Czech cabinet takes battle for radar base to countryside

Photo: CTK

The Czech government held a special session on Wednesday in a small town near the site of the proposed US radar base, part of Washington's plans to build a missile defence system in Central Europe. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek promised local mayors they would receive substantial state funds to improve infrastructure. So far, however, the offer has received a lukewarm response.

Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK
Wednesday must have been a rather surreal day for the 2,500 inhabitants of Spalene Porici. The town is not used to being in the news, but that all changed when a bus drew up outside the local chateau carrying Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and members of the cabinet for a meeting with thirteen local mayors and other regional officials.

Photo: CTK
Waiting for them outside were protestors from Greenpeace and the No to Bases initiative, dressed in football shirts and wearing masks of presidents Bush and Putin, plus of course numerous camera crews and photographers, who seemed to outnumber the protestors.

There is substantial public opposition to the radar base in the towns and villages dotted around the Brdy military training ground where the radar base is to be built. Most mayors, reflecting that opposition, are opposed to the plan.

The Brdy region is a poor one, and Mr Topolanek said his government would be willing to give the Brdy a substantial cash injection to go towards repairing sewers and roads, regardless of whether the radar base is built or not. He also announced the government was setting up a special commission for the development of the Brdy region, and promised a new survey on the potential health effects of radar.

The mayors' response was cool. Most said they remained opposed to the base, regardless of how much money the government threw at the region, although they did admit the Brdy badly needed investment. One mayor summed it all up by saying it was extraordinary how much attention the region was receiving after being ignored for the last twenty years.

Mushroom picking, photo: CTK
Apart from giving members of the cabinet a day out in the country - TV footage showed ministers dressed in jeans and sweaters going mushroom picking in the woods - it's hard to see that Wednesday's meeting achieved anything. Local people are simply opposed to the radar base - they're afraid of radiation, they're afraid of becoming a military target, they're worried that they'll be denied access to what is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and a few new roads and sewers is not going to change that.

Tomas Klvana, photo: CTK
There's also substantial public opposition outside the Brdy. Several months ago the government appointed a spokesman in charge of the radar base, Tomas Klvana. This week his office announced the results of a tender for a PR agency to run a pro-radar publicity campaign.

Mr Klvana says he approached five of the country's biggest PR companies but only one - a well known agency called AMI communications - responded, and so they won the tender. It emerged soon afterwards that Mr Klvana had in the past worked with the owners of AMI communications. The opposition seized on that fact, claiming there was a conflict of interest.

Mr Klvana denies that, saying the Czech Republic is a small country where essentially everyone knows everybody. But the manner in which the PR company was chosen does itself appear to have been something of a PR own goal.