscow in the future, statements by Czech officials indicate a high level of mistrust.

Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg declared there was no way to know if Russian missiles had been pointed at the Czech Republic up until now, and added the Russian Federation was "starting to claim in Europe the position of the former Soviet Union."

Schwarzenberg also said Russia's stance on the missile defense system would not be taken into account.

In Poland, experts and journalists have also raised the issue of Russia's increasing defense expenditure and its alleged imperial ambitions.

The Polish foreign ministry has gone as far as questioning NATO's capacity to ensure the country's security in the event of a conflict, and Warsaw is intent on signing a bilateral security agreement with the United States.

The leaked information, which included a statement by deputy foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski calling NATO "not our dream alliance," has caused uproar in Poland.

Speaking to the press, Roman Kuzniar, from the International Relations Institute in Warsaw, said the foreign ministry's approach amounted to a no-confidence vote in NATO, under which Poland had been safer than ever before, and a return to a simplified, Cold-War view of the world.

Kuzniar, warning against U.S. tactics of forging ad-hoc alliances with NATO members, considered "there are no such threats that could force us to rely solely on the only superpower."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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