Czechs say permanent Russian presence at US radar base out of the question

U.S. President George Bush walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at his summer residence in Sochi, photo: CTK

It was smiles and handshakes all round at the NATO summit in Bucharest last Thursday when the United States and the Czech Republic announced they had reached agreement on building a radar base on Czech territory as part of the U.S. missile defence shield. But it was clear to all that the road to implementing the agreement would be long and difficult. The past weekend has indicted possible pitfalls for Czech diplomacy as the U.S. and Russian presidents strove to find common ground on missile defense.

U.S. President George Bush walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at his summer residence in Sochi, photo: CTK
All eyes were on the U.S.-Russian summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi over the weekend, where two of the world’s heavyweights – outgoing presidents Bush and Putin - battled over Washington’s plans to site a tracking radar in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in neighbouring Poland. President Bush went out of his way to convince President Putin that the missile defense system would not be aimed against Russia but against “rogue” states such as Iran, and Moscow asked for confidence-building measures. President Putin said at a press briefing that what would diffuse Russian concern would be a Russian military presence at both the radar base in the Czech Republic and the interceptor missile base in Poland, should they be built. This statement instantly met with vehement opposition in both Prague and Warsaw. The Czech Republic, which was forced to put up with a Russian military presence for twenty years after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, is particularly sensitive to the idea of hosting Russian troops on Czech soil. Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg was quick to reassure Czechs that this would not be a decision forced on the Czech people.

“I assure you there is no agreement in which they would decide about us without us. And there never will be. If they wish to discuss the possibility of occasional inspections at the base then the Russians and Americans will have to deal with us. We made it clear to both Moscow and Washington that we will not be bypassed in this matter.”

Karel Schwarzenberg, photo: CTK
Although the Czech political scene is divided over the question of hosting a US radar base there was immediate agreement across the political spectrum on one point – the Czech side does not want a permanent Russian military presence in the country. Interior Minister Ivan Langer noted that if Russian inspections were discussed the Czech side would expect a reciprocal deal – for Czech inspectors to be able to visit Russian military sites, an idea that Russian officials scoffed at earlier. Clearly with Washington and Moscow pushing for a compromise Prague will have to put up a big fight for its own interests. Meanwhile, on Saturday the Czech-American radar agreement suffered yet another set-back. The Green Party of the Czech governing coalition whose votes in Parliament will be crucial for the approval of the deal received a recommendation from the party leadership to vote against it. As far as critics in the Green Party are concerned Washington’s promise to explore the possibility of integrating the radar into a future NATO missile defense system does not go far enough. One way or another, many battles will still need to be fought and won if Washington’s plans to site a tracking radar on Czech soil are to become a reality.