Czech – American radar agreement: protection or threat?

Condoleezza Rice and Karel Schwarzenberg, photo: CTK

The Czech Republic and the United States signed an agreement Tuesday on the positioning of a US radar base on Czech territory as part of an American anti-missile defence shield in Europe. Embraced by the country’s government, the treaty has been criticised by the opposition, Czech anti-radar activists as well as leaders in Moscow.

Condoleezza Rice and Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg signed the treaty in Prague on Tuesday afternoon that will allow for the positioning of an American radar station in the Czech Republic. While its opponents claim the planned US radar base will aggravate the country’s security and might even make it a potential target for terrorists, Czech and US officials believe it will bring more security for the whole of Europe. At Tuesday’s singing ceremony, Condoleeza Rice said the United States and its allies must be ready to act in the face of a growing missile threat from the Middle East.

“This is an agreement that is supported by our NATO allies, as was noted at the Bucharest summit, because missile defences today are aimed only at those who would threaten us. They are not like the missile defences of the Cold War period which were caught up in discussions about strategic stability. We’ve made a point to our Russian colleagues that we all face a threat from states like Iran that continue pursuit of missiles of ever longer range and we must be in a position to respond. With our Czech allies, we are able to do that today.”

Condoleezza Rice and Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
The US Secretary of State also said the agreement opened a new chapter in Czech – American relations.

“For the United States, this is a great moment. President Bush, with whom I spoke just before leaving Washington, was delighted that we were signing this agreement today. As I said to the Prime Minister, this is just another step in the tremendous transatlantic relationship that the United States and the Czech Republic enjoy.”

Moscow was quick to react to the signing of the deal. The Russian foreign ministry said on Tuesday that Russia may even react with what they called “military-technical” means to the American radar base project. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, for his part, sees the Czech-American radar agreement as one of two fundamental pillars of Czech foreign policy.

Condoleezza Rice and Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
“The first task of the foreign policy of any country is to ensure its own security. This agreement will not only increase the security of the Czech Republic, but of Europe and the whole Euro-Atlantic region as well. Over the past year and a half I’ve had a chance to sign two agreements of great significance. The first was the Treaty of Lisbon, the other is this one. Unlike many critical voices, I believe that both treaties are part of a consistent Czech security policy.”

If approved by the Czech Parliament, the treaty will allow for a tracking radar base be constructed in the area of Brdy, some 70 km south-west of Prague. The base will be under American command, with up to 250 US military personnel. While critics of the project point out that the US anti-missile defence shield in Europe is likely to be abandoned by the next American administration, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said any American president will appreciate the defence system.

Milan Paumer  (left),  photo: CTK
“We face with the Iranians, and so do our allies and friends, a growing missile threat that is getting ever longer and ever deeper. The Iranian appetite for nuclear technology, as to this point, is still unchecked. It’s hard for me to believe that an American president is not going to want to have the capability to defend our territory, the territory of our allies, whether they are in Europe or in the Middle East, against that kind of missile threat.”

Outside Prague’s Černín Palace, the seat of the Czech Foreign Ministry, a small group of pro-American demonstrators waved star-spangled banners in support of the agreement. One of them was Milan Paumer, an anti-communist resistance fighter who shot his way out of Czechoslovakia in 1952 and later joined the U.S. military.

Jan Tamáš,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“We are a part of NATO. The whole EU should also hold together in this because it will mean more security for us. And I can’t see why anyone is against a radar – there is no radiation, nothing.”

There were also some anti-radar protesters outside the ministry – one of them even threw tomatoes at the Czech Foreign Minister who came out to meet with them – but the main protest was scheduled later on Tuesday at Prague’s Wenceslas Square. The rally, attended by some 1500 people, started with a life-size dummy representing Condoleezza Rice being interviewed on stage. I asked some of protesters what their objections to the planned base were. One person said he thought in reality the base would be used against Russia, which he forgetfully called the Soviet Union. Another worried over the environment, and about the government ignoring the people living near the site where the base is expected to stand. Jan Tamáš, the head of the largest Czech anti-radar movement “No to Bases”, said the campaign against the planned base is by no means over yet.

Jan Tamáš speaking to demonstrants,  July 8,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“We are not surprised because the government has been negotiating this treaty for a year and a half, and it has been ignoring the will of the majority of the people all this time. For us, this really doesn’t change much because it has to be ratified by the Czech Parliament; we know that this project will not get funding unless it’s ratified. So we will continue our pressure on Czech parliamentarians as well as on European parliamentarians because we believe this is a European issue. We believe that either there will be a referendum or that this dangerous project will be stopped.”

The Czech government will now seek support for the project in Parliament. The final vote is expected to take place after autumn’s election for the Czech Senate, and probably also after the new US president is inaugurated in January 2009.