Condi to visit in July but Schwarzenberg unsure radar will survive parliament vote

Karel Schwarzenberg, photo: CTK

Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that his U.S. counterpart Condoleezza Rice would visit the Czech Republic in early July to sign a treaty – or treaties – on the planned deployment of a U.S. radar base on Czech soil. But in an interview for the Reuters news agency, Mr Schwarzenberg admitted he wasn’t sure ratification would get through the Czech parliament before George W. Bush leaves office. He also said he would offer his resignation if the proposal was defeated by MPs.

Condoleezza Rice will come to Prague at the beginning of July, the Czech foreign minister has confirmed although it’s still unclear exactly when. Waiting for her signature will be the main treaty on deploying a U.S. radar base on Czech soil as part of the missile defence shield. A second treaty, the Status of Forces Agreement or SOFA, that will determine the legal status of American troops on Czech soil, has become snagged on a paragraph concerning tax regulations, and might not be ready for Secretary Rice’s pen.

The signing ceremony will kick off a ratification process that has no fixed timetable and no guaranteed outcome. Washington is keen to get the treaty approved before President Bush leaves office in January. Deputy prime minister Alexandr Vondra says parliament will likely not begin discussing the treaty until August, but a vote is unlikely until after Senate and local elections in the autumn.

Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
As Mr Schwarzenberg admitted in an interview for Reuters news agency, the likely outcome of that vote is unclear. At present, the centre-right government does not have enough pledged votes to push the radar base plan through parliament. If there was a vote and it failed, said the Czech foreign minister, he would offer his resignation, saying getting the radar base approved was one of his primary tasks as foreign minister.

And indeed, the potential pitfalls are not just at home. The system is designed to work in tandem with a battery of interceptor missiles across the border in Poland. But the Poles are demanding the U.S. spend large amounts of money modernising Polish air defences, and some administration officials are losing patience. Finding another home for the interceptors would delay the process even further.

In addition, there are domestic political concerns in the United States. A lot depends on who wins the presidential elections. President John McCain would likely accelerate the plan. President Barack Obama could put it on the back burner. Senator Obama is on record as saying missile defence should only be deployed “when the system works”. The Democrat-controlled Congress defence committee that holds the purse strings says the Pentagon has not yet proved missile defence works, and is refusing to release funds until it does.