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Czech Republic: Czechs Respond To Proposed U.S. Missile-Defense Shield


http://gdb.rferl.org/F5A259A4-04CF-4B50-AB3F-2B68A531BB04_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/F5A259A4-04CF-4B50-AB3F-2B68A531BB04_mw800_mh600.jpg Czechs protesting against the proposed radar base during a recent rally in Prague (file photo) (epa) PRAGUE, February 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In November 1989, thousands of Czechoslovakians gathered on Wenceslas Square in central Prague to peacefully protest the half-century single-party rule of the communists.

That historic time, which came to be known as the Velvet Revolution, marked the beginning of the end of the country's role as a Soviet satellite.

Eighteen years later, the Czech Republic is a prospering new member of NATO and the European Union.

But judging from an informal poll conducted recently on Wenceslas Square, it's clear that the prospect of finding themselves in the middle of a new conflict between old superpower rivals is on the minds of ordinary Czechs.

Caught In The Middle

At the heart of the issue is a U.S. proposal to base parts of a new missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic -- a proposal that has sparked a war of words between the United States and Russia.

"Russia can say anything it wants," said a 30-something man questioned by RFE/RL. "But as [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice said, we are already an independent country and we can decide ourselves what our history will be. Russia can say anything it likes, but I think it has already said enough about these matters."

A man in his early 20s dismissed Moscow's strong opposition to the plan, including warnings that Russia might consider the radar base a strategic military target. "It's difficult," he said. "I think Russia is only talking. It won't act, because it's not going to lead a war against the United States and the rest of Europe."

A teenage boy suggested that the Czechs decide on the issue themselves. "It's not a pointless question, because it's good for our safety," he said. "But it's also a problem, because Russia is threatening to use its missiles. It would be fair if a referendum could be held so that the people themselves could decide whether it's good for them or not."
Social Democrats and other opponents of the base hope to put the issue to a public vote.


Of the handful of Czechs questioned, those most reluctant to see the system installed belonged to the older generation.

"I think [the radar system] shouldn't be here because it, de facto, endangers our safety," said one woman. "In general, this is already happening all over the world, these attacks. So we would be in danger too."

Earlier this month, the prime ministers of Poland and the Czech Republic indicated they were prepared to move ahead with talks about hosting parts of the defense shield.

The United States has proposed placing 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and an early-warning radar base in the Czech Republic. Washington says the system is meant to defend against a possible missile attacks by "rogue states," including North Korea and Iran.

But Russia sees the proposed military buildup along its former western front as unilateral aggression -- and that it will answer with the force of its own nuclear arsenal, if necessary.

For Prague and Warsaw, the dispute is an uncomfortable reminder of the Cold War era.

Defensive Stance

For some officials, however, the proposal makes good defensive sense.

"When we joined NATO, I was dealing with the issue of antiballistic-missile protection, and in 2001 I even wrote a 70-page analysis about this problem," said Jiri Payne, the national security adviser for Czech President Vaclav Klaus. "I appealed to President [Vaclav] Havel and other politicians to take care of this issue. I could see that the Czech Republic didn't face dramatic threats of a ground attack, but it seemed to me that the greatest risks for the Czech Republic could result from a missile attack."

Elsewhere, however, the plan has less support. It has met with protests from residents of Trokavec, the village southwest of Prague that is the proposed site for the radar base. The country's opposition Social Democrats are also fighting the plan.

Lubomir Zaoralek, the Social Democrats' shadow foreign minister, says it is wrong for the Czech Republic to overlook any plan that provokes distrust in Russia -- and that the details of the plan itself remain unclear.

"It's never been successfully formulated which threats this project is meant to address," Zaoralek said. "The reasons are very vague. The idea that North Korea or Iran could threaten Europe or the United States with intercontinental ballistic missiles is highly improbable. It would be suicidal for those countries' leaders to think that way. In my opinion, the threat was not defined precisely enough, and at the same time, the issue wasn't discussed with the countries involved."

An official decision on whether to allow the United States to build a radar base is tentatively due to be made in the spring of 2008.

The Social Democrats and other opponents of the base hope to put the issue to a public vote before then, but so far have not secured enough support to pass a bill on holding a referendum.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of the Czech government earlier this month to protest the U.S. plan.

If the U.S. plan is approved, the radar base could go into operation in 2011, with 200 personnel.
The Proliferation Threat

The Arak heavy-water plant in central Iran (Fars)

BENDING THE RULES. Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told an RFE/RL-Radio Free Asia briefing on January 9 that the West is hamstrung in dealing with Iran and North Korea because of the way it has interpreted the international nonproliferation regime to benefit friendly countries like India and Japan.


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