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Czech Republic: Battle Lines Again Being Drawn At Austerlitz

By Jana Mesarosova and Askold Krushelnycky

Battle lines are again being drawn up at the site of Napoleon's most spectacular victory, the Battle of Austerlitz, where the French emperor crushed a joint Russian and Austro-Hungarian army in 1805 to gain military supremacy over Europe. This time around, local people are fighting plans to build a huge NATO radar station at the battlefield, which they say will ruin the historic atmosphere and attract terrorists.

Austerlitz/Slavkov, 7 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Austerlitz, the site of Napoleon Bonaparte's biggest military triumph, was formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is now in the southeast of the Czech Republic and called Slavkov, which means "place of glory." Now Slavkov is again gaining fame as local residents, historians, and conservationists fight plans to build a NATO radar station on the battlefield.

Opponents say the 25-meter-high radar station, with a huge white spherical top, will overshadow the magnificent monument built to commemorate the battle of Austerlitz and blight the historic area's scenery. They also fear it could cause environmental damage and lead to terrorist threats.

Leaders of 22 towns and villages in the area have joined together with activists in an attempt to get a court order banning the development.

It was to the rolling hills and lakes of the Moravian countryside surrounding Austerlitz that Napoleon, in December 1805, lured a combined Russian and Austro-Hungarian army. Napoleon's feigned weakness allowed his enemy to occupy the highest point in the area, a 324-meter high plateau called Prace (Pratzen in German) on the eve of battle.

The next morning, 2 December, the dawn sun revealed the Austrian and Russian allies' positions while Napoleon's soldiers were hidden by the winter fog the French emperor had anticipated. As the Russian and Austrian forces descended the slopes in search of their enemy, the French launched a surprise attack upwards. They captured Prace after fierce fighting. Russian Tsar Alexander I and Austrian Emperor Franz I, who were observing the battle, were forced to flee.

The French inflicted casualties on the retreating soldiers in a battle scene most famously described in Lev Tolstoy's "War and Peace." More than 150,000 men took part in the fighting and around 36,000 died. The clash, also called the Battle of the Three Emperors, led to Napoleon's undisputed control over mainland Europe that only began to falter after his disastrous Russian campaign in 1812.

At the start of the last century, work began on an elaborate monument atop the Prace hill. The Russian imperial government donated the most money for the monument, called the Burial Mound of Peace. Its sandstone base holds a chapel where some of the bones of the dead are interred. It is surmounted by a pyramidal tower with concave scalloped sides. The village of Sokolnice, which lies about 2 kilometers from the monument and itself saw heavy fighting during the battle, is at the forefront of opposition to the $37 million radar station due for completion in 2006.

The mayor of Sokolnice, Jiri Zivotsky, said people were angry that the government secretly began work two years ago, without consulting the local population, at a nearby Cold War-era military facility. He said most people in the area regard the Austerlitz monument as a symbol of peace and are angry that a military object will be erected near by.

Zivotsky said opponents of the scheme would use legal means to try to halt it: "About two weeks ago the village of Sokolnice lodged a lawsuit at a court. We are asking the court to decide whether the village of Sokolnice or the Ministry of Defense [of the Czech Republic] is in the right. The legal action has been taken and it is at the court at the present. We do not know when the first hearing will be."

He explained what most worried people in Sokolnice: "The most serious fear is being a possible target. If you realize that only two such radars will be in the Czech Republic, they represent a significant target. Especially elderly people are afraid of a potential attack in case of a war conflict, but maybe even more they are afraid of a terrorist attack."

Zivotsky said the area is governed by strict Czech Culture Ministry regulations because of its historic importance, and residents have to battle bureaucrats each time they want to make even a small alteration to their homes. He said that it seems unfair that in contrast to local people, the government can build what he calls "a big ugly radar station" without consulting anyone. The Czech Republic, with Hungary and Poland, was among the first three former Soviet bloc countries to join NATO.

Czech Defense Minister Miroslav Kostelka held a meeting with mayors and representatives of the local communities on 24 October but did not offer any compromise. The Defense Ministry says there are no suitable alternative sites. It also defends the plan, saying the new radar system would be only 3 meters higher than those built when Prague was in the Warsaw Pact.

NATO spokesman Robert Pszczel said the radar stations planned for the Czech Republic are part of an "essential" chain covering the alliance's territory. He acknowledged the concerns about terrorism: "We all face the terrorist challenge and there are proper measures that have to be taken vis-a-vis all sorts of installations, critical infrastructures. So in a way it is a much broader issue and there are appropriate measures being taken by the nations themselves and of course there is full cooperation between the [NATO] allies on this issue."

Pszczel said NATO was not involved in the selection of the site. "The question of the location is essentially the matter that has to be proposed by the host nation and our understanding is that the host nation has engaged in various dialogues with the people concerned," Pszczel said.

But with the Defense Ministry appearing to rule out alternative locations for the radar, it is uncertain whether such "dialogues" have already hit a dead end. But work on the radar is already being delayed while the ministry considers its legal options.