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Czech Spying Accusations Against Russia Spark Political Storm

The report says Russia is fomenting opposition to the proposed U.S. missile-defense radar station.

Recent Czech intelligence reports have sounded the alarm over intensified intelligence activity by Russian and other foreign agencies focused on a planned U.S. missile-defense radar to be built near Prague and on strategic assets set to be privatized by the Czech government.

In its annual report issued on September 25, the Czech counterintelligence service BIS said that Russian agents had been working to stir up public opinion against the radar. "Russian espionage activities in the Czech Republic are currently reaching a particularly high level of intensity," the BIS said, adding that over the last year Russian spies had sought "to contact, infiltrate, and influence people and organizations that have influence on public opinion."

In a separate annual report issued on September 29, the Czech military intelligence agency (VZ) backed up the BIS findings, stating it had observed "concrete interest" from "foreign services" in the planned U.S. radar system, which Russia strongly opposes.

The reports come at a time of heightened tensions between the West and Moscow following the Russian invasion of Georgia in August and the signing of missile-defense agreements between the United States and the Czech Republic and Poland, which have agreed to host part of the U.S. antimissile shield.

Political Maneuvers

The reports have also raised political tensions in Prague, with the center-left opposition accusing the pro-American government of politicizing intelligence ahead of a key parliamentary vote on the radar system later this fall and Senate and local elections this month.

The government lacks a clear majority in parliament to support the radar treaty and a status-of-forces agreement it signed with the United States in July.

"It's only a political issue before the elections," Petr Uhl, a former anticommunist dissident who supports the opposition, says of the intelligence reports. "Such actions are quite common -- that the opposing side tries to find something negative, information that hurts the other side, so that people do not vote for them."

Others say it's obvious that Russian and other services -- possibly Iranian -- would be interested in the radar and more in the Czech Republic, a former Soviet satellite where tens of thousands of Russian troops were once stationed and where Moscow has a history of intelligence operations.
Critics accuse PM Topolanek of playing politics with the intelligence agencies.

"The radar station does not [pose] any big military threat to the Russians -- they know that, with their nuclear potential, there's no threat at all," says Andor Sandor, a former VZ director. "But it's about the sphere of influence, and by having an American radar on our territory, I think this is a last point when we really are ending the period where the Russians could do anything on our territory."

Russia's overall aim in the Czech Republic, the BIS report suggested, may be to weaken NATO and the European Union and achieve at least a partial restoration of Moscow's former "security perimeter" in Central Europe.

The report, which offered few details, also warned about Prague's overreliance on Russian energy supplies and pipelines, and cited Russian efforts to influence the future of electric power generation in the country -- an apparent reference to CEZ, the electricity monopoly due to be sold off sometime next year.

Some analysts have expressed concern that Russian companies could seek to gain control over CEZ, which would further strengthen Russia's grip on energy supplies here. Others have expressed similar concerns about Prague's Ruzyne Airport, also due to be privatized next year.

Sandor says the government should retain majority stakes in both enterprises, but the government's current plans appear to rule that out.

Foreign Forces At Work

The BIS report said Russian intelligence, often under diplomatic cover, tried to influence Czech politicians and media in order to increase public opposition to the radar. The report said Russian spies also sought to infiltrate unidentified civic groups in the Czech Republic, where opinion polls consistently have shown a strong majority opposed to the radar.

The main Czech opposition group to the radar, "No To The Bases," has denied any Russian link.

But Sandor, who has consulted for the ruling center-right Civic Democratic Party, says the methods used by Russian intelligence to influence public opinion are well-known. He says, for example, that they have helped publicize information wrongly claiming that the radar would harm the environment, create health problems for local residents, and even cause air-traffic accidents.

"There are many ways to do it," Sandor tells RFE/RL. "They can finance different organizations that are strictly against the radar, but they will definitely do it in a way that the organizers of these organizations don't know [about it]."

Media reports have also cited the possibility that Russian spies are buying up land near the Brdy military zone 90 kilometers southwest of Prague, where the radar is expected to be built. Czech Deputy Defense Minister Martin Bartak has said that the BIS and VZ are actively preventing land around Brdy from falling into the wrong hands.

But it's not just Russians.

While the military intelligence report did not name any specific spy agency, it stated that "foreign services" had shown interest in the radar -- a point Sandor says likely refers to Iranian operatives. "I would be really surprised if the Iranians did not work here," he says. "When you openly state that the radar station is here to stop the Iranian threat of the nuclear and ballistic-missile program, then it's just quite understandable that the Iranians would like to know what's going on."

The Czech people, unenthusiastic about seeing foreign soldiers here again after the Soviet invasion of 1968, remain wary of the radar. There's also a sense, rightly or wrongly, that the radar itself is helping to stoke tensions with Russia -- with the Czechs again stuck between East and West.

Russia, which says it's targeted by the radar, has played into these fears. In August, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of staff of Russia's armed forces, said that the Czech Republic and Poland, by accepting the U.S. system, would expose themselves to a military attack -- even a nuclear one.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has cast the radar as a commitment Czechs must make to contribute their fair share to Western security. But with the U.S. presidential election looming and financial markets in turmoil, some reports say the missile-defense system's future will remain uncertain until a new government takes over in Washington.

It also remains uncertain in Prague, where Topolanek lacks a clear majority in parliament to support the agreements he has signed with Washington.

The opposition Social Democrats strongly oppose the radar system. And with Senate and regional elections set for later this month, former Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, a Social Democrat, has accused the government of steering the intelligence agencies to findings that would benefit its policies and candidates.

In recent years, Czech intelligence has warned increasingly about foreign spy services stepping up their activities in the country. But Uhl says the latest reports strike him as a return to the past, when Czechs who had contact with foreigners were accused of conspiring against the communist government. "I wouldn't like that these times come back," he says.

In a sign of the political storm brewing over the radar issue, the Defense Committee of the lower house of the Czech parliament canceled a hearing it was set to hold on October 1 to discuss the intelligence reports. Czech political sources say the hearing will not take place until after the elections on October 17.