Czechs Uneasy About Russian Presence at Missile Defense Site

July 7, 2008 - 8:18 PM

Prague (CNSNews.com) - Czechs have mixed feelings about the possibility of Russian troops returning to their country to monitor a radar installation that the United States is hoping to establish here as part of a Central European ballistic missile defense shield to counter a potential Iranian missile threat.

Some politicians welcomed the proposal, while others called it unacceptable. Many here voiced fears over a dark chapter of communist history repeating itself.

The U.S. offer, made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates during a visit to Prague Tuesday, is aimed at allaying Moscow's suspicions that the BMD system poses any threat to Russia. Gates at the same time suggested that the U.S. could establish the facilities -- a radar station in Czech and interceptor missiles in Poland -- but delay full activation "until there was concrete proof of the threat from Iran."

Russia, which disputes that Iran poses a missile threat, has not responded officially to the two suggestions, saying it is waiting for a formal proposal through official channels.

The Pentagon has been negotiating with the Czech and Polish governments about setting up the facilities, and has hoped to secure agreement by the end of the year.

When he made the offer of a Russian presence at the radar site, Gates stressed that this would only happen with the consent of the Czech government.

Czech media have been mulling the possible return of Russian soldiers. Soviet troops occupied the former Czechoslovakia for 23 years until then president Vaclav Havel in 1991 negotiated their withdrawal as the Soviet Union disintegrated.

The Hospodarske noviny newspaper noted that the site being considered for the radar facility, in the Brdy hills, was the exact location of a former Soviet base.

Prime Minister Mirek Toplolanek told Czech television that Russian inspectors may be allowed monitor the assembly and operation of the radar base, adding that the cooperation would improve relations between the U.S. and Russia. He stressed, however, that Russian soldiers would not be permanently present at the base.

Yet another senior member of Toplolanek's center-right ODS party, Senate chairman Premysl Sobotka, described the possibility of the presence of Russian soldiers as a huge problem for the country and unacceptable.

Jiri Paroubek, leader of the opposition center-left Social Democrat Party, on the other hand, welcomed the proposal of a Russian presence as a good idea (Paroubek has reservations about the BMD proposal and wants a nation-wide referendum on the radar installation on Czech soil.) His party appears divided, however, as another prominent member, Chamber of Deputies deputy chairman Lubomir Zaoralek, described the offer to Russia as a threat to Czech sovereignty.

Lawmakers' views on the issue cross party lines, and heated debates are expected in parliament.

Havel, the former president, has also waded into the debate, saying no concessions should be made to Russia when it came to the BMD issue. Russia's interference in Central Europe was a sinister remnant of Cold War, Havel told the German DPA press agency.

Emancipation

The radar issue has been polarizing public opinion here for nearly a year. Many supporters of the plan see it as a final step towards emancipation from Moscow's domination. That would be undermined, however, by the presence of Russian troops at the site.

"From a psychological point of view this would be really difficult to digest for most Czechs, and the politicians know it," Prague-based political analyst Jiri Pehe told Cybercast News Service.

"Many center-right commentators welcomed the U.S. radar base because they saw it as a guarantee that Russia will keep off. Now, in order to have the U.S. radar, we would have to welcome Russian monitors as well," he said.

Pehe said the issue was ultimately a constitutional one, as parliament has to approve the presence of any foreign troops on Czech territory.

"The possible arrival of U.S. troops was already a big issue. The possible arrival of U.S. troops plus Russian military experts will not be acceptable for even some center-right deputies who have supported the radar so far," he predicted.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tomas Pojar said this week he expected talks on the issue between Prague and Washington to last for several more months. While the Czech side had no interest in artificially prolonging the negotiations, he said, the small print was important not least because it would be crucial in obtaining parliamentary approval.

Meanwhile, a change of government following weekend elections in Poland may also impact the U.S. plans for that country, where the BMD proposal envisages the deployment of 10 silo-based interceptor missiles that will work in tandem with the Czech radar station.

The election was won by the Civic Platform, a centrist party not opposed to the plan but which has suggested that Poland should press for a more generous U.S. aid package than the one the outgoing conservative government in Warsaw would have accepted.

Pehe said that although the Czech government would stress that events in Poland should not influence the Czech Republic's decision, "in reality, whatever Poland will do will have some effect on Czech politicians, given the fact that support for the radar is low among Czech public."

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