Czech government battling opposition to US radar base

The possible stationing of a US radar base on Czech territory, as part of an expanded US missile defense system, is causing controversy both at home and abroad. Russia remains vehemently opposed to the plan, Austria has called it a provocation and villages in the area where it may be located are rallying against it.

Washington's plans to station elements of its missile defense shield in central Europe - a radar system in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland - have caused enormous controversy over the past few months. The government, burdened by a fragile majority in the lower house and the need to effect radical reforms, has been battling opposition to the US plan on many fronts. Moscow recently warned Prague it would be making "a grave mistake" if it agreed to the plan and this week Czech and Austrian ministers exchanged sharp words after the Austrian Defense Minister Norbert Darabos accused Prague of openly provoking Russia by allowing Washington to station a radar base in the former East European block. "There is no former East European block" Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg countered, reminding Austria that - if built - the US base would be further west than a similar Austrian missile shield. Just hours after this spat, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek addressed the radar issue once again stressing that "transatlantic bonds" were central to Czech foreign policy. He said Europe could not ignore existing security risks and expressed the belief that a proper defense was possible only if the United States, Canada and Europe cooperated closely together.

Tomas Klvana  (left),  photo: CTK
The fact that top government officials are now stepping forward to defend the government's stand on the radar is not only due to criticism from abroad. The government has come under fire at home for allegedly failing to explain various aspects of the plan to the public. Thirty towns and villages located in the vicinity of the potential radar site in the Brdy hills have joined forces against it and Tomas Klvana, the government's radar commissioner, who was to liaise with the public, appears to have made a poor job of it. Some mayors refuse to speak with him, saying that he is nothing but a lobbyist and they wish to communicate with experts or a government official. Opinion polls suggest that two thirds of Czechs are opposed to a US radar base on Czech territory. And President Vaclav Klaus, who had not spoken out against the government's policy before, recently criticized its handling of this matter - saying that the opinions of ordinary Czechs should not be ignored. A decision on the base is expected early next year and - having recently won support for its reform package in the lower house - the government is now expected to turn its full attention to this pressing priority.